Editor’s Note: Federal and local authorities were called to the compound of a diplomatic mission from Soudi Arabia this week to “rescue two women,” according to Jackie Bensen, a TV reporter for an NBC affiliate in Washington, citing an unnamed source. “One woman had reportedly tried to flee by squeezing through a gap in the front gate as it was closing,” Bensen said. The Department of Homeland Security confirmed that it “did encounter two potential victims of trafficking and the investigation is ongoing.” Human trafficking, and its near invisibility in domestic politics, was the lead story in our March issue by Yuko Narushima. Here, Yuko provides a follow up to the story.
An investigation into human trafficking at a Saudi Arabian compound outside Washington, D.C., may prove to be a test of Obama administration’s tolerance of foreign diplomats who are suspected of abusing household staff on U.S. soil.
On May 1, the Department of Homeland Security confirmed to a TV news reporter in Washington that it is investigating a “possible case of human trafficking” at a diplomatic compound owned by the Saudi Arabian military in McLean, Va. The two women who escaped the compound were domestic workers from the Philippines, according to the report.
The investigation in McLean was triggered by a tipoff to a national trafficking hotline. An arrangement was made for the women to be outside at a certain time so their escape could be coordinated safely, according to a source close to the situation who asked not to be identifed.
(UPDATE: Homeland Security agent John Torres told News4 in a follow-up report that authorities had arranged for the escape of the two women. “What we ended up doing is setting up an arranged time to meet some people. They met us at that time and we took them out of that situation,” Torres told News4’s Jackie Bensen. Additionally, the Department of State has been involved in this particular case, working with Homeland Security and local officials, from the beginning, according to a transcript of a press conference on May 2.)
The Philippine Embassy said the two women were currently in the care of US authorities. “We are aware that the investigation is ongoing an part of that is to interview our two nationals,” spokesperson Elmer Cato said, adding that the embassy is ready to extend assistance if requested. “We believe they are in good condition,” he said.
“This is a test case of how serious the administration is in holding diplomats to account,” said Martina Vandenberg, the founder of the Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center. The center provides assistance to people who have been trafficked to the U.S. Vandenberg said there are multiple instances of foreign diplomats going unpunished for abusing workers and confining them to their homes. Quite literally, she said, “law enforcement cannot get through the front gate.”
|Under U.S. law, the Secretary of State has a duty to suspend foreign missions known to have trafficked household staff – like nannies, cleaners, drivers and cooks.|
Human trafficking by foreign diplomats is more widespread than official figures indicate and difficult to prosecute, because diplomats are often immune from arrest, as reported in The Washington Spectator in March. In this particular case, local and federal authorities must contend with “full diplomatic immunity.” That means they cannot search the compound without the diplomat’s consent even if a judge authorizes the search.
“This is getting very high level attention at the Department of State,” Vandenberg said. “The problem we have had all along is that law enforcement has not understood immunity. Diplomatic immunity has always been couched in terms of what cannot be done instead of what can be done.”
Investigators can still gather testimonies from victims and talk to witnesses outside the compound. In addition, laws against human trafficking that were tightened in 2009 allow the U.S. to demand proof that workers have been properly paid.
“When there’s an allegation, a letter goes to the ambassador of that country and the country is required to provide evidence of payment to the domestic worker though official channels,” Vandenberg said.
Under U.S. law, the Secretary of State has a duty to suspend foreign missions known to have previously trafficked household staff – like nannies, cleaners, drivers and cooks. This suspension power has never been used and missions such as India, Tanzania and Kuwait have repeatedly abused the visa system that allows diplomats to bring personal staff.
That helps low-wage workers from the Filipinos access labor and immigration rights, says Leah Obias of Damayan Migrant Workers’ Association. Saudi Arabian diplomats have numerous trafficking allegations against them. She called for a waiver of diplomatic immunity and said that the State Department should suspend any country that abuses visa programs.
Yuko Narushima is a freelance reporter working in New York. She has written for The Sydney Morning Herald and Bloomberg News in Australia. In 2010, she was awarded the UN Media Peace Award for human rights reporting.