‘Modern Hawaii was built on human trafficking’

  • STEPHANIE SALMONS/Tribune-Herald
    The topic of human trafficking took center stage Monday during a discussion panel hosted by the Zonta Club of Hilo. Pictured, from left, are panelists Zahava Zaidoff, James Steffen, Jeanne Kapela, Suzanna Tiapula and Khara Jabola-Carolus.

Money and power are some of the driving forces behind human trafficking, individuals fighting the issue said earlier this week. And it’s a matter that hits closer to home than one might think.

The topic of trafficking took center stage Monday during a discussion panel hosted by the Zonta Club of Hilo.

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The Zonta Club is part of Zonta International, a global organization whose mission is to empower women through service and advocacy.

“We’re hosting this special panel discussion about human trafficking to explore and educate the community on all aspects of human trafficking,” moderator Kathleen McGilvray, CEO of YWCA of Hawaii Island, told the audience at the start of the two-hour discussion.

More than two dozen community members attended the forum, which featured five panelists fighting against human trafficking in Hawaii.

In discussing the issue broadly, panelist Khara Jabola-Carolus, executive director of the state Commission on the Status of Women, told the crowd that “human trafficking is the foundation of Hawaii as we know it. Modern Hawaii was built on human trafficking — both labor and sex trafficking — and so it’s really baked into our economy. I think that the narrative of choice has often obscured the fact that a lot of the migration and a lot of the work that’s being done was done under less-than-free choice.

“For example, I’m Filipina, and the first 12 years of Filipino migration to Hawaii was what would legally be considered labor trafficking under today’s federal and state definitions,” she continued. “So it’s something that’s been so normalized and so painful to discuss, and I think many of us have a direct connection in terms of either our families right now or our heritage to this issue.”

While a lot of responses focus on sex trafficking, panelist Suzanna Tiapula, from the county prosecutor’s office, said labor trafficking is more common.

“When we throw out numbers and percentages, that’s based on the fact that we investigate and prosecute very little,” she said. “We’re at the tip of the iceberg. So what I say in terms of percentages, and that tiny little percentage we have seen thus far, about 60 percent of what we see is labor trafficking. And almost half of our victims, for all labor and sex (trafficking), are male, but almost all of our system responses are for females.”

Most victims do not self-identify as such, said Tiapula.

“When I’m looking for trafficking, I’m looking for the marginalized,” she said. “Who is denied protections under the systems of law? Who do we not see? Who does not have access to language? Who cannot attend school? … Who cannot participate?”

Panelist Jeanne Kapela, founder and executive director of UNITE Hawaii, told the crowd that her nonprofit is dedicated to ending sexual exploitation through education.

Kapela, who was Miss Hawaii 2015, launched UNITE Hawaii as part of her Miss America platform.

“When I first decided that I wanted my platform to be on sex trafficking, my pageant director told me that I shouldn’t do it because it’s too dark,” Kapela said. “And that’s how most people think of the issue. It’s a dark issue, you shouldn’t talk about it, and that’s really why it exists.”

Trafficking, she said, is a “very personal thing to me.” Her cousin was a victim.

“The reality is we think of trafficking as an ‘over there’ issue. It’s something that could never happen here in the state of Hawaii … but it does.”

For his part, panelist James Steffen, an officer with the Hawaii County Police Department, who said he took a promotion to the HPD’s Juvenile Aid Section several years ago, discussed the difficulty of getting young victims to open up about “these dark, dark things that happen to them.”

“I guess how I see the problem of human trafficking is a lack of respect for human beings,” said final panelist Zahava Zaidoff, a certified prevention specialist. “I would never treat a human being I respected as a person like a commodity. … If we want to start with awareness and education at some level, we need to really be clear on the fact that every human being, no matter what age, no matter what political affiliation … we’re all deserving of basic human dignity, and the second that we decide that any human — because they’re from a different place, they speak a different language, they’re a different color, they look different — isn’t deserving of basic human dignity, human trafficking exists.”

When the panel was asked how to differentiate between human trafficking, modern day slavery, and sex work, Tiapula said sex trafficking is sex provided through force, fraud or coercion, if the individual providing sex for money is an adult, and any child who has provided any sexual act for money.

“So a 17-year-old cannot consent,” she said. “A 17-year-old who provides any sexual act for money, that is trafficking.”

Likewise, labor trafficking is any labor that’s procured through force, fraud or coercion, Tiapula said.

Payment does not have to be cash, and while “trafficking” implies movement, Tiapula said no movement is required for trafficking.

“Language is so important because it obliges us to think about an issue in a certain way, so it’s very deliberate when we use these terms,” Jabola-Carolus said.

“We have to be careful because there is danger in conflating a lot of this, but there’s also danger in inaccuracy in bifurcating them. So we want to make this binary, right? Black and white. Sex trafficking way over here, and a completely different circle for prostitution … but, really, it’s a spectrum.”

When asked by an audience member about the magnitude of sex and human trafficking on the Big Island, Steffen said, “I don’t know how to answer that — how big is the problem. I mean it’s a problem.”

Sexual assault or sexual assault of a minor could be sex trafficking “but maybe they’re not labeled as sex trafficking,” he said.

“We’re busy,” said Steffen. “But don’t get hung up on the numbers. The fact that it exists here is a problem.”

In the fight against trafficking, panelists urged awareness, advocacy and education, among other steps.

“I already think that you’re taking a big step by being here, by making yourselves aware,” Kapela said. “It really is a bystander effect, and that’s why sex trafficking really exists, because we let it exist. Many people would rather turn their head and blindly live their lives, thinking, ‘Oh, it doesn’t happen to me, it doesn’t happen here in Hawaii, it doesn’t happen in the U.S.,’ but it does. And those are the people (who) continue to perpetuate trafficking.”

The next step is to work with local legislators and “vote for people that care about these issues,” she said.

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“I think education’s a big deal,” Steffen said. “From our standpoint, I would say if you see kids out there, especially during the school days or even at night late, and it looks suspicious, just call.”

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.