Efforts to stop sex-trafficking focus on hotels

By — June 9, 2017

Anneke Lucas survived being trafficked for sex not once, but twice.

“I was 9 years old when an elderly English-speaking man took me to the United States in his jet and sex-trafficked me in a luxurious hotel,” says Lucas, an anti-trafficking advocate and the founder of the nonprofit organization Liberation Prison Yoga.

“When I was 11, a similar thing happened with a French-speaking guy,” she tells me. “Both times there were numerous hotel staff around us, and I was never approached by anyone.”

I was speaking to Lucas in a Brooklyn coffee shop in April, admiring her calm, composed demeanor while she revealed intimate details of her childhood. Lucas, who credits yoga and mindfulness practice to her healing, is in her early 50s. She says that she hopes speaking openly about her experience will help other young women who are in a similar situation. 

According to the nongovernmental advocacy organization Polaris, which operates a national U.S. hotline on human trafficking, two of the most commonly reported venues for sex trafficking are hotels and motels. Data from Polaris show that from December 2007 to February 2015, there were more than 1,400 cases of human trafficking in the hospitality industry reported nationally. Yet advocates and experts suspect that because many workers in hospitality are immigrants and may fear being deported, this number is much higher. They predict that recent changes in U.S. immigration policies may contribute to a surge in trafficking.

Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy signs a bill giving law enforcement an additional tool to investigate minor sex trafficking and expanding access to victims. (Office of Governor Dan Malloy)

Lucas was born in Belgium. She says she was sold to a European pedophile network by her mother. The first time she was sexually abused, she says, was around her sixth birthday. She was raped repeatedly, made to perform in orgies and physically tortured. During her enslavement, she says, she was taken to high-class hotels in Europe and United States with men whose languages she didn’t speak. She was there without luggage, sometimes in dirty or plain clothes, and she was instructed to stay quiet. In her words, although she was a child, she looked sexualized.

According to the Blue Campaign, which was created by the Department of Homeland Security in 2013, some common indicators of trafficking in the hospitality industry include showing signs of fear or physical abuse, avoiding eye contact and interaction with others, having no control over or possession of money or ID, being dressed inappropriately for their age, or wearing lower-quality clothing compared to others in their party, and having few or no personal items.

Had the hotel workers been more aware of what sex trafficking looks like, Lucas’ fate could have been different.

Last year, a law passed in Connecticut that many advocates perceived as groundbreaking. It was the first in the country to address trafficking that could take place in hotels and motels. The law stipulates that hotel employees must receive training on how to identify signs that human trafficking might be happening in their establishments and how to recognize victims. The law also requires hotels and motels to post notices designed to raise awareness of human trafficking and to publicly display the telephone number of a sex-trafficking hotline.

After the Connecticut law was passed, Anneke Lucas started a petition advocating for a similar law in New York State. “I work with the victims of abuse in prisons, many of whom were trafficked but I wanted to do something on a larger scale,” says Lucas, adding that the parts of the law that mandate signs resonates with her. “You need to understand the mind of the victims. When I was trafficked at hotels, I had no idea that what was done to me was against the law. Reading a sign like that would have changed the way I was thinking at that time.” She says she believes she would have found a way to call the hotline had she seen a sign.

As of publication of this story, Lucas’ petition has garnered a few hundred signatures more than its target—55,000—and its advocacy has already yielded its first results. New York Assemblywoman Amy Paulin has introduced a legislative bill to curtail human trafficking at New York State hotels. 

“We know that New York is one of the hot spots for traffickers,” Paulin told me over the phone. “Victims are often moved from one place to another, and hotels and motels are key elements in it.”

Paulin’s hope is that the legislation will help at least some of the victims escape. Besides mandatory training of hotel staff and posting signs, she says, another strategy could include slipping tiny papers with hotline number in hotels soaps. As of the beginning of May, there is a complementary New York State Senate version of this bill, sponsored by New York Senator Jesse Hamilton.

But it isn’t just New York State that is moving forward. The Connecticut legislation has already inspired at least one petition similar to that posted by Lucas.

A small sign at the University of Chicago reads "End sex trafficking." (Quinn Dombrowski)

And there are pushes to establish similar laws in other parts of the country. Brooke Axtell, a child trafficking survivor and human rights activist, seeks to make necessary changes in Texas state legislation. In California, there is proposed state legislation mandating hotels and motels to post signs with human-trafficking hotline numbers.

Meanwhile, Lucas counts herself as one of the lucky ones. When she was 11, someone gave her instructions on leaving the country and staying away from drugs and prostitution.

Now, as an adult, she works in prisons and detention centers in New York State, teaching inmates and staff about the benefits of mindfulness and trauma-centered yoga. She has encountered trafficking victims who ended up on the streets, wounded, or addicted to drugs. Her hope is that if the proposed legislation in New York State passes, it will help victims to seek and get help, thus enabling them to escape and begin restoring their lives.        

EDITOR'S NOTE: Paragraph 16 has been updated to reflect that Lucas was 11 when someone instructed her on how to leave the country.