The Slave in the Garage

Sold by her parents and smuggled into the U.S., one young girl did a family's dirty work for two years. And then help arrived.

By Mary A. Fischer
Also in Reader's Digest Magazine May 2008

Law and Order
The United States started a program in 2000 to crack down on human trafficking and began ranking countries according to their willingness to eradicate the practice. In the most recent ranking, Egypt ended up just above the lowest tier. With urging from the United Nations, more than 100 countries have, in the past five years, passed or amended laws making human trafficking a crime. The State Department has also stepped up efforts to identify, investigate, and prosecute the crime domestically. One hundred and eleven people were charged with human trafficking in the U.S. in 2006; 98 were convicted. Shyima Hall’s case was the first one prosecuted in Orange County.

While on assignment in Sudan, reporter E. Benjamin Skinner met a man who had lived most of his life as a slave. The encounter inspired the new book A Crime So Monstrous: Face-to-Face with Modern-Day Slavery (Free Press), based on Skinner’s five-continent investigation of the human-trafficking trade.

RD: Why do you think slavery still exists?

Skinner: There are pockets around the world where people are absolutely desperate. Criminals will look at an individual with no education, financial resources, or access to credit, and say, “Here’s an opportunity to make money.” Until recently, there’s been little recognition by some countries that slavery still exists within their borders. That attitude contributes to the problem here.

RD: How so?

Skinner: There’s this idea that a domestic worker who’s quiet is probably lacking [immigration] papers, or that somebody on the street dressed a certain way is a prostitute.

A domestic worker who never leaves the house may, in fact, be a trafficked woman, and a prostitute may be a sex slave.

RD: How common is slavery in the U.S.?

Skinner: The low-end State Department estimate of people trafficked into the country annually is 14,500, and there are more than 43,000 slaves at any given time. Overall, about 2 percent get rescued, and the U.S. is one of the best in the world on this.

RD: What can the average citizen do?

Skinner: Victims get out of these situations when individuals say, “Something is wrong here.” So be aware of your neighborhood. Make sure elected officials put modern-day abolition on the American foreign policy agenda. Get involved with groups like Free the Slaves.

RD: What surprised you most about the victims you interviewed?

Skinner: The capacity of human beings to have their humanity ripped away, then rebuild their lives.

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