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Brown grads shine a light on human trafficking

Derek Ellerman recalls hearing about the case several years ago of a Korean woman who was prostituted at a local massage parlor after being illegally brought into the US, and then Rhode Island, with the understanding that she would work as a waitress. When police raided the operation, however, the owner got off with a fine, he says, and the woman ó who showed signs of having been burned with a cigarette ó was deported. Despite this seeming discrepancy, "There was no sense that something wrong happened here," Ellerman recalls, other than a run-of-the-mill prostitution bust. In terms of the issues raised by the illegal global trade in human traffic, "We were shocked that it was happening right in our backyard and there was no reaction."

The episode helped to inspire Ellerman and Katherine Chon, a fellow graduate of Brown University, to establish the Polaris Project (www.polarisproject.org/), a Washington, DC-based nonprofit that combats the trafficking of woman and children, in 2002. "We knew it was such a severe problem now," Ellerman says, referring to estimates that 20,000 foreign nationals are illegally trafficked into the US each year (a far greater number of American woman and children are said to be internally trafficked for commercial sexual exploitation). "We just saw this incredible opportunity to make a significant impact."

Ellerman cut his organizational teeth while leading the advocacy group the Center for Police and Community, butting heads with the administration of former Providence police chief Urbano Prignano Jr. during the waning years of Buddy Cianciís second reign at City Hall. That may seem like childís play compared with the challenge of diminishing human trafficking, described by the Polaris Project as the third largest criminal industry in the world, after drugs and arms trafficking.

Although about 20 US groups examine trafficking, many of them focus exclusively on research or offering direct services to victims, Ellerman says. The Polaris Project emphasizes identifying victims and conducting broader human rights investigations with law enforcement organizations. The nationís capital was a natural site for basing the nonprofit, says Ellerman, since Washington, with New York City, is one of the major hubs for human trafficking on the East Coast.

After little more than two years of work, the Polaris Project has identified about 250 commercial sex operations in the DC area, collecting what Ellerman calls a significant amount of information about how they operate. The project ó funded mostly by congressional appropriations ó is staffed by three full-time employees and about a dozen fellows. It plans to extend to New York this summer a program in which Polaris representatives work collaboratively with police. (Chon, Ellermanís cofounder and co-director, was slated to speak Wednesday, April 21 at Brown on "Human Trafficking Today: Slavery and Justice in the 21st Century.")

Mindful of the extent and cost of human trafficking, Polaris representatives likely bear in mind the words of Mary Robison, former UN high commissioner on human rights, as quoted on the projectís Web site: "The sheer scope of the problem of trafficking almost defies description . . . [The victims] are the commodities of a transnational industry which generates billions of dollars and, almost without exception, operates with virtual impunity."

Issue Date: April 23 - 29, 2004
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