Consider the following: Human trafficking is global — according to the UN, there are now 40 million victims globally. The United States has also been ranked as one of the top three nations of origin for human trafficking, according to a US State Department Report.
Human trafficking survivor Harold D’Souza is no stranger to the perils of modern-day slavery, much of it invisible, right in front of our eyes. In 2003, Harold left his job in India as a marketing manager for a multinational electronics company and was promised a $75,000 job by his trafficker. When he arrived in Ohio, there was no position. What began was an 11-year journey, “pure hell,” as he described it.
He and his wife were forced to work in a restaurant seven days a week for as long as 16 hours a day. His employer took his legal documents and forced him to take a five-figure loan from a bank, keeping the money. For years, they were verbally and physically abused. Harold’s wife was sexually assaulted in front of him. The trafficker hired a hitman to kill Harold. Shockingly, the perpetrator is still free despite evidence against him, as US laws often fall woefully short for prosecution.
The D’Souza’s were one of a few lucky ones to beat the odds; they eventually escaped a harrowing situation and started a new life. It has not been easy to overcome the trauma and scars.
D’Souza committed his life to help victims, founding Eyes Open International, which focuses on combating modern-day slavery. He lectures globally on the topic, was appointed by President Obama to the US Advisory Council on Human Trafficking, and has continued his service under President Trump.
He spoke to Anna Shen about human slavery during the pandemic, his 10-day trip across parts of the US meeting survivors, a biopic film in the works about his life, and more.
Q. What is the current state of affairs with human trafficking in the US?
A. During the COVID-19 pandemic, trafficking has increased. The perpetrators are more aggressive, and law enforcement has so much else on their hands. Local and state governments are overwhelmed. People are more economically unstable; it is easier to fall victim to labor and sex trafficking than ever. I am shocked that even though I tell Indians not to come to the US, they are willing to pay money to an agent. There are so many people manipulating them, charging anywhere from $40,000 to $100,000. People are desperate and will pay.
Q. What happens to a person once they pay a trafficker?
A. Once they leave their home country, only two out of 10 reach the US – eight die on the way, or are caught and deported. Last year, 311 Indians were deported from the Mexican border. The situation is horrific.
A lot of Indians that were already in America also got deported. That is why I am going to India in a few days — to educate people. America is the destination, but India is the source for traffickers. There is a saying in India, “Going to America is like going to heaven.” Nobody is sharing the actual facts about what happens here, that they will end up as modern day slaves.
Q. You just took a 10-day road trip to meet with the survivors of human trafficking. Where did you go? What did you learn?
A. I drove through Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Indianapolis and Chicago. It was eye opening. Victims are more isolated than ever. Due to the pandemic, the organizations that support victims have limited service or none at all. Food pantries and churches are shut down. Because most victims are undocumented, they did not get the stimulus package. Many are suicidal and live in constant fear.
Perpetrators are getting smarter and are one step ahead of law enforcement agencies. Finding new victims is easier: The unemployed are out of the house, looking for any odd jobs or help, so perpetrators driving around can find them more easily and exploit them. Someone unemployed might be standing on a street corner, asking for work or donations and fall prey to a trafficker. There is a statistic that if a girl is out on the street looking for help, within 24 hours she will be picked up and become a victim of sex trafficking.
Q. Your perpetrator never came to justice. What can be done to prevent that in the future?
A. Laws have to be changed, with stiffer penalties. There are very few laws to protect the victims, and very few successful laws to prosecute perpetrators, who also know how to successfully fight their cases. The focus has always been on victims, but that needs to change: When you prosecute one perpetrator you save 100 victims.
Media plays a very big role, as coverage will intimidate perpetrators, especially because they are very affluent and high status. They are intimidated by negative press coverage. Also, victims need to speak out, but this requires tremendous courage.
Q. There is so much focus on the police these days. How should they be trained to help?
A. Right now, law enforcement is overwhelmed with so many issues. However, they need to be trained to recognize trafficking in front of them. At the moment, the governor of Ohio is training police officers to recognize it happening right under their eyes. For example, recently an officer stopped someone for speeding and saw five people in the car. He questioned them where they were going. Something didn’t sound right. It turned out that one passenger in the car was a sex trafficking victim. The police rescued her.
This kind of training needs to be global, and it has to come from the top leadership. Police also need to be “trauma informed,” which means recognizing when they are speaking to a victim who may be in the car with their perpetrator, and may speak in a certain way to the police officer.
Q. Focusing on the human side, can you tell me what you think others should know but never think about?
A. There is so much attention on getting victims free, but going a step further, who is the person underneath all of this? Nobody asks them what their dreams are. Every individual on this planet has dreams, talents. No NGO, counselor or law enforcement agency asks about their dreams – this person once wanted to be a doctor, or an actor. Once society knows they are a victim or survivor, they are stigmatized. So many people won’t say a word about what happened because they are afraid that they won’t move ahead or be able to live a normal life.
I still cry at night and feel I failed and as a grown man. I still ask myself, “What did I do to get in that place?” I still struggle and go to counseling. Trauma has no expiration date. But with God’s blessing, I am still here to tell the story. My focus is on prevention, education, protection and the empowerment of community members, especially vulnerable populations globally.
I know no one can stop me. I will help as many victims to become survivors and thrive as much as possible and no perpetrator will stand in my way. I thank God every day.
This is part of a series of features from across the globe on human trafficking. IPS coverage is supported by the Airways Aviation Group.
The Global Sustainability Network ( GSN ) is pursuing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal number 8 with a special emphasis on Goal 8.7 which ‘takes immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour, including recruitment and use of child soldiers, and by 2025 end child labour in all its forms’.
The origins of the GSN come from the endeavours of the Joint Declaration of Religious Leaders signed on 2 December 2014. Religious leaders of various faiths, gathered to work together “to defend the dignity and freedom of the human being against the extreme forms of the globalisation of indifference, such us exploitation, forced labour, prostitution, human trafficking” and so forth.