Helping those hurt by human trafficking

By Charley Shaw, St Paul Legal Ledger 

Victim Fights Back: 100K Fed Grant Keeps Outreach Alive

Bukola Oriola came to Minnesota from Nigeria in 2005 to join the man who was chosen to be her husband.

The two had been introduced over the phone by a friend of the man’s, and their families had agreed to a traditional marriage. Bukola thought she was going to start a new chapter in her life in the United States that would involve pursuing her career as a journalist.

But her life here quickly became more of a nightmare, Bukola, 32, explained in fluent English at a state Capitol news conference on Thursday.

During the next two years Bukola became a victim of human trafficking – at the hands of the man she married.

“I was alone in the house. I cried to go out. I was always looking forward to Sunday to go to church,” Bukola said.

When she was pregnant, the man had her confined to the house. After she gave birth, she was turned into the man’s sex slave. When the man realized she could braid hair, he’d have her work in Brooklyn Park and then take her wages, even after her visa expired.

“I didn’t know there was help out there,” said Bukola, who now lives in Anoka.

During the news conference, Bukola didn’t cry when she recounted the details of her own life. She didn’t cry until she started to explain the neglect her low-weight son endured – then the tears started streaming down her face. And they continued as she described the people who helped her escape the situation, got her documentation and provided the services she needed to help get her life back.

“I’m speaking out today to help others,” Bukola said.

That help for victims comes from a variety of organizations in Minnesota that provide outreach and counseling to Minnesota’s growing number of human trafficking victims. Those efforts got some assistance from the federal government earlier this month when theU.S. Health and Human Services Department awarded $100,000 to the St. Paul-based victim advocacy group Civil Society.

Linda Miller, an attorney and Civil Society’s executive director, said the money will be sent to small nonprofits that identify victims of human trafficking and try to get them to seek help.

Minnesota is among 13 states with the highest instances of human and sex trafficking. The issue briefly gained headlines in May 2007 when 25 traffickers were arrested in a Minneapolis prostitution raid. Miller said the Minneapolis house was providing sex to 60 men a day.

Minnesota has a high rate of human trafficking in part because it has a long border with Canada; it also has a couple of large immigrant communities that can easily conceal human-trafficking activities, Miller said.

The difficult economic times have squeezed organizations that provide outreach for people in trouble, Miller said. For example, Centro Legal, the long-time legal services provider for Minnesota’s Latino community, closed its doors last month.

Although Civil Society has received federal grants larger than $100,000 in the past, the money is crucial to continue to operate outreach services.

“It isn’t (enough). But we have to be thankful for what we get,” Miller said.

At the state Legislature, human-trafficking bills were introduced during the legislative session that ended last Monday. There were some victories and some setbacks for the advocates.

Lawmakers continued to pay for the Minnesota Human Trafficking Crisis and Tip Line, which is operated by Civil Society. Lawmakers, however, didn’t fund the Trafficking Victim Screening Clinic grant program.

Miller said the screening program is a reason her organization has been successful in finding victims of human trafficking. “That’s why we have found more human trafficking victims than any other NGO (nongovernmental organization) in the country.”

Rep. Joe Mullery, DFL-Minneapolis, sponsored a bill (which was part of an omnibus bill that didn’t survive conference committee) that would give human trafficking victims the right to sue their trafficker. Mullery said he will offer the bill again in 2010, because he believes it could provide a useful tool in the fight against human and sex trafficking by hurting the traffickers financially.

“It’s a much better approach in many cases because it’s very hard to prove the beyond-a-reasonable-doubt for a criminal action, whereas it’s only a ‘preponderance of the evidence’ for a civil action. So we have a chance to really hit them in the pocketbook, which is a way to get them when we’re not going to be able to put them in prison,” Mullery said.

Meanwhile, Bukola has dreams of returning to the journalism profession. She’s also looking for a publisher to print a book she’s written about her experiences. But for now, she has her braiding hair business in Anoka, is caring for her son and is trying to regain her footing.

“I need to stand on my feet and balance before I take the next step,” Bukola said.


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