Emma Catague, center, working to develop the APIWFSC.
Emma Catague, center, working to develop the APIWFSC.

Compared to other transnational offenses, such as drug trafficking and weapons-dealing, human trafficking does not receive the media exposure it deserves. Yet the issue is still present in our everyday lives. For Asian Pacific Islander Americans, the concern is especially relevant because East Asia is a region rife for the exploitation of cheap labor and sex workers. Someone you know may actually have been a victim of human trafficking.

For long-time activist, Emma Catague, human trafficking largely fell under the radar of the organization she works for — the API Women and Family Safety Center (APIWFSC), an agency that advocates against violence towards women and families.

“We started that organization to deal with domestic violence,” she said. “Basically, we felt there were no culturally appropriate organizations for our community.”

Catague soon recognized that many domestic violence victims had also fallen prey to human trafficking. “In the early 90s, we expanded into sexual assault, and eventually human trafficking,” said Catague. “When the victims of domestic violence came to us, through the process, we also found out they were victims of human trafficking.”

Catague recalls one specific incident that personally impacted her. It involved a young woman who had been trafficked for three years. She had travelled as a nanny and worked in various capacities as a domestic helper. She ultimately sought help from APIWFSC. Catague worked on her case from start to finish: from when the process of deportation began until the trafficker was officially sentenced.

“She was like my daughter,” Catague said. “That’s just one of the clients I served. There were others that were elderly. It was difficult to see how these people were coerced or manipulated and how they got here and got abused.”

There are many causes of human trafficking, many of which are connected to other transnational crimes. Besides weak governments and a pervasive demand for cheap labor, poverty is perhaps the most endemic factor in the prevalence of human trafficking in Third World countries. Victims can be exploited while seeking honest work to support their families.

“Coming from a poor country,” reflected Catague, “there is pressure to provide for the family back home for support.”

There is hope, however, for many advocating the cause of human trafficking. In 2000, the United Nations adopted the “Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children,” a measure that seeks to facilitate cooperation among nations to prevent and punish perpetrators of human trafficking.

In addition, Catague worked with former Washington State Representative Velma Veloria to pass the first federal law against human trafficking in 2010. Catague’s efforts serve as a prime example of local activism effecting change on a national level.