‘Sisters’ help women trafficked from China for sex industry flee US massage parlours
Members of concern groups befriend suspected victims of trafficking and offer legal help and counselling
Susan Liu canvasses the streets in front of massage parlours in New York City once a month. Her goal: befriend women who work there, many of whom she believes have been trafficked for sex.
Liu is the director of women’s services at Garden of Hope, an organisation that provides trafficked women in massage parlours with counselling and lawyers.
“Many people do not know the background of these women, who are so brave to come over the ocean to a new place to find ways to support their families,” she said. “It’s about looking for a better life, just like any immigrant or any citizen in any country.”
Liu is part of a growing number of advocates trying to help trafficked women forced to sell sex in more than 9,000 massage parlours across the United States.
The anti-slavery group Polaris estimates that traffickers make US$2.5 billion a year from the trade, which mainly involves women from China and Korea working behind shopfronts on motorways and in shopping centres who live in fear of deportation.
After escort services, it is the second most common type of trafficking reported to the charity’s national hotline, which received almost 14,000 calls last year.
Many of the women are illegal immigrants who are recruited by traffickers promising legitimate jobs and later asked to perform sex acts, campaigners say. They speak little or no English and, according to advocates, are kept quiet with threats and moved to different locations every few weeks.
Websites like Rubmaps.com, where men review massage parlours that offer sexual services, are helping to fuel the crime but identifying traffickers and their victims is difficult, police and campaigners say.
Trafficked women in massage parlours are often assaulted by their customers but they feel helpless because they fear the police and cannot speak English, advocates say.
“What we were hearing from those women is when they said ‘no’, the customers would beat them up, they would rape them, they would try to strangle some of our clients,” said Lori Cohen, director of Sanctuary for Families, a support group.
One survivor recalled finding a massage parlour job online, and being told she would not have to offer “full service” – intercourse – or other sexual services.
“When I started working, I was asked to compensate for the fees lost if I refused to provide ‘full service’ to the customer,” said the woman, who declined to give her name. “I have been beaten up by customers … I had also been threatened by a customer with a knife before when I refused to provide ‘full service’.”
Still, she said that she was afraid of losing the job because she did not have a work permit and needed to repay the agent who applied for her tourist visa, as well as support her son.
“There’s a tremendous amount of fear in the immigrant community that if a victim tries to seek help, she will be arrested and deported,” Cohen said.
Police have charged workers with prostitution in an effort to target the trade, which makes them distrust the force.
Police officers in New York have visited massage parlours with Mandarin-speaking staff from groups like Garden of Hope to encourage victims to come forwards.
“We have to gain the trust of a population that doesn’t necessarily trust law enforcement,” said inspector Jim Klein.
Victims often hesitate to get their traffickers in trouble as they look to them for guidance, so building new support networks is vital, said Liu.
Some who manage to escape from the trafficking network go on to volunteer as counsellors at the organisation.
“This feels like I’m coming home to my family,” said Liu. “A lot of times, they will call their counsellors my jie jie (sister).”