While my research on the issues had already provided me with a fairly comprehensive understanding of human trafficking problems in Hawaii, my visit provided me with insight into the social and economic issues in the island communities. I traveled to Hawaii with the intention of learning about the issues of human trafficking from government agencies and community organizations, but found that my additional interaction with locals gave me a deeper understanding of the roots of the problem.
I came to understand the social and economic problems that individuals face as Hawaiians, Samoans, Micronesians, Thais and numerous other nationalities in certain communities around the islands. Problems include poverty, physical and sexual abuse, drug addiction, poor education and language barriers. Many locals who I spoke with were unaware of human trafficking on the islands, but at the same time were aware of the existing social and economic challenges. Therefore, the presence of human trafficking did not come as a surprise to most.
The reason I bring up these issues is because it is not just one factor that puts minors in the at-risk category for being trafficked into exploitative situations; or even for making the decision to become sex workers of their own volition
Due to the underground nature of commercial sexual exploitation (CSE) through trafficking, there are no reliable sources for what the exact number of sex trafficking victims is in Hawaii. There is much argument that many youth may not even be trafficked into the trade, but, due to their economic problems, enter into the sex trade by choice. This is an argument that we will be looking into throughout the process of our research – a future piece will be published on this topic.
The Trafficking Process
Hawaii can be considered a source, transit and destination State- similar to the community I worked within while working with a Thai-run non-governmental organization (NGO) in northern Thailand, DEPDC/GMS, working to prevent human trafficking. These terms are explained below:
Source: Men, women, girls and boys* who are lured from home, in this case communities in Hawaii, in hopes of a better life, are most often trafficked to the mainland in the U.S. for sexual and labor exploitation. For more information read an article that identifies Hawaii as a source for trafficked victims, Hawaii Man Charged With Sex Trafficking At The Super Bowl.
Transit: Individuals are trafficked across national and state borders from various parts of the world before arriving on the mainland U.S. If they are trafficked through Hawaii, the islands can often be used as a way-station where victims can be ‘broken in’ through rape, drugs, forced labor and sex work, among other forms of physical and psychological abuse. Following this ‘breaking in’ period, victims may be sent to various locations throughout the U.S.
Destination: Victims may be taken to Hawaii voluntarily, or involuntarily **, but once they reach their destination on the islands, false promises of freedom and opportunity fade as the reality of their situation becomes clear. Hawaii has a predominantly tourist economy, which brings victims into a forced life of sex work for the entertainment of tourists and locals, as well as the military***. Additionally, an economy of agriculture brings victims to the islands for forced labor. Read an article on a labor trafficking ring which was uncovered, freeing 400 Thai workers from slavery in the farm industry of Hawaii, Labor Trafficking Case in Hawaii.
For years, government, law enforcement and non-governmental organizations worked together in order to pass legislation that would establish anti-human trafficking laws in Hawaii. Before the HB 240 and HB 141 bills were passed in 2011, no anti-human trafficking laws existed in the state. This placed Hawaii into the category of the “dirty dozen”, states that have failed to enact basic provisions to combat human trafficking and failed to address the issue – sex and slave labor – as a specific crime. One of the new laws prohibits labor trafficking, while the other toughens penalties for pimps and traffickers. In order to provide law enforcement with more information for catching pimps and traffickers, the bill made sex workers and trafficking victims eligible for a witness protection program. With the safety net of a witness protection program, sex workers and trafficked victims are more likely to tell their stories and provide information on the perpetrators.
You can read more about what changes these bills are meant to bring about by reading about it in various articles published in the Honolulu Civil Beat, Governor Signs Hawaii’s First Human Trafficking Law- 6/20/2011. More information on human trafficking in Hawaii can be found on the website for the The Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery (Pass).
From my research, it is clear that there still remains to be seen any immediate progress following the establishment of these anti-human trafficking bills. This is something that I will be looking farther into over time as I remain in contact with the various community organizations and government agencies I came into contact with.
What You Can Do
It may come as a shock to many people that these problems exist in a location that is commonly viewed as a paradise. No one should feel that they must stop taking vacations on the islands, but just be aware of what you see around you; report suspicious and questionable activity to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center– 1.888.3737.888
*An important fact about sex trafficking is that it does not include only women and girls. Sex trafficking victims often include young boys and men as well. As Natalie Jesionka explains it, “Men and young boys are also trafficked, and they often get much less attention then trafficked women do.” Please read more about myths of human trafficking in relation to the sex trade in an article published by Ms. Jesionka in the Daily Muse, Human Trafficking: The Myths and The Realities
**Understanding the difference between human trafficking and human smuggling is also important. Defined by the United Nations “Trafficking is the recruiting, transporting, harboring, or receiving of a person through force in order to exploit him or her for prostitution, forced labor, or slavery.” Smuggling, however, is “the transport of an individual from one destination to another, usually with his or her consent.” It’s a necessary difference to understand, in order to know how human trafficking can be combated.
***Prostitution on the islands of Hawaii is not perpetuated solely by tourists. While many prostitution cases involve tourists, the Johns are usually locals, or military. As reported in the Civil Beat article, Selling Sex in Honolulu: Prostitution Busts for Men Turn Up Mostly Locals, Few Tourists: “A review of the three-month period between July 8 and Oct. 8 shows that police arrested 15 men on prostitution charges, 10 of whom were locals with residential addresses on Oahu and three of whom had either a hotel address, no address listed or an unknown address. This meant that as many as 13 of the 15 could have been local.”
Written By: Ali Wolf