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Outrageous Stories of Abuse as Immunity Shields Diplomats in the US From Trafficking Women

The founder of the Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center puts it, “Diplomatic immunity is not a license to traffic, but it’s pretty close.”



Three filipina women crowd the kitchen of a New York City apartment, ribbing one another over a bubbling fish stew.

The eldest, Dema Ramos, is an exceptional cook and has given up trying to suppress her laughter. This outwardly serious mother of five is forcing sweet dough into the funnel of a bread machine with an unfortunately shaped plastic rod.

Let’s just say these women have not seen their husbands for a long, long time.

They share the cleaning up, flipping between Tagalog and English, as though they were old friends. But these domestic workers only recently met here in New York City, bound by the experience of being trafficked by foreign diplomats—that is, they were compelled to provide services through force, fraud or coercion.

Human trafficking by diplomats poses little risk of prosecution. Or as the founder of the Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center, Martina Vandenberg, puts it, “Diplomatic immunity is not a license to traffic, but it’s pretty close.”

Diplomatic immunity shields certain classes of foreign diplomats from arrest. Those with the highest level of immunity are considered “inviolable” and investigators cannot search their homes, or even their cars, without consent.

Vandenberg, who represents victims in civil and criminal cases, says 24 cases of labor exploitation and trafficking have been filed against foreign diplomats in the U.S. between 1994 and 2012. “This is happening 10 miles from the White House,” she says, “This is happening on visas issued by the American government.”

The personal stories of these Filipina workers living in New York speak to the larger problem that Vandenberg describes.

Ramos is a tall woman with bobbed hair and three freckles on her right cheek. On this gray fall morning, she has prepared shrimp curry with squash and a spicy chicken curry with whole green chilies. She is now frying spring rolls she has wrapped herself.

No one taught Ramos to cook. She says she just tastes and invents. Her dishes strike a balance between sweetness and heat. It is her attentiveness to guests, however, that suggests cooking was once a professional task.

As more guests pull up seats, she watches over their plates, silently filling bowls with soup and topping plates with rice, barely eating herself.

69 cents an hour, 20 hours a day

Just before Christmas 2009, a diplomat at the Kuwaiti Mission to the U.N. trafficked Ramos to the U.S. Her employer confiscated her passport once she arrived. She served his family seven days a week from 5:30 a.m. to 1 the next morning. She barely slept. She had no room of her own in his Manhattan duplex and shared a bed with two of the diplomat’s five children.

It was her job to dress the children, take them to school and supervise their after-school activities in the afternoon. Ramos was also responsible for cleaning, laundering clothes for eight, buying groceries and preparing meals.

“I had to eat last, after everyone else did,” she says.

Ramos began domestic work abroad to provide for her husband and five children in the Philippines. She worked in Taiwan and Saudi Arabia before finding the job with the Kuwaiti diplomat through a Manila recruitment agency. She borrowed money to pay the travel cost of getting to the interview.

Ramos started working for the diplomat in 2006 in Kuwait. She moved with him to Lebanon before coming to the U.S. on a special visa reserved for the personal staff of diplomats, consuls and personnel of international organizations.

The diplomat advised Ramos to lie to officials at the U.S. embassy in Beirut. “He said, if they ask about my work, just say I am the babysitter of their youngest child,” Ramos recalls his saying. He told her to lie about her income—to say that it was 10 times the actual sum. He also told her not to mention her other responsibilities.

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