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Combating diplomatic involvement in human trafficking

October 20, 2017

Human trafficking is a well-documented worldwide problem. A lesser-known issue is the trafficking by diplomats of domestic workers and servants, who are forced to work, often in brutal conditions, typically with little or no pay, or subjected to emotional, physical or sexual abuse.

Gauging the extent of the problem can be difficult. In the latest official study — already more than a decade old — the U.S. Government Accountability Office found 42 cases of alleged abuse reported in the previous eight years. Yet as most abuse is revealed only when a worker manages to escape, the real figure is likely to be much higher.

Moreover, victims of diplomatic trafficking face a distinct challenge: to have any hope of finding justice, they have to overcome the defenses of diplomatic immunity often claimed by their captors.

Seminal litigation victory

Dechert has made sustained efforts to pursue diplomatic traffickers by means of civil lawsuits brought in the federal courts. In fact, it was an important victory scored by Dechert a decade ago that made such an avenue possible. In a case that set precedent in piercing diplomatic immunity in trafficking scenarios, Vishranthamma Swarna, a domestic worker, alleged forced labor, slavery and sexual slavery claims against a Kuwaiti diplomat and his wife.

The diplomatic couple argued that diplomatic immunity protected them against lawsuits, even after their posting to the United States had ended. Yet the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled that “residual immunity” — a form of protection from some U.S. laws that continues after diplomats leave their posts — did not apply to how diplomats treated their household workers. The Second Circuit later affirmed, thereby establishing federal precedent.

By showing that diplomatic immunity was no longer invincible, Swarna was a watershed, opening the door to a slew of successful lawsuits against high-ranking diplomatic officials.

Sustained pursuit of diplomatic traffickers

Dechert has not stopped its fight since the Swarna case and has continued to represent many more servants and domestic workers.

“Dechert lawyers set an important precedent in showing that diplomatic immunity is not an invincible shield,” said Martina Vandenberg, founder and president of Washington, DC’s Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center. “With immense skill, Dechert’s pro bono attorneys have obtained immigration relief for trafficking survivors, filed cutting-edge civil cases against diplomats, and won significant damages from traffickers.”

Recently, a Dechert team acting pro bono won a default judgment in New York on behalf of Mashud Rana, a domestic worker from Bangladesh who had been kept in barbaric conditions by Bangladesh’s former consul general in New York, now the country’s ambassador to Ethiopia. For 18 months, Mr. Rana had been forced to work 16- to 20-hour days without pay and was subjected to death threats if he tried to escape. The Dechert team first won a ruling that the diplomat and his wife were not immune from suit. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York subsequently issued a default judgment against Mr. Rana’s former captors, fixing damages for back pay and emotional distress at over US$920,000.

Dechert teams have also pursued remedies in a number of cases for domestic workers trafficked from other countries. In one civil case, also in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, the firm acted against a former Kenyan diplomat to the United Nations who violated federal human trafficking laws by forcing her housekeeper and nanny to work round-the-clock for US$150 a month. After successfully defeating a motion to dismiss, the Dechert team secured a favorable settlement for the victim, enabling her to bring her children to the United States and move forward with her life.

Immigration relief for victims

In addition to civil remedies, Dechert has also secured immigration relief for victims in the form of the T-Visa, a pathway to legal U.S. permanent residency created to encourage trafficking victims to report their persecutors. In recent years, Dechert has secured immigration relief for the domestic servants of diplomats from Bangladesh, Bolivia, Burkina Faso, Kenya, Kuwait, Malawi, Mozambique, Saudi Arabia and Zambia.

In one such case, we secured a T-Visa for a teenage girl from Zambia who had been labor-trafficked into the U.S. by her own relatives, who forced her to lie about her age to U.S. embassy officials.

In another, a Saudi princess routinely subjected a domestic worker recruited from Ethiopia to physical and emotional abuse. The worker finally escaped from a Times Square hotel where the princess had sequestered her during a New York vacation. Dechert was able to obtain the worker a T-Visa and open a State Department investigation into the princess’s unscrupulous employment practices. 

Recognition

Dechert’s efforts to combat diplomatic involvement in the trafficking of domestic workers was hailed by the Financial Times, which named the firm winner of the “Innovation in Social Responsibility: Pro Bono Cases” category in its North America Innovative Lawyers Report in 2016. In its report, the FT commented that Dechert had “challenged the boundaries of immunity, advocated for legislative change, fought for greater awareness, and helped victims secure T-Visas, which authorised them to remain in the U.S.”