Salt Lake City is fighting human trafficking

by BRAD TAGGART

Human trafficking usually starts with despair and a desire for something better and often ends in tragedy. Human trafficking is the act of illegally transporting victims for slavery from one country to another. It has become increasingly common around the world.

Human trafficking is a multi-billion-dollar industry that relies on hopelessness and unawareness as a means of luring individuals and families to be tricked and sold into slavery. Deborah Bulkeley, a reporter with the Deseret News who has written several articles on human trafficking in Utah, said the majority of victims are women who are usually forced into prostitution.

“These women work just as any other prostitute would but do not receive any compensation for what they do, but rather get abused and suffer for their work,” Bulkeley said.

It is estimated that more than 12 million people are victims of human trafficking; 80 percent are female and 50 percent are under the age of 18, according to the End Human Trafficking Web site. Between 600,000 and 800,000 victims are trafficked across international borders every year and the numbers continue to increase.

Utah’s legislature is now stepping up to the challenge of combating human trafficking locally as well as nationally.

In 2006, The U.S. Department of Justice announced that Salt Lake City would receive $450,000 in grants to supplement a new human trafficking task force. The main priority is the proper training of law enforcement.

“One of the big needs is training of basically everyone from law enforcement to first responders to anyone who could be in a position to identify a case of human trafficking,” said Melodie Rydalch, public information officer for the Utah office of the U.S. Attorney. “We are convinced there are cases out there. We just need to look closer and ask more questions.”

Efforts to identify and prosecute human traffickers are being stepped up. The 79 national convictions involving human trafficking in fiscal year 2006 were more than double the convictions the previous year. Utah had two of those convictions.

With the success comes the knowledge that more needs to be done.

A few different organizations focus on the victims of human trafficking. The International Rescue Committee, headquartered in New York City, has a refugee resettlement office in Salt Lake City

Victims of human trafficking usually arrive at the IRC after they have been found, rescued and stabalized. “Most of our work is to stabilize the refugee until the persecution has stopped and then get them resettled into the country,” said Patrick Poulin, resettlement director for the IRC in Salt Lake.

“It’s important to establish protocols for helping victims once they’re rescued,” Rydalch said.

A second organization is the Utah Health and Human Rights Project. The agency “promotes the health, dignity, and self-sufficiency of refugees, asylees, and immigrants who have endured severe human rights abuses, including torture, war-related trauma, and human trafficking,” according to the UHHP Web site.

Catholic Community Services of Utah is another support group for refugees. CCS “provides comprehensive resettlement services to refugees from various regions of the world,” according to its Web site.

All agencies need volunteers and donations. IRC Salt Lake City, for example, is seeking warm winter clothing, comforters, gift cards to local grocery stores and other items. The office also holds orientation sessions for individuals interested in volunteering.

 “Money is a powerful tool,” Poulin said. “With money we can actually support these victims and give them food and shelter.”

Refugee caseworkers work long hours in Salt Lake City

by MICHAEL OLSON

Originally from Rwanda, Africa, Valentine Mukundente and her parents were relocated to Salt Lake City as refugees. Before they came to America, however, Mukundente and her family were sent to a refugee camp in Zambia where she spent her high school years. In Zambia, Mukundente worked as a translator for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees while her family waited to be relocated to America. She had learned French and Swahili as a child in Rwanda and English while in high school.

Mukundente is a resettlement caseworker at the International Rescue Committee in Salt Lake City. She has worked there for more than a year.

“I love working with refugees because I used to be one,” said Mukundente. Armed with experience as a refugee she is able to keep from getting burned out from the extreme demands on her time as a caseworker. Instead, she finds it easy to relate to the refugees she helps because she was a refugee herself.

Life as a refugee caseworker is not easy on family life. Mukundente recently married a man she knew from Rwanda. He came here as a refugee and now they have a 6-month-old baby boy.

“It’s difficult because we don’t have time to go home,” Mukundente said about their schedules. Sometimes they have to pick up a refugee family from the Salt Lake International Airport in the middle of the night.

Caseworkers take them to their new house and show them how to use the stove and other appliances. This is the first time most Africans and Burmese have seen a stove or a light switch, Mukundente said.

Sometimes refugees will visit the IRC’s downtown office on 400 South to ask questions or for help reading their mail, often just as Mukundente is on her way out the door to go home to her family. But she gladly stays late to help them. After all, she used to be a refugee herself.

Seven caseworkers are currently employed at the IRC. Mukundente is responsible for 30 cases, but some caseworkers handle as many as 70 cases at a time.

“That’s too much,” she said. If she were to focus on one of her 30 cases a day, it would take a month to get through them all.

A case may consist of a single refugee, or it could be an entire family, some with as many as 11 members.

Caseworkers at the Asian Association of Utah are just as busy. Lina Smith, the director of Utah Refugee Employment and the Community Center at the Asian Association, supervises six caseworkers, who handle between 50 and 70 cases each.

Smith has been with the Asian Association for eight years. Five of the six caseworkers she employs are currently or were at one time refugees.

“I find the refugees don’t get as burned out,” Smith said. “They have been through what the people in their cases are going through.” That motivates them to get the refugees through the difficult process of adjusting to life in Utah.

Of all the places for refugees to be resettled, Utah is one of the best locations in the nation, said Gerald Brown, director of the Refugee Services Office of the Utah Department of Workforce Services.

“People here tend to be willing to help,” Brown said. Some social workers have a tendency to become jaded, but that seems to happen less in Utah.

Brown said that the perfect workload would be 20 cases for every caseworker. Because of the shortage of caseworkers it is very important that they set boundaries to avoid getting burned out.

For example, caseworkers decide whether to give out their personal contact information.

“I have some caseworkers that give out their cell phone numbers and then they have to choose whether to answer it or not,” Smith said.

The IRC’s Mukundente usually chooses not to give out her cell phone number, but some refugees still find it out from friends who know their number.

When they call they usually just have a question that can be taken care of later. Mukundente asks the refugee if it can wait until during work hours when they can talk about it. If it is a genuine emergency, such as when a child falls and breaks his arm, Mukundente directs the family to call 911 or a person at the IRC who handles emergency situations and can translate for the refugees.

“We tell them when they first get here to call 911 in an emergency, but they forget,” Mukundente said. “The first person on their minds is their caseworker.”

Despite the stress and the long hours, Mukundente loves her job.

“People have something in their blood, something they like to do,” she said. “This is not a job you do for money. You do it because you love it.”

SLC refugee agencies fight for time, money

by BRADY LEAVITT

The flight attendant lifts the microphone to his lips and smiles. He announces that in an effort to cut costs the scheduled pilot has been laid off. Fortunately, a good-intentioned passenger has skimmed a copy of the pilot’s handbook and is volunteering to fly the plane.

It is a metaphor used by Patrick Poulin, the resettlement director of Salt Lake City’s International Rescue Committee, to describe the nonprofit world’s forced dependence on non-professionals in its work.

“Who would stay on the plane?” Poulin asked. “But when it’s poor people we say, ‘Let’s have volunteers do it.'”

The IRC is one of two refugee resettlement agencies in Salt Lake County and works to facilitate the transition of refugees into a foreign society. Locating the right people and the money with which to pay them is a problem that agencies like Poulin’s confront regularly. But progress can sometimes come in small steps.

One step came in February 2008 when Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. ordered the creation of theRefugee Services Office within the Department of Workforce Services. He ordered the appropriation of $200,000 to assist refugee resettlement efforts. Organizations like the IRC tend to rely primarily on the federal government to support their operations. Huntsman’s executive order marked the first time that state money has gone specifically to the aid of local refugees.

The unprecedented allocation is significant but only in a symbolic way, said Gerald Brown, director of the Refugee Services Office. Brown said the $200,000 represents less than 10 percent of the funding his office receives from the federal government, but it’s a start.

“It shows that the state is willing to invest money,” he said, but “we need a lot more money.”

The Refugee Services Office acts as a coordinator among various agencies and organizations, like the IRC. The office is responsible for routing federal funds to the groups. It also pays the salaries of a handful of social workers at the IRC.

The federal government has agreements with the IRC and nine other national nonprofit organizations to resettle refugees across the country. When a refugee comes into the care of a resettlement agency, the agency receives $425 of direct assistance for that person. An additional $425 is also given to pay for things like office space, utility bills and caseworkers’ salaries, at the organization’s discretion. But, much of the administrative funds end up being used as direct assistance

“$425 doesn’t go very far,” Poulin said. “We face a choice between paying [refugees’] rent or paying staff.”

It’s a difficult choice, Poulin said. According to the IRC’s 2007 financial statement, 90 percent of the funds it received were used in program services — relief, resettlement and others. Seven percent of the funds were for administrative costs. No specific guidelines exist to mandate how the federal money is used, but the IRC provides cash assistance and purchases goods and services on the refugees’ behalf. It creates the dilemma of trying to help more people or giving overworked staff pay raises.

“The problem,” Poulin said, “is that we can’t close our doors and we don’t want to.”

When they arrive in Salt Lake City, refugees who are eligible can enroll in support programs like Medicaid or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, programs available to the general public. Those who do not qualify can receive cash and medical assistance from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for up to eight months. However, after the eight-month period is up, they may only receive benefits based on eligibility. That means they could receive nothing.

To complicate matters further, the IRC’s charter only allows enough funding for caseworkers to work with refugees for six months before responsibility for that person is shifted to secondary organization, according to Poulin. This, he said, is where many refugees fall through the cracks.

Keeping refugees out of the cracks, then, is a problem of time and money — six months to help people who come from a foreign country, who may speak little or no English and who often have no family ties on the continent, much less Salt Lake City, become self-reliant.

“It’s not even six months in reality,” Brown said, noting that caseworkers are often overwhelmed by the number of people with whom they work. The IRC resettled 546 refugees in Salt Lake City during the 2007 fiscal year with over one-third arriving in September alone.

“One of the founding principles of the refugee program is, early as possible, self-sufficiency,” Brown said. It is a good idea in theory but is not always the best for the refugee, he said.

“When people come in, there’s a lot of pressure to put them into any kind of job as fast as you can do it,” Brown said.

However, it is difficult to focus on helping people be successful in a job when they are still grappling with a completely foreign environment. Poulin described a group of Burmese who were afraid to leave their homes in Salt Lake City homes after spending years in refugee camps in Thailand, not allowed to wander more than a few hundred yards from their compound. Volunteers and caseworkers struggled to help people feel comfortable doing every day tasks like going to the grocery store, riding public transportation and finding their way to and from school.

Working in such sensitive circumstances requires having people with the language capacity and professional training to do the job well, Poulin said. The IRC maintains a workforce of between 50 and 60 volunteers and a handful of paid employees, Poulin said. They cannot handle many more than this and still provide adequate support to the volunteers. What are needed, he said, are professionals.

“We’re trying to build our capacity to serve but we don’t want to just throw volunteers at refugees,” Poulin said.

The Refugee Services Office is working with resettlement organizations to build a trained volunteer network to assist in case management. It is working to secure additional funding for caseworkers’ salaries.  Both the IRC and the Refugee Services Office are working to extend the time they work with refugees from six months to 24 months, hopefully guiding more people to what Poulin calls the IRC’s ultimate goal: a person’s becoming a citizen of the United States.

“It’s going to be huge when we pull it off,” Brown said.