NEW YORK, Oct 21 2020 (IPS) - The fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic continues: as more people around the world lose their livelihoods, human trafficking is on the rise. Support services for survivors have been shut, and past gains to combat it have been reversed. Funding has dried up.

Harold D’Souza

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, Harald left his job in India as a manager for a tech company and was promised a $75,000 business development job at his friend’s factory. When he arrived in the US, there was no job. 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 much as 16 hours a day. Eventually his employer took his legal documents and forced him to take a six-figure loan from a bank and kept the money. During their ordeal, they were verbally and physically abused, his wife was sexually assaulted, and eventually, the employer hired a hitman to kill Harald. Today, the perpetrator is still free, as US laws fall short.

The D’Souzas were one of a few lucky ones to beat the odds. After a four-year ordeal, the D’Souza’s escaped their situation and started a new life. It was not easy to overcome the trauma and scars.

D’Souza committed to help victims, founding Eyes Open International, which focuses on combating modern-day slavery. He was appointed by President Obama to the US Advisory Council on Human Trafficking, and lectures globally on the topic.

He spoke to Anna Shen about the state of human trafficking, his 10-day trip across parts of the US meeting survivors, a film about his life, and more.

Q. What is the current state of affairs with human trafficking in the US?

With the pandemic, it has increased. The perpetrators are more aggressive, and law enforcement has so much on their hands, and governments are busy. Victims are more economically unstable and they become victims of labor and sex trafficking. I am so shocked – I tell Indians not to come to the US, and they are willing to pay money to an agent. There are so many agents manipulating them. The agents are charging anywhere from $40,000 to $100,000 and people are paying.

Q. What happens once to a person once they pay a trafficker?

Once they get to the US, out of ten, two do not reach the US – eight die on the way, they are caught or deported. This year, 311 Indians were deported from the Mexican borders. It is horrific. A lot of people in India 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. India, Pakistan, Nepal and Mexico are the origins of the trafficking. There is a saying in India, “Going to America is like going to heaven.” Nobody is sharing the actual facts about what happens here.

Q. You just took a 10-day road trip to meet with the survivors of human trafficking. What did you learn?

A. Over ten days, I drove through Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Indianapolis and Chicago. What I learned was that during the pandemic nobody goes to meet the victims, so they cannot get help and are more isolated than ever. Pantries and churches are closed. Most of them are undocumented and do not get the stimulus package. Many are suicidal and live in constant fear.

Perpetrators are getting smarter and are one step ahead of the enforcement agencies. Victims are out of the house looking for any odd jobs or help, so perpetrators driving around can find them more easily and exploit them. They might be standing on a street corner, asking for work or donations. 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?

Our focus has always been on victims – most perpetrators are very affluent and high status. When you prosecute one perpetrator you save 100 victims. 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.

Laws have to be changed and penalties have to be stiffer. Media plays a very big role, as coverage will intimidate perpetrators. Also, victims need to talk, but this requires courage.

Q. There is so much focus on the police these days, how should they be trained?

A. Law enforcement are overwhelmed these days 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 human trafficking in front of them. For example, recently an officer stopped someone for speeding and sees five people in the car, he questioned them where they were going. They found one passenger in the car was a sex trafficking victim and they rescued her. The training needs to be global, but 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’ve learned about victims in general?

A. There is so much focus on getting them 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 or 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 because they are afraid 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-up man I still faced it and 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 empowerment of community members, especially vulnerable populations globally.

When I’m honest, no one can stop me. I will help, and no perpetrator will stand in my way. I don’t know where I got it. I thank God every day.