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Trafficking survivor shines spotlight on modern slavery in the U.S.

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LONDON – Evelyn Chumbow arrived in the United States from Cameroon on a chilly November night, expecting a warm welcome in a new home and a good education.

Instead, the next morning, she was forced to cook, clean and look after young children. She was nine years old.

For almost eight years, Chumbow worked around the clock without pay and was beaten by the woman who was supposed to be her guardian. She never went to school.

“When I flew to the U.S., my life changed,” Chumbow said on the sidelines of the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s Trust Women Conference. “I was not only trafficked – I became a modern-day slave.”

Twelve years on from her escape, aged 17, from the house where she worked in Silver Springs, Maryland, Chumbow travels the world speaking about her past, hoping to inspire other survivors to share their testimony.

She wants everyone to know the scale of human trafficking and domestic servitude in the country known as the ‘land of the free’.

“We need to talk about this,” she said. “It’s 2014 and … this is happening in America.”

Almost 150 years after the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, Chumbow’s story shows these practices continue, despite the law.

In a globalised world where cheap labour is in high demand, people from developing countries seeking better opportunities are being forced to bridge the gap, often trafficked across borders and forced to work like slaves.

“Trafficking is simply a mechanism, a conduit and a process … by which a person is taken into slavery,” Kevin Bales, researcher and abolitionist in the anti-slavery movement told a Thomson Reuters Foundation Reporting Trafficking and Slavery course.

Between 14,500 and 17,500 people are trafficked into the United States for sexual exploitation or forced labour annually, according to the Department of Homeland Security. The Global Slavery Report 2014, published by the Walk Free Foundation, estimates there are 60,100 people in modern slavery.

More than 27 percent of labour trafficking cases in the United States were related to domestic workers and 84 percent of victims came from countries like the Philippines, Mexico, Ethiopia and India, according to a separate report by the non-profit Polaris Project, which works to fight human trafficking and modern slavery.

Chumbow’s story of struggle and survival is not an isolated case in the United States and activists say the problem needs more attention.

Researchers like Bales criticised some Western governments, including the United States, for sidelining the issue, particularly when compared to the attention given to the war on drugs and immigration.

“We’ve never been able to [estimate] the size of the problem accurately,” Bales said. “[in the United States], the money spent on anti-slavery and trafficking is the same amount as is spent on a musical band for the military.”

However, the U.S. government says progress has been made.

“A lot of money goes into specialised trafficking units and services to victims,” Sara Gilmer, reports and political affairs officer in the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons at the U.S. State Department, told course participants.

“[but] there are more and more victims being identified. That’s a challenge we face, but we also know that this is an issue that has the attention of our president and Congress,” she added.

In recent years, the U.S. government and non-governmental organisations have partnered to find ways to fight trafficking and slavery in the country and they are looking at how innovative technologies can tackle the problem.

Many traffickers use technology in human trade so the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has developed the Memex programme, a new online search method to help agencies carry out domain-specific searches for data on human trafficking.

“If we want to solve [trafficking] and modern-day slavery, we need modern-day tools,” Christopher White, programme manager at DARPA, said in an interview on the sidelines of the Trust Women conference. “By building this kind of technology, we can bring everyone together to better access, organise and understand online content.”

Memex will give a clearer picture of what is going on and will help non-profits, law enforcement officials and prosecutors, among others, White added.

At the same time, people like Chumbow will continue to act as the human face of trafficking. As an advocate and leader of the National Survivor Network, she speaks at home and abroad about her past and present, hoping to empower other survivors of trafficking and slavery.

Now 29, Chumbow is a wife, a mother and a senior at the University of Maryland where she studies Homeland Security. Chumbow’s trafficker was sentenced to 17 years – she now wants to bring other perpetrators to justice.

“I am more than a survivor,” she said. “I can do more than you do if you train me. I am going to go after the traffickers.”

(Editing by Katherine Baldwin)


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