Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times
Welcome to America.
“It’s not easy,” she said with a shrug. “Yeah, but what can I do?”
She is used to doing whatever she must to survive. Born 68 years ago in Nigeria, she has been a seamstress, a trader and even a farmer. She said that in 1988, widowed and with two children to support, she agreed to come to the United States to cook, clean and care for the children of a Nigerian couple living in Staten Island. She said they promised to pay her $300 a month. There were promises of a house and tuition, she added, for her two children back home.
She admits now that she toiled 12 years for a paycheck that never came. Not one cent.
Encouraged by friends from her church, she worked up the courage to leave the family in 2000. Still, she refused to report the family to the authorities.
“I did not want to have a bad name,” she said, in the basement that is her home in freedom. “That somebody took me from Nigeria to America and I made trouble for them. I know my people. They would say I went to America to make trouble. That would not be good for me.”
This is not uncommon, said advocates for victims of human trafficking. Fear, uncertainty and cultural taboos make it hard for women like Ms. Okeke to speak out. Although human trafficking has been a federal crime since 2000, efforts in the New York State Assembly to criminalize human trafficking and provide services for its victims have yet to succeed while advocates and politicians struggle to reconcile competing concerns over punishment and assistance.
“It’s amazing that we have not passed a law,” said Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, who started working on such a bill three years ago to enable local police departments and prosecutors to go after offenders. “For the most part, victims of human trafficking are not your typical poster child, so there is no urgency. And one of the biggest challenges is the victims are afraid to come forward, since there are so many burdens placed on them.”
Although politicians — especially at the federal level — inveigh against human trafficking as a crime that enslaves thousands of people, especially women forced into prostitution, policy experts said there were no reliable figures on the extent of the problem. The federal government cites a figure of up to 800,000 people being trafficked internationally, with more than 14,000 of those entering this country.
But those figures were criticized as flawed in a report issued last year by the Government Accountability Office, an investigative arm of Congress, which concluded that the government actually had no “effective mechanism” for estimating victims.
In what is believed to be the first effort of its kind in the nation, the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice has begun a research project in New York City to develop better methods of identifying and counting victims of human trafficking.
In the absence of reliable figures, prosecutors and policy makers said, human trafficking is often cast in terms of the global sex trade, partly because there are more systematic methods like raids on brothels to root out its victims, as well as advocacy groups helping them.
“A lot of claims have been made by various agencies of the U.S. Government, lobbyists and activists that sex trafficking is the bigger problem, but there is no evidence to support that,” said one policy expert who spoke on condition of anonymity in order not to jeopardize relationships with advocacy groups and government officials. “And I am not sure that having the numbers will help the claims people have been trying to make.”
One federal prosecutor who has successfully brought cases against traffickers in the city said that people forced into labor as factory workers or domestic help might be more the norm than people would think. But they are also hard to root out because they are out of sight and isolated from the public.
Ms. Okeke said she spent her 12 years living in the basement of a house on a dead-end street on the north shore of Staten Island. In 1988, she said, a relative of Marco and Grace Mbadiwe approached her in her village with the promise of work in the United States. She accepted, expecting to be paid $300 a month.