Skip to content

Deportation: Then What?

2012 July 17

What happens to the people we
choose to deport from the United States?

 Under the Obama administration, more would-be immigrants to the United States have been deported than during any comparable period in our history. What happens to them afterwards? What happens to their families?
            Parents have been forcibly separated from their U.S.-born children. Young people brought to this country as children have been deported to countries where they have no relatives or friends, no job or place to live – and may not even speak the language. Many who came here seeking asylum have been sent back into situations where they are at risk of ethnic, religious, or political persecution.
            As noted on the website of the Post-Deportation Human Rights Project, “over the past decade, immigrant communities in the United States have been subjected to an increasing range of systematic human rights violations, including arrests without warrants, incarceration without bail, and deportation without regard to family ties, length of residence in the U.S., or other humanitarian factors.
            Based at the Center for Human Rights and International Justice at Boston College, in Massachusetts, the Project is designed to address some of the harsh effects of U.S. policies, “providing direct representation to individuals who have been deported and promoting the rights of deportees and their family members through research, policy analysis, human rights advocacy, and training programs.” It also provides legal and technical assistance. “The ultimate aim of the Project is to advocate, in collaboration with affected families and communities, for fundamental changes that will introduce proportionality, compassion, and respect for family unity into U.S. immigration laws, and bring these laws into compliance with international human rights standards.”
            The Project offers a variety of informational materials and other forms of support both to individuals and families threatened with deportation or seeking to return to the United States and to attorneys interested in helping deportees.

Some other U.S. organizations
to confront this issue…

Families for Freedom: This New York-based organization describes itself as “an organizing center against deportation…FFF seeks to repeal the laws that are tearing apart our homes and neighborhoods; and to build the power of immigrant communities as communities of color, to provide a guiding voice in the growing movement for immigrant rights as human rights.” It publishes Deportation 101, the Financial Handbook for Families Facing Detention & Deportation, and other resources.

The Appleseed Network: Appleseed is a network of 17 public interest justice centers in the United States and Mexico. Its Immigrant Rights Program “works to ensure that immigrants are…afforded the rights and opportunities they need to become full and productive members of American society. It has a number of publications specifically aimed at those threatened with deportation, including Protecting Assets & Child Custody in the Face of Deportation.  

Young Cambodian-Americans face
threat, and reality, of deportation…

The 2007 Independent Lens film Sentenced Home, by Nicole Newnham and David Grabias, did an outstanding job of getting inside the struggles of three young Cambodian-American men who “messed up” as teenagers and now face deportation from the only country they know. The film follows the two who were actually deported during the production, as they try to cope with life in a country that is essentially foreign to them. The third, Many Uch, went on a national speaking tour with the film, and is still, I believe, fighting deportation. The film is available on Netflix and from IndieFilm. Newnham and Grabias did an interesting follow-up report on his case, on the Independent Lens website.


A Child Soldier in Judicial Limbo

2012 July 15

Despite Plea Bargain, Omar Khadr is
Still Waiting to be Returned to Canada

In October, 2010, facing the likelihood that he might otherwise spend the rest of his life locked up in our prison at Guantánamo naval base, Omar Khadr, a former child soldier captured in Afghanistan in 2002, agreed to plead guilty to murder charges in return for a promise: he would serve no more than eight additional years, and could do so in Canada, his home country. Almost two years later, he’s still in Guantánamo, and his attorneys are going to court to demand action.
            I have not wanted to write about the case of Omar Khadr. It makes me crazy. About ten years ago the boy, then 15 years old, was shot twice in the back and half-blinded during a firefight in Afghanistan. Expecting to be killed at any moment, he is alleged to have thrown a grenade that wounded American Sgt. Christopher Speer, who subsequently died. Khadr has spent the past ten years in Guantánamo, some of that time in solitary confinement, and he may not be released for six years more. That’s the quick outline of a case that most of the public has forgotten, if they knew about it in the first place.
            In the event that you’ve forgotten the specifics, Omar Khadr was a young Afghan-Canadian, whose adult family members were supporters of al-Qaeda and lived for varying periods in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In 2002, they were living in Waziristan, and his father was asked if the then 15-year-old could serve as a Pashto translator for an al-Qaeda leader. The family reluctantly agreed.
            In July of that year Khadr and several adult al-Qaeda fighters were spotted in a compound of mud-walled huts, which was then surrounded and attacked by an American force eventually totaling around a hundred troops. In the course of that sunny, dusty Afghan afternoon, the compound was strafed with cannon and rocket fire from Apache helicopters, and bombed by fixed-wing Warthog bombers. All but Khadr and one adult were killed, and the boy was permanently blinded in one eye by shrapnel.
            In the troop assault that followed – estimated to have lasted approximately one minute – the already wounded adult fighter was shot in the head and killed, and Khadr was shot twice in the back. Somewhere in the middle of that adrenaline-charged 60 seconds, a grenade was thrown from the compound, fatally wounding Sgt. Speer. Khadr may have thrown the grenade, though the evidence is unclear and contradictory. Lying on the ground when the shooting stopped, the wounded teenager pleaded with U.S. troops to kill him and, according to documents cited by the Toronto Star, one soldier was about to do just that until he was stopped by a medic. 

In a Conflict Defined as “Not War”
Captives Not Given the Rights of Soldiers

Captured soldiers during wartime are not prosecuted or punished for having killed on the battlefield. If the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq had been acknowledged as wars – which they surely are, by any logic or normal precedent – captured personnel would be treated with a modicum of respect, could not be interrogated (beyond “name, rank, and serial number”) and would be released at the end of the conflict. In the case of Afghanistan, that would be some time in the next two years. The United States, however, has unilaterally defined the conflicts as not-wars, and therefore treats its detainees, including children, as “enemy combatants” (an entirely new term invented for the purpose) who can be imprisoned indefinitely as criminals, interrogated in ways which the United Nations and most of the rest of the “civilized” world regard as torture, and in general assigned to a previously unheard-of limbo.
            That’s Omar Khadr’s world today. Charged with the killing of Sgt. Speer, he has now spent roughly ten years in prison, most of that time in our penal colony at Guantánamo Bay. Despite being recognized by the United Nations and other bodies as a child soldier entitled to special treatment, Khadr has allegedly been subjected to abusive treatment including refusal of pain medications, sleep deprivation, being placed in stress positions, threats of rape, and extended periods in solitary confinement.
            Finally, in October of 2010, facing the possibility that he might never be released, Khadr agreed to plead guilty to murder in return for a maximum sentence of eight more years, with the promise of being transferred back to Canada, his home country, after the first year. Yet almost two years later, he’s still in Guantánamo, and it’s not clear when or if the two countries will work out the technicalities holding up his transfer.
            At the time of Khadr’s plea bargain and “conviction,” the New York Times editorialized that “this is not a legal victory anyone can feel proud about.” It cited “an appalling pretrial ruling” by the military judge:  

“[The judge] refused to exclude from evidence incriminating statements obtained under coercive and abusive circumstances by Mr. Khadr’s interrogators — including someone who implicitly threatened the frightened and severely wounded youngster with gang rape and was later convicted of detainee abuse in another case.
            “The case had other troubling aspects. Usually in war, battlefield killing is not prosecuted. The United States argued that Mr. Khadr lacked battlefield immunity because he wore no uniform. On the eve of a hearing, commission rules were hastily rewritten to downgrade “murder in violation of the laws of war” to a domestic law offense from a war crime in order to avoid seeming to concede that Central Intelligence Agency drone operators who, reportedly fly the aircraft from agency headquarters in Virginia and also kill while not wearing uniforms, commit war crimes.
            “United Nations officials and human rights groups objected to the prosecution’s dubious legality under international law. They noted the dangerous precedent set by making him the first person in many decades prosecuted for war crimes allegedly committed as a juvenile.”
                                 New York Times editorial, November 8, 2010

As the father of a formerly teenaged boy (and a former teenager myself) I can testify that young men do not always behave with complete rationality and foresight. Omar Khadr evidently took on the politics of his father and uncles – not the best role models – and he let his elders get him involved in a ground war against the world’s greatest superpower.
            As a result of those decisions, this 15-year-old boy found himself alone, seriously wounded, half-blind, and legitimately believing that he was about to be killed. If the allegations are true – and how certain could any witness be in those circumstances – he picked up an available weapon, a grenade, in an attempt to defend his life. For this he has already spent two-fifths of his life in prison, has been tortured and abused, and is now in the sort of limbo that only a military bureaucracy could create, facing at least six more years of imprisonment – somewhere.
            For once, it doesn’t seem to be the United States that’s standing in the way of a resolution, although it took Defense Secretary Panetta until April of this month to formally approve the transfer. According to a writer for Torstar, a subsidiary of the Toronto Star, “Khadr’s lawyers tried diplomacy, then a media campaign, but with still no word from Ottowa, they’re taking the fight to the courts. According to Toronto lawyer Brydie Bethell, “We warned [Public Safety Minister Vic Toews] that if he didn’t comply with his statutory duty, we would have no choice but to take legal action…We’ve waited until we can’t wait anymore.”
            “Omar has lived up to his part of his deal,” according to Attorney John Norris. “The only reason eight months after he became eligible to return to Canada that Omar still sits in a cell in Guantánamo is because the Canadian government continues to fail in its obligations toward him.”
            First it was his family, who sent their child into a war zone; then the United States, which captured and abused him and now wants to wash its hands of the grown up problem that he has become. Now the leaders of his native country, who undoubtedly find him an unwelcome embarrassment, are balking at accepting him back. “And that,” as a columnist for the Toronto Star wrote, “pretty much sums it up.”


Lest We Forget

2012 July 4

ACLU Launches Database on U.S. Torture

Blogging on the International Day of Support for Victims of Torture (June 26) Kevin Gosztola called on readers to remember the still-unpunished crimes committed by agents of the United States under the Bush Administration – unpunished because, as Gosztola noted, “Obama has effectively decriminalized torture by refusing to pursue prosecutions of former Bush administration officials.”
            As a reminder of the crimes for which Obama has failed to seek retribution, the author quotes several CIA memos included in a “Torture Database” of over 100,000 pages launched by the American Civil Liberties Union on the 26th. The documents were obtained under Freedom of Information Act filings by the ACLU.
            The first excerpt below, records the agency’s “solution” when “unacceptable edema” was seen in prisoners subjected to prolonged sleep deprivation while standing. The second is self explanatory:

CIA Memo re: ‘horizontal sleep deprivation’ and the use of waterboarding in conjunction with other techniques” [April 22, 2005] 

Horizontal Sleep Deprivation: In order to permit the limbs to recover without impairing sleep deprivation requirements, the subjects underwent horizontal sleep deprivation…The detainee’s hands are manacled together and the arms placed in outstretched position — either extended beyond the head or extended to either side of the body —and anchored to a far point on the floor in such a manner that the arms cannot be bent or used for balance or comfort. At the same time, the ankles are shackled together and the legs are extended in a straight line with the body, and anchored to a far point on the floor in such a manner that the legs cannot be bent or used for balance or comfort…Horizontal sleep deprivation has been used until the detainee’s affected limbs have demonstrated sufficient recovery to return to sitting or standing sleep deprivation mode, as warranted by the requirements of the interrogation team…[emphasis added]

Special Review: Counterterrorism Detention and Interrogation Activities (Office of the Inspector General, CIA)” [May 7, 2004]:

Pressure Points: In July 2002, [REDACTED] operations officer, participated with another operations officer in a custodial interrogation of a detainee [REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED] reportedly used a “pressure point” technique: with both of his hands on the detainee’s neck, [REDACTED REDACTED] manipulated his finger’s to restrict the detainee’s carotid artery…

Those who’ve endured torture deserve our respect…

That’s the lead of a brief piece by Kristi Rendahl on the blog of Minnesota Public Radio: “When I tell people I work at the Center for Victims of Torture, they sometimes look alarmed. It isn’t an answer that fits within their normal patterns of conversation. Their eyes ask, ‘You mean, like, torture-torture?’…But some people need no explanation at all. “

A couple of months ago, a taxi driver in St. Paul told me he was Oromo [the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia.] He asked “Do you know what Oromo is?”

“Yes,” I said. “I work at the Center for Victims of Torture.”

“Oh,” he said, “then you know something about the Oromo.”

Rendahl’s short article was in recognition of the June 26 day in support of torture survivors being celebrated by the staff and clients of CVT (one of the organizations featured in our documentary, Refuge: Caring for Survivors of Torture.) “It’s a day to remember those who have seen the worst, yet survived,” she wrote. “Too many of our neighbors in Minnesota know exactly what this means. Their resilience should be an inspiration to us.”


Cruel & Unusual

2012 July 2

Former President / Nobel Laureate Carter: Obama’s War
Policies “Would Have Been Unthinkable in Previous Times”

Only four United States presidents have received the Nobel Peace Prize. Teddy Roosevelt was the first, in 1906, for his role in negotiating an end to the bloody Russo-Japanese War. Woodrow Wilson received the award in 1919, largely in recognition of his role in creating the League of Nations, forerunner of the United Nations.
            After a more than 80-year gap, former President Jimmy Carter was awarded the Peace Prize in 2002, more for his lifelong engagement in international peacemaking and reconciliation after leaving office than for his accomplishments in the White House (although those did include midwifing the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel, the SALT II treaty with the Soviet Union, and establishment of diplomatic relations with China.)
            In 2009, When Barack Obama became the fourth U.S. president so honored, it seemed, as many commentators noted – and as he himself acknowledged in his Nobel lecture – more an act of hope than a recognition of accomplishment. He had, after all, barely taken office. Yet, after eight years of George Bush, hope was pretty much all we had left, and his words to the Nobel dignitaries sounded the right themes. 

“Where force is necessary, we have a moral and strategic interest in binding ourselves to certain rules of conduct. And even as we confront a vicious adversary that abides by no rules, I believe the United States of America must remain a standard bearer in the conduct of war. That is what makes us different from those whom we fight. That is a source of our strength. That is why I prohibited torture. That is why I ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed. And that is why I have reaffirmed America’s commitment to abide by the Geneva Conventions. We lose ourselves when we compromise the very ideals that we fight to defend. And we honor – we honor those ideals by upholding them not when it’s easy, but when it is hard.”

Well, as Obama’s first term comes to a close, it seems like he’s done a lot more compromising than upholding. Guantanamo remains open and, if some of our more egregious forms of torture have been put on hold, none of those responsible for the tortures and renditions committed by the prior administration have been called to account – or will be. Our nation is carrying out robot killings of people in countries with which we have not declared war, and the Obama administration takes the position that we are not entitled to know about it – except when the information might help his reelection chances.
            In a recent New York Times op ed piece entitled “A Cruel and Unusual Record,” his predecessor at the Nobel podium, former President Jimmy Carter, took Obama to task:

“Revelations that top officials are targeting people to be assassinated abroad, including American citizens, are only the most recent, disturbing proof of how far our nation’s violation of human rights has extended…This development…has been sanctioned and escalated by bipartisan executive and legislative actions, without dissent from the general public. As a result, our country can no longer speak with moral authority on these critical issues…”

In addition to targeted assassination, Carter criticized legislation that authorizes the administration to detain suspects indefinitely without trial, and to invade the privacy of U.S. citizens through warrantless wiretapping and electronic “data-mining.” But his primary focus was on the government’s assertion of an unfettered right to use deadly force abroad, outside the laws of war.

“[A]ny man killed by drones is declared an enemy terrorist, the death of nearby innocent women and children is accepted as inevitable…We don’t know how many hundreds of innocent civilians have been killed in these attacks, each one approved by the highest authorities in Washington. This would have been unthinkable in previous times.” 

At a time when popular revolutions are sweeping the globe, the United States should be strengthening, not weakening, basic rules of international law and the principles enumerated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But instead of making the world safer, America’s violations of international human rights abet our enemies and alienate our friends.
            Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden may be dead but – as we empty our pockets, raise our arms and spread our legs for the TSA – does anybody really think we’re any safer than we were eleven years ago?


Fighting Torture More Than One Day a Year

2012 June 26

It Doesn’t Stop After June 26th

Today was the United Nations’ International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. In the United States, it’s being marked by memorials and celebrations, but these are regrettably few and, at least outside of the Nation’s capital, regrettably small. The sad fact is that, to most Americans, including many who should know better, survivors of torture are invisible all year round.
            In her Huffington Post piece, If We Don’t Ask, They Won’t Tell, physician Ranit Mishori writes about her own early-career confrontation with this reality while struggling, unsuccessfully, to understand the headaches, abdominal pain and depression being experienced by a patient who was a Latin American construction worker. Before ordering expensive tests that he wouldn’t have been able to afford, she took what would be a radical step for many American doctors: she sat down and talked to him: 

I learned he came from El Salvador. When? In the early ’90s. That rang a distant bell…”Were you or any family members affected by the civil war?” I asked. The quivering lip and downcast eye told me I hit the jackpot. And the scars…? The scars were not the result of some construction work mishap as I assumed. They were — to the uninitiated and possibly ignorant — the not-so-tell-tale signs of torture.
            Torture victims and survivors live among us – often silently…a construction worker from El Salvador; a journalist from Pakistan; an economist from the Sudan; an academic from Somalia; a teacher from Egypt; a domestic aid from Nepal; a young woman from the Ukraine who won’t disclose what her job is. They live in DC and in Utah, in New York and in Texas, in Minnesota and in Maine…

Mishori cites the frequently-used estimate of 500,000 torture survivors living in the United States — as many Americans, she notes, as are currently living with Parkinson’s disease. However, that half-million figure has been cited for at least ten to fifteen years. It was already old when I started work on my film, Refuge: Caring for Survivors of Torture more than six years ago. Given the number and scope of wars and ethnic conflicts throughout the world over the past decade or so, I would guess the number has at least doubled by now.
            Which, of course, only re-emphasizes the need for healthcare professionals in particular to be sensitive to the needs of the survivors who may be among their clients. Mishori mentions a 2000 survey taken in a primary care setting which noted that “none of the survivors of torture had been identified as such by their primary care physician.” Many comparable studies have come up with the same distressing results. “Just as I did as a resident,” Mishori says, ”many of us spend months and waste a lot of money trying to come up with a medical diagnosis, when, in reality, these ‘unexplained’ symptoms, in many cases, are directly related to a history of psychological and physical abuse and torture.”

The lesson I learned from that man has stayed with me for years — and it is one I try to impart to the medical students and residents I work with: read the newspapers, brush up on world history, learn about conflict zones. Inquire where your patients are from. Don’t be afraid to ask uncomfortable questions…it may be the beginning of a healing process that every torture victim deserves.

Also timed to today’s events, Sid Mohn’s piece, Remembering the Reality of Torture, connects the oft-hidden reality of international torture with the brutality which also sometimes occurs here at home — and sometimes goes unpunished. He notes that Illinois’ Torture Inquiry & Relief Commission will be shutting down at the end of this month, “leaving Illinois with one less way to make reparations for the victims of police torture.” The Commission inquiry had focused on the torture of more than 200 suspects by Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge.
            Dr. Mohn is the President of  Chicago’s Heartland Alliance, parent organization of the Marjorie Kovler Center, one of the nation’s leading torture treatment programs:

I can speak to how common torture is today personally because I see the scars it reates…Often, survivors come here as refugees or asylum seekers, fleeing their homelands, desperate for their lives and past their breaking point. Their experiences are varied. Some refuse to change their religion, others have fought back against corruption, still others have taught their communities to read. For that, they have been threatened, beaten, violated and starved within an inch of their lives…
            They saw their life crumble under the hands of those who would oppress and silence them, and still, they held tight to the hope that somewhere, somehow, things could be better. Then they kept fighting to make that dream a reality — to keep believing there was a light at the end of the tunnel.

The Refuge Media Project, through our documentary film-in-progresss, Refuge: Caring for Survivors of Torture, looks at some of these realities, including some of the reasons why doctors just don’t ask. Along with this blog, our website offers a wide range of resources for those working to end torture and assist its survivors.
            Facing a stubbornly persistent international climate of impunity, we need to work to keep the issue of torture in the forefront more than one day a year.


More Events in June 2012

2012 June 8

Washington, DC

June 19: The 2nd Annual Greater Washington Trauma and Torture Survivor Network’s conference, “Rebuilding a Life After Torture,” will take place June 19th, 8:30-5:00 at Catholic University in Washington, DC (Prysbyla Center, 3rd Floor – Great Room A, 620 Michigan Avenue, NE. The event is co-sponsored by the National Catholic School of Social Service and the George Washington Department of Psychiatry. See the website for details and registration information. 

June 26: Physicians for Human Rights will be screening Martha Davis’s film, Doctors of the Dark Side, at the E-Street Cinemas, 11th and E Street, Washington, DC, at 6:00 PM on Tuesday, June 26th. The documentary looks at the roles of physicians and psychologists in abusive interrogations of detainees during the Afghan and Iraqi conflicts. 


June 26: The Florida Center for Survivors of Torture, along with the Theater Department of Florida International University, will be presenting Ariel Dorfman’s play Death and the Maiden at the University’s Modesto Campus, 11200 SW 8th Street, Miami, on June 26th. Reception and presentations begin at 5:30; the play is 7:30-9:00. Space is limited for the reception; register by June 15th.


Supporting Survivors of Torture in 2012

2012 June 5

A Day in Support of Survivors…

For many years, June 26th has been recognized by the United Nations and other international organizations as an International Day in Support of Victims of Torture.  This year, organizations in the United States who are part of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture have declared the entire month of June as Torture Awareness Month, aimed at “Confronting the Culture of Torture.”

Torture has taken root in American culture and in Americans’ moral consciousness…Torture is always wrong. It is illegal, inhumane and intolerable. Torture violates the inherent dignity of man which all religions hold as the highest ideal. Torture degrades everyone involved — perpetrator, victims and witnesses alike.

Along with many of our partner organizations, The Refuge Media Project is a participant in the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, which has produced this video invitation to the June events.

Participation by our Partners

Here’s what’s happening at some of the organizations where we filmed our documentary, Refuge: Caring for Survivors of Torture:

  • Minnesota’s Center for Victims of Torture holds an annual celebration and memorial tree planting every year on June 26th. In addition to honoring survivors and their achievements, this year’s event will be an opportunity to introduce CVT’s new executive Director, Curt Goering. There will be refreshments, music and other activities at the Center’s Minneapolis location, 717 East River Parkway, 5:30-7:30 PM. For more information email Nora Radtke or call (612) 436-4820.
  • On Thursday, June 28th, the CVT’s Washington, DC, office is hosting a reception and award ceremony honoring the UN Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture for their work in protecting and rehabilitating survivors: Hart Senate Office Building 902, Constitution Avenue and 2nd Street, NE, Washington, DC, 5:30-7:30 PM. RSVP by email to Olivia Lueth or call (612) 436-4830. CVT is also hosting events at its international locations in Jordan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Dadaab refugee camps in Kenya.  
  • The Torture Abolition and Survivor Support Coalition, or TASSC, hosts a full week of activities, including a three-day human rights training program, panel discussions, visits to Congressional offices, and a vigil in front of the White House. Events run from June 19th to June 26th; the complete schedule is available on TASSC’s website.
  • In observation of both World Refugee Day and the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, the Boston Center for Refugee Health & Human Rights invites friends and supporters to a “Night of Remembrance & Rejoicing,” featuring entertainment, a fashion show, awards, and dinner. Boston University Medical School, 14th Floor, 80 East Concord Street, Boston, MA, Tuesday, June 26th, 6:30-9:30 PM. RSVP by email to Courtney White.

(Photos above from website of Center for Victims of Torture.)


More for the Impunity File

2012 May 26


Despite incontrovertible evidence that high-ranking United States officials authorized and in some cases ordered acts of torture and cruel treatment of detainees captured after the attacks of September 11, 2001, not one torture survivor, according to this report, has succeeded in holding any such official accountable. This was true not only during the Bush administration (no surprise), but remains a national disgrace under President Obama as well.
            Indefensible is a collaboration of the World Organization for Human Rights, USA, and the International Human Rights Law Clinic at American University’s Washington College of Law. The report is subtitled “A Reference for Prosecuting Torture and Other Felonies Committed by U.S. Officials Following September 11th.” It marshals the extensive, publicly available evidence and proposes steps that the administration and/or Congress could take to bring former officials to account – none of which, unfortunately, appear to have any prospect of being taken.

Lies and Damn Lies

In a 2011 paper in the Quarterly Journal of Political Science, James R. Hollyer (Yale) and B. Peter Rosendorff (New York University) offer a theoretical explanatory model for the demonstrable fact that many countries which have signed the United Nations Convention Against Torture nonetheless continue to commit torture. Here’s the abstract of their article, Why Do Authoritarian Regimes Sign the Convention Against Torture? 

“Traditional international relations theory holds that states will join only those international institutions with which they generally intend to comply. Here we show when this claim might not hold…Authoritarian governments use the signing of [the UN Convention Against Torture (CAT)] – followed by the willful violation of its provisions – as a costly signal to domestic opposition groups of their willingness to employ repressive tactics to remain in power. In equilibrium, authoritarian governments that torture heavily are more likely to sign the treaty than those that torture less. Signatory regimes are predicted to survive longer in office than non-signatories, enjoy less domestic opposition, and reduce their levels of repression – and we provide empirical support for these predictions. While the CAT reduces levels of torture in signatory states, it also prolongs authoritarian regimes’ tenure in power.”

The article is available online, along with an accompanying series of slides.


Resources from Our Partners

2012 May 25

The Refuge Media Project, from its inception, has been fortunate to have the support and counsel of an outstanding panel of Advisors and Outreach Partners. This post features just two of the many resources they have created and made available to others working in this field.

Group Therapy Models

Group Therapy for Refugees and Torture
Survivors: Treatment Model Innovations
is by Ibrahim A. Kira, PhD, Director of the Center for Torture and Trauma Survivors, Decatur, GA, with Asha Ahmed, PhD, and other staff of the Center. CTTS is one of the sites where we filmed our forthcoming documentary, Refuge: Caring for Survivors of Torture, and Dr. Kira is featured in the film. The article discusses “varieties of group therapy with refugees and torture survivors, and the logic behind enhancing traditional group therapies to fit the unique experiences of refugees and torture survivors.” It focuses in particular on two variants of the Center’s group therapy model: the Bashal group for Somali women, and a multi-family group for Bhutanese survivors. (Photo from REFUGE: Caring for Survivors of Torture.)

Video Series on Care of Survivors

The National Partnership for Community Training has produced a series of  five short Video Programs on Caring for Torture Survivors. The programs festures leaders in the field of torture treatment, including Richard Mollica, James Lavelle, and Svang Tor, of the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma. Dr. Mollica also appears in our film, Refuge. The National Partnership’s films also feature survivors themselves, not only from HPRT, but from the NYU/Bellevue Program for Survivors of Torture and the Florida Center for Survivors of Torture.
            NPCT is a partnership of the three organizations. It offers a wide variety of educational and training materials and services, including periodic web-based training programs. You can sign up for email notifications here. A summary sheet on a previous webinar, “Working Clinically with Traumatized Refugee Children and Families,” with Kate Porterfield, PhD, of the NYU/Bellevue Program, is available here.
   Note that the Florida Center for Survivors of Torture is a program of Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services, which offer a broad range of other services and resources for Refugees and those working with them. (Photos at top right and lower left from National Partnership for Community Training.)


Refuge Media Project Update

2012 April 23

An update on our documentary film:
Refuge: Caring for Survivors of Torture

Apologies to our regular readers (I know that there are at least a few.) I haven’t been able to post as regularly as usual for the past couple of months, but mostly for a good reason: As many readers know, this blog is an offshoot of The Refuge Media Project, whose primary purpose is the creation of a video documentary on immigrant survivors of torture living in the United States, and on the terrific programs around the country that are helping them to recover and create productive new lives here. It’s been the most challenging – but also most rewarding – project I’ve been involved in for a long time.
            In the middle of working on the film, I decided to retire from Fanlight Productions, the educational film distribution company I owned and operated for more than 30 years – a process that took over a year, but ultimately freed me to work more intensively on Refuge: Caring for Surivors of Torture. (Note: Fanlight Productions is now a part of Icarus Films, which will continue to distribute the almost 500 docs in the Fanlight collection.)
            Refuge was filmed in collaboration with torture treatment and rehabilitation programs in the Boston area, Minneapolis, Atlanta, and Washington, DC. After at least a year and a half of editing, the shape of the film is finally coming into focus, and I’ve been putting intensive effort into getting it ready to be shown to the Project’s advisors and consultants, friends, colleagues, and test audiences including survivors and folks who work with them. With their guidance and support – and a bit of luck – it will be ready for distribution this coming fall. Watch for more details here and on the project website, and please contact me for information about screenings and/or about obtaining copies of the film when it’s completed.


Still Waiting for Tomorrow

2012 March 29

April 2-4:  Boston University Law School Conference will
Explore the Law and Politics of Unresolved Refugee Crises

For folks in the Boston area, B.U. School of Law is presenting a three-day symposium on the above topic next week, co-sponsored by the American Society of International Law and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The conference will address the scope and ramifications of protracted refugee situations, as well as attempting to identify state responses and policies addressing potential solutions to refugee crises.
            On the second day, Tuesday, April 4, at 10:30, I’ll be showing excerpts of our forthcoming documentary, Refuge: Caring for Survivors of Torture, and facilitating a discussion with representatives of Physicians for Human Rights and the Boston Center for Refugee Health & Human Rights
            Registration information for the conference is on the Boston University website and links to the schedules for each day are below:

Apologies for the late notice on this…


News from the Treatment Programs

2012 March 26

The Bad News First: Drastic Cuts
in Funding from the United Nations

I just received an “emergency bulletin” from the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition, one of the groups profiled in our forthcoming film, Refuge: Caring for Survivors of Torture. Like many torture rehabilitation programs around the country – and around the world – TASSC receives a significant part of its support from the UN’s Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture which, in turn, is supported by contributions from member states. The U.S. is its largest donor.
            Although contributions, and therefore the Fund’s grants, have been declining for the past couple of years, this year’s cuts, according to the letter TASSC received, will amount to 43% or more! TASSC itself receive the “unexpected and devastating,” news that it will receive only half the amount it had expected.
            TASSC performs its invaluable work on a very thin, and fraying, shoestring: its total annual budget is only $240,000 of which the UN funding has represented one third. With the loss of half the UN’s expected contribution, the group will inevitably have to cut programs unless individual donors make up the difference.
            Note: I have been looking online for more information about the support of the fund by the United States. I’ve determined that the U.S. contribution during 2011 – which I assume is the period relating to this year’s grant cycle – was 5.7 million U.S. dollars out of a not-quite 8 million dollar total (source). I have not found information for prior years, and would appreciate any help from readers. Please email me if you have this information or know how to find it, and I will add it to an upcoming post.

A Change of Leadership at
The Center for Victims of Torture

As many of you know, Douglas A. Johnson, the highly-respected long-time Executive Director of Minnesota’s Center for Victim of Torture, resigned earlier this year. His plans were announced early in 2011. During Johnson’s 23-year administration of CVT, it has become an international leader in providing compassionate care for survivors of torture both in the United States and throughout the world. In addition to treatment and rehabilitation centers in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, CVT has a legislative and advocacy office in Washington, DC, and ongoing programs in Africa and the Middle East. Johnson himself will continue to be an active advocate for social justice – beginning with a guest teaching position on human rights in Uruguay.
            I owe a great personal debt to CVT, whose work and publications first made me aware of the situation and needs of immigrant survivors of torture living in our communities. Doug and his Minnesota staff, as well as several CVT clients, welcomed me during an initial research trip, and later during a week-long shoot for the our film Refuge: Caring for Survivors of Torture (estimated completion, mid-year, 2012.) On the Refuge Media Project website, you can see a brief interview with Doug about the National Campaign to Ban Torture, which called upon then newly-elected President Barack Obama to issue an executive order banning U.S. use of torture and cruel treatment. There’s also a nice profile of Doug Johnson by Gail Rosenblum in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
            CVT’s new Director, Curt Goering, will be coming onboard in May. Goering has been the Chief Operating Officer of Amnesty for 30 years. In its press release announcing Goering’s selection, CVT Board chair Patti Andreini Arno comments that Goering “impressed us as an accomplished and effective senior executive in a large international organization,” suggesting that the organization expects to continue and perhaps expand its international programs.

New Website for the
Office of Refugee Resettlement

The United States Office of Refugee Resettlement has introduced a newly-designed website “designed to share the stories of the people affected by our programs, while also providing stronger tools for our grantees and clear, easy-to-understand information for the public.” The Agency invites comments and suggestions from users of the site. Take a look, and let me know what you think
            One feature of the new site will be links to worthwhile new resources – featured at the moment is a guide from the The Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc., on Asylee Eligibility for Resettlement Assistance. The guide is available for pdf download.

Catholic Legal Immigration Network

The Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc., mentioned above, says that its purpose is “to enhance and expand delivery of legal services to indigent and low-income immigrants principally through diocesan immigration programs and to meet the immigration needs identified by the Catholic Church in the United States.” CLINIC supports “a rapidly growing network of community-based immigration programs,” serving 600,000 low-income immigrants a year, “without reference to their race, religion, gender, ethnic group, or other distinguishing characteristics.”


Remembering a Woman of the Mines

2012 March 16

A survivor of repeated torture and abuse, Doña
Domitila changed the course of Bolivia’s history

A heroine of Latin America’s struggles for social justice died two days ago. If you live here in the global north, I’m pretty sure you didn’t see her obituary in your local paper, but her passing was mourned in her native Bolivia, and throughout the “southern cone.” As noted in my wife, Emily Achtenberg’s Rebel Currents blog post, Domitila Barrios de Chungara was “best known as the miner’s wife who led a hunger strike in 1978 that brought down the dictatorship of General Hugo Banzer, paving the way for the return of Bolivian democracy.”  Domitila died in relative poverty and without medical insurance, but had remained a rebel and an important social activist throughout her life.

“In the 1960’s, Domitila became an outspoken leader of the Union of Miners Wives, organizing miner’s families for improved conditions and services, and struggling against the repressive CIA-backed Barrientos regime. She survived the brutal 1967 San Juan Massacre, where soldiers opened fire on striking miners and their wives and children, in part to head off a rumored alliance with Che Guevara’s guerillas fighting in the Santa Cruz mountains.”

In the aftermath of that massacre, Domatila – then pregnant – was imprisoned and severely tortured, including being beaten in the abdomen. One officer made a show of sharpening his knife in front of her, threatening to kill her baby as soon as it was born. She miscarried and the child was stillborn. Domitila’s torture, and other incidents of official abuse, contributed to the chronic health problems that plagued her throughout the rest of her life.
            We had the privilege of meeting “Doña Domi” as part of a delegation to Bolivia in 2006 (and again in 2008.) During that first visit, we accompanied her to the Legislative Palace in La Paz, to hold a press conference (pictured at right) demanding an end to Bolivia’s participation in the U.S. School of the Americas. As we were entering, the building’s guards blocked her way, clearly thinking that this stocky, plainly-dressed peasant woman had no business among the suit-coated lawyers and legislators pushing their way inside. Once the meeting started, though, it was clear that the newspaper and TV reporters knew whose testimony mattered.

I think my life is related to my people. What happened to me could have happened to hundreds of people in my country. I want to make this clear, because I recognize that there have been people who have done much more than I for the people, but who have died or who haven’t had the opportunity to be known.
            I want to clarify that this account of my personal experience of my people, who are fighting for their liberation – and to whom I owe my existence – well, I want it to reach the poorest people, the people who don’t have any money, but who need some orientation, some example which can serve them in their future life…It doesn’t matter what kind of paper it’s put down on, but it does matter that it be useful for the working class and not only for intellectual people or for people who only make a business of this kind of thing.  
                           – from “Testimony,” the introduction to Let Me Speak

For more about Domitila Barrios de Chungara, see Emily’s Rebel Currents post, the reminiscences by Victor Montoya or on the website of “1000 Peace Women,” or the many other sources available online. Domitila’s 1978 autobiography, Let Me Speak (with Moema Viezzer) is also still available.


“I can’t see it!”

2012 March 6

A Slogan for the Ninety-Nine Percent? 

More than a century has passed, and not much has changed except for the placement of the decimal point. In 1899, thousands of New York children, who survived on the streets by hawking newspapers for millionaires Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, went on strike over a penny. Though the papers could likely not have survived without the informal workforce these children provided, they required them to pay for their papers up-front, and refused to buy back those that went unsold. The going rate was ten papers for a nickel, but that year the publishers raised it to six cents – a 20% jump – and the kids went on strike.
            Read Dan Barry’s “Arts & Leisure” cover article in last Sunday’s New York Times for more details. It’s stimulated, of course, by Disney’s “Newsies the Musical,” soon to open on Broadway (at prices only the one-percent will be able to afford.) The musical is based, in turn, on the company’s not-very-successful movie. Try to read past the piece’s jokey tone and lapses into “period” language, to the stark, life and death, realities that really faced these young piece-workers.
            As the article does point out, the potential threat to the papers’ bottom lines was real. The strike spread to other cities and Pulitzer aide Don Seitz wrote his boss – then on his estate in Bar Harbor, Maine – referring to it as a “menacing affair.” It produced, during a Bowery rally that saw more than 2,000 newsboys jamming Irving Hall and an additional 3,000 in the streets outside, a statement from newsboy leader “Kid Blink” that could go on any Occupy poster today: 

            “I’m tryin’ to figure out how 10 cents on a hundred papers can mean
             more to a millionaire than it does to a newsboy. And I can’t see it.” 

In the end, the publishers held the line on six cents for ten papers, but agreed to buy back those that remained unsold (though after the strikers disbanded it turned out the papers would only give credit, not actual cash back.)

Check out muck-raking photographer Lewis Hine’s photos accompanying the article for a better sense of the newsboy’s real lives. There are more in the Times’ print edition, and many available online. Hines’ documentation of labor and social conditions throughout the United States at the beginning of the 20th century remains unsurpassed.

A “base and infamous” crime…

2012 February 20

American President Demands
Humane Treatment of Prisoners
…but that was 237 years ago

“Should any American soldier be so base and infamous as to injure any [prisoner]. . . I do most earnestly enjoin you to bring him to such severe and exemplary punishment as the enormity of the crime may require… for by such conduct they bring shame, disgrace and ruin to themselves and their country.”
       …..— George Washington, September 14, 1775:
……….     Charge to the Northern Expeditionary Force

[NOTE: If this post looks familiar, thanks — you're obviously a regular reader of the Refuge Media Project blog. I'll be on the road today, so thought I would honor the day by repeating what turned out to be one of our all-time most popular posts, first published last year.]

No mail today. I forgot – it’s Washington’s Birthday. When you work at home, you can lose track of what’s going on in the real world. Still, focused as I am on the issue of torture and its impact both on its victims and its perpetrators, this is a national hero I try not to forget about. In a speech published by the Los Angeles Time toward the end of 2005, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., noted that “Revolutionary War leaders, including Washington and the Continental Congress, considered the decent treatment of enemy combatants to be one of the principal strategic preoccupations of the American Revolution.”

“While Americans extended quarter to combatants as a matter of right and treated their prisoners with humanity,” Kennedy said, “British regulars and German mercenaries were threatened by their own officers with severe punishment if they showed mercy to a surrendering American soldier. Captured Americans were tortured, starved and cruelly maltreated aboard prison ships.” Washington’s stance, he noted, “puts to shame the conduct of America’s present leadership,” and he concluded that “America’s treatment of its prisoners is a test of our faith in our country and the character of our leaders.”

Kennedy was, of course, talking about the administration of then-President George W. Bush. I remain wistfully hopeful that the Obama administration – eventually – will reverse its predecessor’s policies, but the changes so far seem mostly cosmetic.
.       ….In his Huffington Post blog for February 19, 2007, Scott Horton wrote “Against a loud public outcry of ‘an eye for an eye,’ George Washington stood fast. He made it a point of fundamental honor (and that was his word) that the Americans would not only hold dearly to the laws of war, they would define a new law of war that reflected the humanitarian principles for which the new Republic had risen.” After crossing the Delaware River to defeat the British and Hessian armies at Trenton, our first Commander-in-Chief’ gave the order,  to “Treat them with humanity, and let them have no reason to complain of our copying the brutal example of the British Army in their treatment of our unfortunate brethren.”
….       .As David Hackett Fischer wrote in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Washington’s Crossing: “In a desperate struggle [he] found a way to defeat a formidable enemy… [He] reversed the momentum of the war. [He] improvised a new way of war that grew into an American tradition. And [he] chose a policy of humanity that aligned the conduct of the war with the values of the Revolution.”
..       …You can hear or read the transcript of Robert Krulwich’s interview with Professor Fischer on NPR’s website.  On the blog, Scott Horton (same name, different person) notes that, following the battle at Trenton, Washington intervened when he came across some of the Continental troops preparing to force Hessian prisoners to run the “gauntlet.” And it worked, he says: “Many of the German Hessians in fact joined the revolutionaries in their fight against the English and stayed here in America to be free when the war was won. Must we abandon this legacy? Is it already too late to reclaim it?” Good question…

(If ordering books or DVDs discussed in this blog from Amazon, please consider doing so through our website, which will help to support the work of The Refuge Media Project. Click on the book title above to be redirected to our site.)

Events in March-April, 2012

2012 February 16

Coming Events

Thursday-Friday, March 8-9, 2012

Fostering the Resilient Spirit: Holistic
Responses in the Torture Treatment Field
Sponsored by the National Partnership for
Community Training & Tulane University

Location: Tulane University, New Orleans, LA

Speakers Include:
Richard Mollica and James Lavelle, Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma;
Allen Keller and Hawthorne E. Smith, Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture;
Leslie Velez, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service;
Abbey Weiss, Center for Victims of Torture;
And others…

Registration and Additional Information here, or call (305) 805-5060


Saturday & Sunday, March 24-25 

Physicians for Human Rights National Conference:
Sustainable Connections & Collaborations
for Health & Human Rights

Location: University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI

This year’s PHR National Conference is being held in conjunction with the Sujal Parikh Memorial Symposium for Health & Social Justice, in memory of a University of Michigan medical student active in PHR’s Student Program.

Click for Additional Information


Saturday & Sunday, March 31-April 1, 2012

The Asylum Program of Physicians for Human Rights is offering two training programs for health professionals seeking to aid asylum seekers and other immigrant survivors of torture and human rights abuses:

Saturday, 3/31

Introduction to Physical and Psychological Documentation of Trauma
For those with no formal training and moderate to no experience conducting forensic medical examinations. Location: Tufts University School of Medicine, Boston, MA

Sunday, 4/1

Advanced Forensic Training for Experienced Volunteers:
Techniques for Increased Effectiveness of Evaluations and Testimony
For evaluators who have attended past trainings or are experienced in providing forensic medical examination.
Location: Physicians for Human Rights, Cambridge, MA

For details contact PHR

(NOTE: PHR also offers self-guided online training on forensic investigation.)


Friday, Saturday & Sunday, March 30-April 1, 2012

Amnesty International’s Annual Human Rights Conference, on the theme of “Rise Up for Rights.” The Annual General Meeting includes events for youth participants as well as all human rights activists.

Location: Denver, CO

For details contact Amnesty International


Immigration Detention Study

2012 February 7

Study Seeks to Interview LGBT Persons
Who Have Experienced Immigration Detention

A study co-sponsored by the Research Institute Without Walls, Physicians for Human Rights, and Psychologists for Social Responsibility is exploring the impact of immigration detention on LGBT persons. According to the researchers, the results of the study, LGBT Persons in Immigration Detention: Mental Health Needs and Challenges, “will be helpful to all of us who provide mental health and legal services to LGBT immigrants and refugees.” The study leaders are:

  • Ariel Shidlo, PhD, psychologist and Co-Director, Research Institute Without Walls (RIWW)
  • Mike Corradini, JD, Asylum Advocacy Associate, Physicians for Human Rights
  • Joan Ahola, MD, LGBT Asylum Research Coordinator for RIWW; Medical Director, Weill Cornell Medic al Center

Interviews will be confidential:
The researchers are looking for people who have been in immigration detention and may be willing to be interviewed in person or via phone or Skype. Interviewees need only give their first names, and the study leaders promise that their participation will be confidential. To volunteer or for more information, email Ariel Shidlo at Research Institute Without Walls.
For a quick look at what LGBT detainees are up against, check out this article from Chicago Now, or this report from the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, source of the photo above. A quick web search on “immigration detention — LGBT” will yield many more.


Wislawa Szymborska 1923-2012

2012 February 3
by Ben Achtenberg

Nothing Has Changed

Nobel prize-winning poet Wislawa Szymborska died yesterday at the age of 88. NPR’s David Orr describes her as a “poet of gentle irony,” but her irony could be visceral and corrosive as well. I was introduced to Szymborska’s poetry when a reader sent us a copy of her poem, “Tortures,” from a 1986 collection, The People on the Bridge.


Nothing has changed.
The body is a reservoir of pain;
it has to eat and breathe the air, and sleep;
it has thin skin and the blood is just beneath it;
it has a good supply of teeth and fingernails;
its bones can be broken; its joints can be stretched.
In tortures, all of this is considered.

Nothing has changed.
The body still trembles as it trembled
before Rome was founded and after,
in the twentieth century before and after Christ.
Tortures are just what they were, only the earth has shrunk
and whatever goes on sounds as if it’s just a room away.

Nothing has changed.
Except there are more people,
and new offenses have sprung up beside the old ones–
real, make-believe, short-lived, and nonexistent.
But the cry with which the body answers for them
was, is, and will be a cry of innocence
in keeping with the age-old scale and pitch.

Nothing has changed.
Except perhaps the manners, ceremonies, dances.
The gesture of the hands shielding the head
has nonetheless remained the same.
The body writhes, jerks, and tugs,
falls to the ground when shoved, pulls up its knees,
bruises, swells, drools, and bleeds.

Nothing has changed.
Except the run of rivers,
the shapes of forests, shores, deserts, and glaciers.
The little soul roams among these landscapes,
disappears, returns, draws near, moves away,
evasive and a stranger to itself,
now sure, now uncertain of its own existence,
whereas the body is and is and is
and has nowhere to go.

Translation: Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh.
© Wislawa Szymborska, Stanislaw Baranczak, Clare Cavanagh

Wislawa Szymborska’s Tortures is included in an excellent collection, Poems New and Collected, translated by Baranczak and Cavanagh.


Criminalize Trafficking

2012 January 30

Criminalize Trafficking, not Prostitution

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­In his January 25th op-ed piece for the New York Times, columnist Nicholas Kristof tells the depressingly familiar story of a desperate 13-year-old girl trying to escape from the vicious pimp who has been marketing her “services” through online ads on Almost equally depressing, it turns out that Backpage is owned by Village Voice media, owner of the Village Voice newspaper. The site, says Kristof, “is a godsend to pimps, allowing customers to order a girl online as if she were a pizza.”
…………Despite a national campaign of several years standing — as well as demands from the attorneys general of 48 states to eliminate the ads, Village Voice Media has refused to back down. (The photo at the beginning of this paragraph is from an ad campaign launched by The Rebecca Project and other groups more than a year ago, calling on Village Voice to do the right thing — so far without effect.)
…………Psychologist Melissa Farley is the founder of Prostitution Research & Education, a 15-year-old San Francisco-based nonprofit dedicated to the abolition of trafficking and prostitution.  She is the lead author of the two studies mentioned in my recent post on Sexual Abuse & Trafficking. Melissa wrote in response to that post, suggesting several points that she thinks are of particular importance in discussing Garden of Truth, the group’s report on the prostitution and trafficking of Native American women in Minnesota. I agree, and wanted to pass her suggestions along:

The women’s poverty, their 98% rate of current or previous homelessness, the post-colonial theft of land and cultural identity,  and the racism which results in a lack of educational and employment opportunities – all of these, to me and to them also, I think – are coercive. When you live in a place where the temperature falls below freezing and you are homeless, and someone offers to exchange sexual assault for a place to spend the night – to me that is trafficking, even though the Trafficking Victims Protection Act wouldn’t define it as such. Poverty, homelessness and racist lack of opportunities can coerce people into prostitution, but it’s not called “trafficking.” That’s a shortcoming of our law. We define trafficking as third party exploitation or control.  And the control can be and often is psychological in nature.
…………— Melissa Farley, Prostitution Research & Education

Like many others, Farley notes that the definition of trafficking used by the United States – which necessitates that the victim herself prove “force, fraud, or coercion” – is excessively conservative. By contrast, she points out, the law in most Scandinavian countries focuses on perpetrators rather than victims. Sweden’s legislation, for example, de-criminalizes prostitution, and offers federally-funded supports for those seeking to escape it. At the same time, it enforces criminal sanctions against traffickers and purchasers of sex.
…………It’s reported that street prostitution in Sweden has been cut in half by this approach, without leading to an increase in other areas (e.g., via internet sites like Backpage.) Janice Raymond, of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women writes that “the success of the Nordic model is not so much in penalizing the men (the penalties are modest) as in removing the invisibility of men who are outed when they get caught. This, in turn, makes it less appealing for pimps and traffickers to set up shop in countries where the customer base fears the loss of its anonymity, and is declining.”

(For more information on this approach, see Trafficking, Prostitution and the Sex Industry: The Nordic Legal Model, by Raymond, or The Swedish Law That Prohibits the Purchase of Sexual Services by Gunilla Ekberg in the journal Violence Against Women.)

NOTE: The image to the right, above, is by New York artist Mona Mark, and was created for the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women’s Fourth World Conference on Women, in Beijing (1995). Courtesy: Prostitution Research & Education

Some Resources:

Coalition Against Trafficking in Women
Promotes women’s human rights by working internationally to combat sexual exploitation in all its forms. The first international NGO to focus on human trafficking, especially sex trafficking of women and girls.

Human Trafficking & Sexual Exploitation
A blog by Heidi Hermann on groups fighting human trafficking in southern California, as well as nationally and internationally. (See Heidi’s right-column blogroll for other related organizations.)

National Human Trafficking Resource Center
The Polaris Project: For a World Without Slavery offers a toll-free, confidential hotline for issues related to trafficking.

Prostitution Research & Education
PRE’s goal is to abolish the institution of prostitution while advocating for alternatives to trafficking and prostitution, including emotional and physical healthcare for women in prostitution.

The Rebecca Project for Human Rights
Advocates for justice, dignity and policy reform for vulnerable women and girls in the United States and in Africa.


Can we end human trafficking?

2012 January 11

Human Trafficking Awareness Day

An email from the Lutheran Immigration & Refugee Service reminds me that today, January 11, is Human Trafficking Awareness Day. Dedicated to raising awareness of and opposition to human trafficking, the day was established three years ago by the U.S. Senate. This year, President Obama has dedicated the entire month of January to trafficking prevention, though it’s not clear to me that any increase in Federal funding follows from either of these pronouncements. I guess we can appreciate the thought.
            In the opening pages of Bury the Chains, Adam Hochschild’s history of the slavery abolition movement in England (which considerably preceded that in the United States) he notes that “at the end of the eighteenth century, well over three quarters of all people alive were in bondage of one kind or another, not the captivity of striped prison uniforms, but of various forms of slavery or serfdom…close to eighty thousand chained and shackled Africans were loaded onto slave ships and transported to the New World each year.”
            “But this was the world – our world – just two centuries ago,” he comments, “and to most people then, it was unthinkable that it could ever be otherwise.” 
            Later in the book Hochschild introduces Thomas Clarkson, a 25-year-old student writing an essay on the slave trade to compete for a coveted prize at Cambridge University. He did win, and intended to ride his success into a career as a clergyman. Instead, he became obsessed with what he had learned in his research. Midway on his ride to London, Clarkson wrote, “I sat down disconsolate on the turf by the roadside and held my horse. Here a thought came into my mind, that if the contents of the Essay were true, it was time some person should see these calamities to their end.” He dedicated the rest of his life to putting an end to slavery.
            Human trafficking represents the survival of one of the most vicious forms of slavery and, as it was 200 years ago, it’s hard for many people today to believe that we can ever abolish it. But perhaps the time is coming when we can begin to “see these calamities to their end.” The groups highlighted below are working to end the sex trade and, in the meantime, are providing help and support to its victims and those who care for them. There are many other excellent organizations working in this field which I’ll try to list in future posts.

Even the business-oriented periodical Forbes weighed in on this issue a few days ago, with an interesting post by contributor Nicole Skibola. (Unfortunately, Technology, Business, and Anti-Human Trafficking Innovation was relegated to the publication’s “Corporate Social Responsibility” blog, which is probably not high priority breakfast reading for the point-one percent.)
            The article’s main focus is on efforts by companies such as Microsoft and Google to support technological responses to trafficking, in light of the fact that the sex “industry” itself is taking full advantage of those technologies. Skibola cites research by Microsoft which “described the Internet as the number one platform for buying and selling women and children for sex in the United States.”
            In her lead, Skibola writes, “Could you have possibly imagined that there are 30 million slaves in the world today, more than any other point in human history?…A 2011 CNN article estimated that there are 100,000 to 300,000 children between 11 and 14 who are vulnerable to being sold for sex by pimp-captors every year in the United States, according to government statistics.” The scale of this crime against humanity is approaching the scale of eighteenth century slavery.

(NOTES: The Forbes article also mentions a number of corporate and foundation initiatives offering grant support for technology initiatives in this area — grantseekers take note. The photo immediately above is of Justin Timberlake, participating in the DNA Foundation’s anti-trafficking campaign.)