February 10, 2019



You’re listening to Episode 33 of the Trafficking Dispatch, a biweekly podcast that briefs you on human trafficking issues in a brief amount of time. I’m your host, Victoria Erdel. In this episode, we’ll interview a top anti-trafficking lawyer about diplomatic immunity and human trafficking.


If you’ve been with us since our first season, you’ll remember the time I mentioned Martina Vandenberg. Martina is an anti-trafficking lawyer whom I greatly admire for several reasons. One of these reasons is that she founded the Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center, which provides free legal services to victims and survivors of human trafficking. I had the unique chance to meet her last year when she came to give a lecture at my school, and I knew that I wanted to interview her for the podcast at some point. Well, that time has come, because she is uniquely qualified to talk about an issue we raised in our last episode: diplomatic immunity and human trafficking. Since she’s the expert on the issue, I’ll let her take it from here.


Victoria: To start off, could you first explain how you became involved in fighting human trafficking? Is that what you knew you wanted to do when you were in law school?


Martina: So, I got involved with human trafficking long before law school. I got a master’s degree and I left graduate school with a master’s degree and moved to Russia. And the purpose of moving to Russia was to start a rape crisis center. So I worked with a group of Russian feminists and together we started our rape crisis center in Moscow. And, that was just, really all about sexual violence. And none of us in 1992 had heard of trafficking. We thought that that was something that occurred in Asia, if we knew it at all. And when the Soviet Union fell, and the Iron Curtain dropped, women from the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe flocked into western Europe, and they were trafficked into forced prostituion. And so, we invited a group of Dutch police officers to Russia to do trainings with Russian police officers on domestic violence and sexual violence. And it was actually the Dutch police officers from the European network of policewomen who educated us about human trafficking. So this was 1995, 1996. And the Dutch police officers actually wanted to be in Russia to meet with the Ministry of Interior to talk to the Russian Ministry of Interior about trafficking women from Russia and the former Soviet Union to Western Europe. And so that opened my eyes to the fact that we needed to broaden our lens and look not just at sexual violence but also at human trafficking. Which certainly for the Soviet Union, which had had closed borders, was a completely new phenomenon. So I was in Russia for four years working with the feminist movement in Russia and in Ukraine. And then when I left Russia I moved to New York to go to law school. So I was in law school working on a regular law degree not thinking that I would necessarily work on trafficking. But then I went to Israel on a sort of summer intern program, planning to work on domestic violence issues within the Russian-speaking community in Israel. I discovered that Israel had this enormous problem with human trafficking, mostly women from the former Soviet Union who all spoke Russian. So I pivoted off of the domestic violence topic and did a report on human trafficking of women to Israel for forced prostitution. And that report had an enormous impact. There were hearings in the Knesset, it was on the front page of The New York Times. People had no idea that trafficking had reached, forced prostitution had reached such a level, even in Israel. These women were being literally bought and sold. So I went back to law school because, by that time, I was working for Human Rights Watch. So I worked for Human Rights Watch and covered all of their work on human trafficking in the Balkans and the former Soviet Union, and started reporting on human trafficking for Human Rights Watch, and doing advocacy on human trafficking for Human Rights Watch. So that’s really how it started. I had no intention of working on human trafficking when I started my law degree, but because -- it, it didn’t exist very much as a field in the region where I worked and where I spoke the language.


Victoria: Okay, yeah, thank you so much for giving us that overview of how you first became involved. Now to shift to your more recent work, I read what I could of an article that you wrote about a Saudi Arabian princess who falsely claimed diplomatic immunity, and was later arrested. So I’m curious about what’s more common: for non-diplomats or those who do not actually have immunity to claim immunity, or for actual diplomats to abuse their immunity and traffick others?


Martina: I’d say that the abuse of immunity is far more common than the false claim of immunity. And we’ve had cases her in Washington DC where diplomats have literally said to their domestic workers, whom they’re holding in forced labor, go ahead and call the police, they can’t do anything to me. I have immunity. I can park anywhere I want, I can do anything I want. So, you have no recourse. There’s nothing you can do. So there are a number of cases where we have brought lawsuits against diplomats for bringing domestic workers into the United States for forced labor. Literally, locking people in the house, stripping them of their passports, violating the contract whole-cloth, not paying what’s promised in the contract, and in some cases, paying as little as 30 cents an hour for people who are working around the clock doing all of the most difficult cleaning and care work in the house. And so, one thing that we find difficult is, often when people claim they have immunity, there is a lack of understanding by police and others about the kinds of immunity. Not all immunity is blanket, right? So, people who have diplomatic immunity 24/7, they can’t be prosecuted and they cannot be sued. But, if they have violated the criminal law, it’s possible for the State Department to ask their government -- the diplomat’s government, for a waiver of immunity. And the countries frequently say no, we’re not going to waive immunity. But, sometimes they do waive immunity, and then that person can be prosecuted in a US federal court. On the civil side, when we sue people, they have immunity from a lawsuit. But when they leave the United States, as soon as they’ve left US airspace, that immunity disappears and it only covers what they did at work. In a sense, it shrinks from 24/7 to Monday through Friday, 9-5. And all the courts that have looked at this have said trafficking your domestic worker, raping your domestic worker, holding your nanny in forced labor, that’s not part of your official duty, so you don’t get immunity for that after you leave the United States. So that’s the most difficult form of immunity to crack -- full diplomatic immunity. But there’s also consular immunity. If someone is based in Milwaukee or based in Denver or based in Los Angeles at a consulate for their government, they don’t have full immunity. They just have official acts immunity. They only have, literally, immunity 9-5 Monday through Friday for whatever they do that’s related to their work. So if the abuse isn’t related to their work, and they can’t show that it’s part of their official duties to abuse their domestic worker and traffick their domestic worker, then they don’t have any immunity and they can’t claim any immunity for that abuse.


Victoria: Hmm, I actually didn’t know about consular immunity, so that’s good to know as well. You kind of pointed to this already when you were talking about some cases in Washington DC, but, how widespread overall is this issue of diplomats, or you know, other people abusing their immunity to traffick domestic workers?


Martina: The hotspots for this are Washington DC, obviously the DC suburbs in Virginia and Maryland. Also, New York, because there are plenty of people with the United Nations and international organizations who also are able to bring in domestic workers on special visas. That’s the trigger, right? So the domestic workers are coming into the United States with visas that are reserved only for domestic workers of diplomats or employees of international organizations. And the visa has the employer’s name on it. So it is the visa that ties the worker to an abusive employer. Because the moment you leave that house, the moment you quit your job and exit that employment situation, you’re out of status. The domestic workers who are on these special visas, working for diplomats or international organization employees or consular officers throughout the United States, are terrified, even if they are subjected to horrendous abuse. They’re terrified to leave. The broader question of, you know, how significant is this issue or how large is this issue -- interestingly enough, there’s a European non-governmental organization working group on this issue. Because it’s not just the US capital and not just in Europe, this is widespread throughout all European capitals. And in fact, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is a Europe-wide organization that also encompasses Canada and the former Soviet Union -- the OSCE had meetings on trafficking by diplomats. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe wrote a report on trafficking by diplomats, because it’s a very troubling issue, it’s an issue that’s difficult to confront and difficult to find a remedy for. And the non-governmental organizations, and actually the governments where the diplomats were committing these crimes, felt very flummoxed, I think in trying to strategize a way to deal with the abuse. So, it’s certainly not thousands of domestic workers trafficked by diplomats. But it is, it is probably hundreds. And the problem, one of the main problems stems from this tied visa.


Victoria: Okay, so since you already said how difficult it is even for lawmakers to address this issue, I kind of want to transition just to a broader topic. Just, human trafficking as a whole, in its many different forms and manifestations. We always conclude our interviews by asking the interviewee what advice they have for young people who want to do something about really any form of human trafficking.


Martina: My best advice would be, read everything you can written by survivors. So I was just reading an article this morning, written by a survivor, who talked about the danger of sensationalization. So the survivor’s name is Katie Roche, R-O-C-H-E, and the article looked at, you know, human trafficking imagery. People in chains, people tied up. People with duct tape on their mouth. And the argument in the article essentially was, these sensationalistic images do great harm. And so my guidance for anyone who wants to work in this field is, please listen to survivors. Please be very careful not to sort of jump on the bandwagon of the sensationalist rhetoric that stems from movies like Taken, and images that are so common in the human trafficking movement, and so troubling, and so counterproductive. The other thing that I would suggest is, really commit yourself to rigor. Really commit yourself to an evidence-based approach. Because, Luis CdeBaca, who used to be the State Department ambassador in the trafficking office -- there’s an entire office at the State Department on combatting human trafficking -- Ambassador Luis CdeBaca said in a speech, “Human trafficking has long been a rigor-free zone”, right? No rigor, lots of anecdotes, things made up, no real strict methodology in the statistical reporting. And so Ambassador CdeBaca’s plea, and I would echo it, was to really introduce rigor into the system. Right? Don’t talk about estimates, talk about real numbers, don’t talk about anecdotes, talk about real cases. And that pivot, that change to a more rigorous and more disciplined movement, is happening. It’s happening partly because very serious academics have now entered the fray. And doctors have entered the fray. So there’s an entire movement of public health professionals who now are looking at human trafficking with a public health lens. And the important thing about the public health community is they do peer-reviewed literature, and so the standards are higher. The rigor is more pronounced. The guidelines for research are more careful. So that would be my one piece of advice, is just to be very, very careful, and to listen.


Victoria: Thank you for those pieces of advice, I thought they were really useful. Like I said, that was my last official question, but if there’s anything else that you’d like to add at this point, then now’s your chance to do that.


Martina: Well, for people who are interested in human trafficking, there’s an excellent conference once year. Every other year it’s in Washington DC, the other years it rotates all around the country. And the organization that does the conference is called the Freedom Network, and the Freedom Network USA has a rights-based approach to human trafficking. And what I’ve found is that that conference, it usually takes place in March or April of each year, that conference attracts some of the most knowledgeable experts in the United States. And it’s a really excellent place to learn about human trafficking. A very excellent community to learn about human trafficking as a human rights issue. That’s the approach we’re taking, is, this is a human rights issue. Other people take the other approach of, this is a public health issue. It’s all of those things. But, to the extent that people are interested and want to get more involved right away, that conference is a good way to sort of jump right into the deep end with people who have tremendous expertise.


Martina mentioned several useful resources for us to learn more about human trafficking. We’ll include a link to the OSCE report on diplomatic immunity and human trafficking in our shownotes, as well as links to KD Roche’s article and the Freedom Network conference. If you’re particularly interested in this topic, we’d recommend you look through these resources to see if there’s anything you want to do to help address this difficult issue.

And now, it’s time for our next Audible Audience submission! Remember, if you send us a 30-second audio clip with your name, country, and anti-trafficking initiative, we’ll feature you in an episode and on our social media. And if you live in the US, we’ll mail you a podcast t-shirt, too! This episode’s submission comes from a listener in Nevada. Let’s hear what Heidi has to say about how she’s fighting human trafficking!


Heidi: Thank you to The Trafficking Dispatch! We are solving this issue with education! My name is Heidi Clingen, in Las Vegas, Nevada. I’m building,, with a list of speakers, links to lots of books, and over 50 TED Talks about trafficking. My motto is, “Time for speaking up!” So check out, also on Facebook and Instagram. Let’s do this!


This has been the Trafficking Dispatch with Victoria Erdel. You can subscribe to our SoundCloud channel and tune into our next episode which will be released on February 24th at 5 pm. Or, if you would like to interact with us before then, you can visit our website at, follow us on our social media accounts – our handles are below – or email us with any questions or suggestions at Thank you for tuning into this episode, and we hope you’ll tune in again to join the fight against human trafficking.


OSCE Report:

KD Roche Article:

Freedom Network Conference:


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