World Day Against Trafficking in Persons: Modern slavery horror revealed by survivor turned victims’ advocate

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The National Human Trafficking Hotline can be reached at 1-888-373-7888. In an emergency, call 911.

Shandra Woworuntu is a human trafficking survivor, and July 30 is World Day Against Trafficking in Persons – designated as such by the United Nations in 2013

“July 30 is important, and for me, July 30 is my day, my victory,” she told Fox News Digital. “Survivors’ inclusion is needed to end human trafficking.”

Formerly a banker in Indonesia, her company laid her off amid a period of political turmoil, so she decided to respond to a job advertisement offering work in Chicago in 2001.

Shandra Woworuntu is a human trafficking survivor who founded the nonprofit group Mentari to help people like her resume a normal life.

Shandra Woworuntu is a human trafficking survivor who founded the nonprofit group Mentari to help people like her resume a normal life. (Shandra Woworuntu/Mentari)

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The listing was a lie, and traffickers kidnapped her after she landed at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, she said. She was 25 years old, and she entered a world of horror and violence. 

“I was picked up from the airport and taken straight to the brothel,” she told Fox News Digital. “I was sold to different places, brothel to brothel.”

She still suffers anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and flashbacks, she said.

Her traffickers forced her and other victims to take drugs at gunpoint, raped them and denied them clothing. They were forced to perform sex acts on strange men at all hours of the day. The traffickers threatened and used violence.

Shandra Woworuntu, an international advocate for trafficking survivors, smiles in an undated photo.

Shandra Woworuntu, an international advocate for trafficking survivors, smiles in an undated photo. (Shandra Woworuntu/Mentari)

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“The gun, the knife and the baseball bat were fixtures in a shifting and unstable world,” as she put it in a 2016 essay for the BBC.

After several escape attempts, she told Fox News Digital, she broke out through a bathroom window and fled into the streets of New York. But at the time, she didn’t speak English, and the kidnappers had stolen her passport.

“When I escaped, I actually didn’t know anyone, and I didn’t know American life outside the brothel,” she told Fox News Digital. “I sought help from law enforcement, the community, even the Indonesian consulate office…No one understood I was a victim until I met someone who connected me with the FBI.”

The FBI hooked her up with NYPD detectives as well as an agent from Homeland Security who she said helped her get back on her feet.

For the first time since her kidnapping, she said, she felt safe.

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“I was amazed at the treatment I received from this agent,” she said. “He understood my trauma, he gave me time, and when he asked me a question, they provided me with a translator.”

But most important, she said, was a simple act of kindness off the bat.

“He asked me, ‘Would you like some water?’” she recalled. “It was the first impression that they were thinking about me, what I needed. ‘Are you cold? Would you like a coat?’”

The agent set her up with English-language classes, made sure she had food, housing and pocket money and checked in on her regularly, she said.

“Just giving me a smile, it was comforting, because I had nobody,” she said. “But through the treatment from this agent, I felt safe, and I felt secure and in good hands.”

Finally, she felt human again, she said.

“Without his help, without his support, without his attention, I wouldn’t have survived like who I am now,” she said.

During her time in captivity, she said, she kept a detailed diary. She showed investigators, and it helped them raid the brothel and arrest her traffickers.

She led police back to the location, and they rescued the other women inside, she said. 

“I remembered how to get to the brothel in Brooklyn, Sunset Park, and I mentioned that my trafficker had a gun,” she said. “It was like a movie, agents with the guns, snipers covering everything surrounding the brothel…So my trafficker was arrested and the girls got help.”

Police covered a hole in the wall with newspaper, she said, and let her peek through to positively identify the suspects.

After that, she said, although she’d been freed, she was still afraid the traffickers would harm her or her family back in Indonesia. She also wound up homeless, until detectives matched her up with a Homeland Security program that enabled her to find housing and other necessities.

She testified against her traffickers, and they were convicted.

In 2014 she founded Mentari, a nonprofit program designed to empower survivors.

She said she couldn’t go back into banking because the experience had been too traumatic. And after years in therapy and other treatments, she still has flashbacks.

“I have a wonderful support system, professionally, religious, my own family,” she said. “I have so much joy from helping other people because this is my journey, my own healing journey. I keep moving forward towards the solution.”

Homeland Security's Parole and Law Enforcement Programs Unit manages law enforcement requests for Continued Presence, a program that allows foreign nationals trafficked in the U.S. who are potential witnesses to remain lawfully in the country and be authorized to work.

Homeland Security’s Parole and Law Enforcement Programs Unit manages law enforcement requests for Continued Presence, a program that allows foreign nationals trafficked in the U.S. who are potential witnesses to remain lawfully in the country and be authorized to work. (Immigration and Customs Enforcement)

HSI also plays the leading role in a federal program that allows foreign trafficking victims to legally remain in the U.S. called Continued Presence. It allows them to testify as witnesses against their traffickers while also granting legal work authorization as they recover.

“Don’t be afraid of them because they’re associated with the Department of Homeland Security and immigration enforcement,” Woworuntu is urging potential victims. “Don’t be afraid about immigration if you are a potential victim, if you are a victim of trafficking – Homeland Security actually gives you hope. They will find help for you to recover. They empower you to heal, make connections with service providers, and they will make sure you are safe. Don’t be afraid.

And HSI teams up with American and foreign law enforcement agencies to arrest traffickers around the world.

“Combating human trafficking is a top priority for the Department of Homeland Security and HSI plays an integral role in working with law enforcement partners around the globe to deter, disrupt, and dismantle criminal network engaged in this heinous crime,” David Magdycz, acting assistant director of HSI International Operations, said Friday as a team of HSI agents was helping to train their counterparts from Germany and Switzerland.

The agency has helped investigate suspected traffickers as diverse as Mexican cartels, New York restaurant owners, MS-13 gang members and even the disgraced R&B singer R. Kelly.

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R. Kelly was found guilty on all counts after his racketeering and sex trafficking trial.

R. Kelly was found guilty on all counts after his racketeering and sex trafficking trial. (AP Newsroom, File)

Use and Abuse of Technology

This year’s theme for the Day Against Trafficking in Persons is the “use and abuse of technology,” according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Cherstyn Stockwell, a founding board member of the Dahlia’s Hope nonprofit that aids trafficking survivors, said many cases begin when victims meet traffickers online or through apps. The State Department also warned that traffickers increasingly use social media to ensnare and advertise victims.

“For a lot of survivors in our program, it had to do with being lured online,” she told Fox News Digital. “Not just chatrooms, dating sites and all the typical common social media platforms.”

To reduce the risk, the UN recommends using strict privacy settings, being wary of strange friend requests, avoiding advertisements that seem too good to be true – and “don’t overshare.” Parents should also be on the lookout for adults who befriend and groom children online.

The internet has also become a tool to raise awareness and train the public on how to spot and report trafficking, according to Stockwell

“We’ve seen everything,” Stockwell said. “It’s often not like Hollywood movie kidnapping – it’s typically someone that you know and are familiar with, whether family or a trusted adult.”

Since 2000, 55% of sex trafficking victims have been recruited online.

Since 2000, 55% of sex trafficking victims have been recruited online. (Human Trafficking Institute)

She recommends online trainings from another Utah-based nonprofit, OnWatch.

“If you don’t to look for things, you’re going to miss it,” Stockwell said. And often people who see something unusual may convince themselves not to report it, she said. That’s where things go wrong.

“Don’t talk yourself out of it,” she said. “You don’t have to be the expert – just call the Trafficking in Persons Hotline. There’s no reason not to report it.”

She also suggested just starting a conversation with a potential victim.

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“Say, ‘I Oh I like your hair,’ and see if they look you in the eye and smile, or if they hurry and look to the adult, wait for permission to speak – classic sign,” she said.

Asking people how they’re doing can also help.

“There are a lot of survivors out there who have said, ‘No one asked me. I was crying one time on a public bench and none one even said, are you doing OK?’” she said.

Doing so could save a life.

Other warning signs can include victims being forced to live where they work or transported from home to work by an escort; individuals appear to be monitored by another person when talking or interacting with others; or a controlling person or a sponsor who will not allow possible victims to meet or speak with anyone alone or monitors their movements and communications.

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By the Numbers

Roughly 25 million people around the globe are victims of trafficking, according to the State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report. The UN says that in the past 15 years, the share of child trafficking victims has tripled – and the number of boys increased five times over. 

According to DHS, one in four victims of human trafficking or modern-day slavery are children – and most forced laborers, including forced sex workers, are women and girls.

Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) personnel surround a man as he exits from a residence in southwest Houston, Texas, U.S., April 30, 2021. Police responding to reports of a kidnapping said they had found more than 90 people crammed into a two-story suburban Houston home and suspected it was being used in a human smuggling operation.  

Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) personnel surround a man as he exits from a residence in southwest Houston, Texas, U.S., April 30, 2021. Police responding to reports of a kidnapping said they had found more than 90 people crammed into a two-story suburban Houston home and suspected it was being used in a human smuggling operation.   (REUTERS/Adrees Latif)

In fiscal year 2021, the DOJ also provided $22.3 million in funding to 15 state and local anti-trafficking task forces, according to the TIP – a $5 million increase from 2020. That’s in addition to $60 million for programs supporting victims across the U.S.

Law enforcement agencies at the state, local and federal levels are all involved in the fight against human trafficking – but the federal government’s main investigators into human trafficking are from the Justice Department, DHS and State Department. 

Homeland Security Investigations is a division of the Department of Homeland Security, which spearheaded more than 1,100 trafficking investigations in FY 2021, according to the State Department – almost twice as many as the Justice Department, which opened 603 investigations. The State Department led 111. State and local law enforcement also handle investigations of their own.

In the same fiscal year, the Justice Department initiated 228 human trafficking prosecutions and secured 208 convictions.

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Trafficking investigations involving American citizens as well as foreign nationals have occurred in all 50 states as well as Washington, D.C., and other U.S. territories.

Human trafficking is also known as trafficking in persons and modern day slavery – and includes both forced labor and forced commercial sex.

A digital information board warns female refugees from Ukraine, amid Russia's invasion, at the central station of Duesseldorf, Germany March 31, 2022. The board reads "victim of violence or human trafficking?"

A digital information board warns female refugees from Ukraine, amid Russia’s invasion, at the central station of Duesseldorf, Germany March 31, 2022. The board reads "victim of violence or human trafficking?" (REUTERS/Max Brugger)

Survivor-led organizations like Mentari and Dahlia’s Hope “play a vital role” in fighting trafficking, according to the report.

And that’s important, according to Woworuntu, because if people had been aware of the warning signs, the brothel that enslaved her and other women could have been broken up well before her escape.

The traffickers set it up in the middle of a residential community, she said, and despite frequent illicit visits, no one alerted authorities.

“If we see a younger child with an older man, sometimes we feel that’s unusual, but seldom will you see that because the trafficker is smart,” she said. “But if there’s a building your neighborhood, and only male guests enter the building, it’s possibly an illegal brothel. That’s how they trafficked me.”

It takes an entire community to notice the red flags and report them, she said.

In 2015, the State Department estimated more than 1.2 million people were being trafficked within the United States. According to Dahlia’s Hope, a Utah-based nonprofit dedicated to helping victims rebuild their lives, there are currently less than 1,000 spaces available in aftercare programs to treat survivors.

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“Human trafficking is a crime that violates the basic human rights of freedom, safety and dignity,” Cara Durfee, the chief operating officer of Dahlia’s Hope, told Fox News Digital. “As an organization committed to providing holistic, trauma-informed aftercare services to survivors of sex trafficking, Dahlia’s Hope is proud to join other organizations on World Day Against Trafficking in Persons in raising awareness of the plight of human trafficking and calling for an end to these insidious crimes. Our mission is clear: We want human trafficking survivors in all stages of recovery to know that meaningful, successful and independent lives are attainable.”

Dahlia’s Hope was founded in 2019 in honor of a victim of a trafficking ring that brought juvenile girls from Mexico into the U.S. for sex trafficking.

Five members of the Melendez-Rojas organization, a family-run trafficking ring, were sentenced to decades in prison earlier this year after an international investigation led by HSI’s New York office, according to the DOJ.

Acting Special Agent in Charge, Homeland Security Investigations Ricky Patel speaks during press conference at US Attorney Office library on May 5, 2022.

Acting Special Agent in Charge, Homeland Security Investigations Ricky Patel speaks during press conference at US Attorney Office library on May 5, 2022. (Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

A dozen victims were rescued, according to authorities.

They had been trafficked into the U.S. from Mexico and forced to perform commercial sex acts as many as 45 times a day, seven days a week. Some were kidnapped as young as 14.

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One victim, rescued by HSI when she was 17, had been trafficked at 15 and subjected to multiple forced abortions, beatings and rapes, according to investigators. She also miscarried another pregnancy.

The victims were also told that if they alerted authorities, their families would be killed.

“The traffickers in this case used deception and coercion to sell dreams of a better life in the United States to young and impressionable women, who arrived only to be forced into a life of torment, misery, sexual abuse and prostitution at the hands of their captors,” HSI New York’s Acting Special Agent-in-Charge Ricky Patel said after the suspects’ sentencing.

The National Human Trafficking Hotline can be reached at 1-888-373-7888. In an emergency, call 911.