Human trafficking is modern-day slavery, but it’s not chains that bind victims. Instead, it is fear and shame - and it’s happening right here in Western New York.
“It’s a lot harder to get out of than you think,” said Maria.
Maria is a Western New York victim of human trafficking. That’s not her real name and the International Institute in Buffalo put her in touch with us to anonymously share parts of her story.
She said she got out two years ago, but still suffers from post-traumatic stress and fear of those who exploited her.
Maria said, “The person that is using you has a way of keeping you trapped – emotionally and physically and mentally. You feel like you don’t have a choice except to stay in it – even if you feel horribly wrong about it.”
Maria said substance abuse is one way a person will take control, but the trafficker is also able to exploit other weaknesses.
“I felt like I couldn’t leave because that person made me feel like I was nothing. I couldn’t provide the things they provided for me,” said Maria.
International Institute’s Survivor Support Services Director Amy Fleischauer said human trafficking can happen in urban and agricultural settings, as well as in the tourist industry.
“We have seen survivors escape who have been recovered from farms, convenience stores, ice cream parlors, construction sites, online forced sex work, hair braiding establishments, motels and hotels, restaurants – any low wage industry you can think of. The youngest survivor was nine-years-old, the oldest has been 83,” said Fleischauer.
According to Victim Services, trafficking affects all demographics. Sixty nine percent were male clients and 31 percent were female. Eighty-three percent were victims of labor trafficking. Nearly 50 percent had legal status in the United States when trafficked.
Most are controlled through debt and fear, according to Fleischauer.
“Of the 1,200 cases I’ve seen, only a handful involved someone being physically locked up,” she said.
Buffalo City Court Judge Amy C. Martoche presides over the Western New York Human Trafficking Intervention Court. She said human trafficking can be described as, “through force fraud or coercion, engaging in work for someone else’s benefit.”
“Basically someone else is keeping the profits of your labor,” said Martoche.
But Martoche said there’s a lot of misconceptions about human trafficking, especially sex trafficking.
“I know that before I started doing this work I thought it involved foreign-born women from Eastern Europe or Asia who were brought into the United States and were brought into massage parlors - and although that’s a component of what sex trafficking is for sure - that’s not what we see in Buffalo," said Martoche. "In Buffalo, 96 percent of the people who have been through our court, and we’ve seen 225 defendants (since we started at the end of 2013) were born in the United States and most of those people, mostly women, are from Western New York.”
She said in the past the court would have labeled the traffickers as “pimps.”
“The Human Trafficking Intervention Court was started at the end of 2013 because there was a recognition that most of the people engaged in commercial sex work are not involved voluntarily.”
The Human Intervention Court attempts to offer services to defendants, rather than treating them as criminals, so they can forge a different path.
Martoche works with court resource coordinator Alicia Tabliago, who has a background in sex trauma. Tabliago said she tries to find out the background of victims and help develop a case plan – depending on what they are ready to do.
“They may not always come forward and say they are a victim of human trafficking, but they may talk about what affects them,” said Tabliago.
Martoche said, “The opiate crisis has played out in this field. When the court started in 2013, 45 percent of those women were opiate addicted. As of last year, the figure is close to 70 percent.”
Fleischauer has been working with Maria and the approximately 1,200 other men and women in Western New York who are victims of human trafficking since the inter-agency program was founded in 2006.
“The trafficker will create some situation where an individual as to pay them back for travel or housing, which is always deplorable, or meals. In some instances, drugs are the vehicle, and the victim can never get out of than debt,” said Fleischauer.
She said it still remains a very hidden crime.
“I home those that are listening today really focus on the elements of the crime and not what they think a trafficking survivor looks like,” said Fleischauer.
Maria said trafficking was like a job she couldn’t get out of and said emotionally said always felt “as if she was walking on egg shells.”
“You are always told what to do and when to do it – everything,” said Maria.
If you suspect human trafficking you can find more information online at International Institute Victim Support Services https://iibuffalo.org/ or nationally at the Polaris Project https://polarisproject.org/ or by calling its 24-hour human trafficking tip line at 1-888-373-7888.