Group Opposing Human Trafficking Is Helping Victims

By David Anthony Denny
USINFO Staff Writer

Washington - Like those who operated America’s "Underground Railroad" of the mid-19th century, the dedicated people of the Polaris Project are combating slavery: the current-day slavery of human trafficking.  The Polaris Project is named in recognition of fugitive slaves' reliance on the North Star – Polaris - as they traveled toward freedom.

In just five years, Polaris has had successes in fighting human trafficking and demonstrated the effective partnerships that can be built between nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and government.

Founded by two people, Polaris now has employees in Washington, New Jersey, Denver and Tokyo.  So far, about 200 young people from a dozen or so countries have joined Polaris' staff, volunteering from across the United States and as far away as South Korea, Japan and Peru.

In Washington, Polaris operates its Greater D.C. Trafficking Intervention Program in the District of Columbia, Northern Virginia and Washington’s Maryland suburbs.  The D.C. Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Program has provided services to more than 120 victims of trafficking.  It receives support from the U.S. Justice Department, the D.C. Office of the Deputy Mayor of Public Safety and Justice, the Peace Development Fund and private donors.

To help trafficking victims, Polaris provides direct services, emergency shelter and referrals for human trafficking victims.  Victims' needs that Polaris meets directly include: emergency and transitional shelter, clothing and food, legal services, court and appointment accompaniment, crisis intervention, interpretation/translation, protection/safety planning, social service advocacy, transportation, victim/witness assistance and emotional support.

National Program Director Bradley Myles told USINFO in a recent interview that Polaris is involved heavily with local and federal government offices throughout the Washington area.

Polaris collaborates with child welfare agencies in Washington to conduct training about trafficking, Myles said.  It also holds group workshops and outreach for girls in juvenile detention who might be trafficking victims and conducts similar programs for adult females in the D.C. jail.  Additionally, local judges and law clerks can call Polaris to identify more victims in specific pending trafficking cases, he said.

"One of the biggest collaborations we do is through all the different government agencies that are on the Washington D.C. Human Trafficking Task Force," Myles said.

The D.C. Task Force on Trafficking in Persons was formed about three years ago to focus the resources of the Criminal and Civil Rights divisions of the Department of Justice, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia, the FBI and the Metropolitan Police Department on the problem of human trafficking in the District of Columbia.  The task force works closely with community organizations and victim-support groups.

Polaris, Myles said, has trained building code inspectors to identify signs of trafficking in the buildings they inspect. “We have partnered with different D.C. Police Department units for training,” he said, and they “call us afterward if there's a raid on a brothel or other type of trafficking network in Washington to conduct outreach and provide victim services.”

In one early Polaris case, Myles said, a newspaper reported women at a massage parlor had been arrested and detained for deportation.  Polaris, recognizing signs of trafficking, asked defense attorneys and immigration officials to meet the women.  Over the course of several meetings, Polaris ascertained that the women’s circumstances met the federal definition of human trafficking - the use of force, fraud or coercion - and helped the women secure their freedom.  Polaris, working with partner agencies, helped the women apply for visas to stay in the United States.

"We were able to make a huge difference in the lives of these women who were on the brink of deportation," Myles said.

In another case, an officer trained by Polaris encountered two potential trafficking victims who had been brought to Washington from somewhere in the Midwest for prostitution. The women did not know in which city they were living.  The women used the Polaris hot line card given to them by the officer to tell Polaris they were in danger.  The organization immediately called in the D.C. Task Force, which assisted the women.  

"That's the result of our hot line cards getting into the right hands," Myles said.

At its core, Polaris is a grassroots, community organization, said Myles.  "We're trying to facilitate, foster, and catalyze a community to take ownership of this issue.  We believe that will be the most sustainable solution in the long term to fight human trafficking."

For additional information on U.S. policy, see 2007 Trafficking in Persons Report.