Experienced Human Trafficking Attorney Joins Institute in Belize

By: JONATHAN ROBERTS

This month, New York attorney Dave Fillingame began his year-long position with the Institute as Special Counsel on Trafficking in Persons (TIP) cases in Belize. This marks the Institute’s first legal professional to be based in Belize. In this role, Fillingame will be working with government officials and non-government organizations engaged in anti-trafficking efforts. He will also support the development of a specialized anti-trafficking unit.

Fillingame has extensive experience on human trafficking cases. While working with International Justice Mission in India from 2004 to 2006, he investigated forced labor cases and supported the Indian government’s efforts to hold traffickers accountable. He received his Juris Doctorate from New York University School of Law in 2009, and has spent the past decade advocating for employee rights, defending tenants, and providing legal services to low-income residents of New York.

Dave Fillingame recently spoke with Jonathan Roberts to share about his experience in anti-trafficking work.

Q. What led you into anti-trafficking work?

A. I have been involved and interested in anti-trafficking work for over a decade.  My interest started before I began law school. I read the book Disposable People by Kevin Bales shortly after college, and it opened my eyes to the reality that millions of people around the world still live and work in modern forms of slavery—and, in many cases, this slavery is directly connected to the global economy we all benefit from. I later investigated bonded labor slavery cases in rural agricultural industries in India and discovered that there were typically decent laws in place that protected people from slavery and trafficking. The problem was that those laws were not always properly enforced to protect victims and stop the traffickers. I am interested in understanding ways to help legal systems better apply their anti-trafficking laws ever since, and I am excited to be directly involved in that work with the Human Trafficking Institute.

Q. What surprised you most about human trafficking?

A. What initially surprised me the most about human trafficking was how widespread the problem is in nearly every country in the world but how it is often hidden in plain site. When I first heard the term “human trafficking,” I expected to see obvious signs of force like chains or whips or impenetrable walls. But modern traffickers use a wide variety of tools to coerce, exploit, and trap their victims that may not be as obvious as these stereotypical signs—but are just as insidious and coercive.

Q. What do you wish people knew about the reality of trafficking?

A. I wish people understood that it is still a very real problem in the world today, with millions of victims—and millions more who are vulnerable to becoming future trafficking victims. However, it is a problem with solutions that can be used to stop traffickers.

Q. What gives you hope to continue working in this field?

A. I think human trafficking is an outrageous crime with devastating impacts on its victims. However, it is also a crime that more and more people around the world are paying attention to and one that governments are increasingly motivated to address. The amazing news is that, with the right resources, training, and expertise, those governments can stop trafficking, and eliminate this crime in our lifetime. Imagine the difference that will make in the lives of current and potential future trafficking victims.

Q. What will you be doing in Belize?

A. In Belize, I will study how the country currently addresses the problem of human trafficking and find ways the Institute can support those efforts. We will host a training for the Belize judiciary in December in order to sensitize them on issues surrounding Trafficking in Persons cases. Furthermore, I will also look for outlets to continue collaborating with the government of Belize and to strengthen the criminal justice system’s response to human trafficking cases.

Q. What excites you most about working in Belize?

A. I am excited to work in a country where the Institute has the opportunity to make an immediate impact. The government officials I have met are extremely talented and are motivated to address the human trafficking problems in Belize and to establish the specialization in their criminal justice system that is necessary to eradicate slavery. Given the size of Belize, this specialization can have an immediate impact and set up Belize as an example to other countries throughout Central America and the Caribbean. I am also excited to live in another country and to learn a new culture and the ways it is both different and similar to my own.

Q. Why is it important for you to work within the country of Belize rather than from the U.S.?

A. I think it is impossible to truly understand the challenges that another country faces when addressing human trafficking from a distance. Physical presence is important for building productive relationships with others, as well as for finding meaningful and sustainable solutions to those challenges.

Q. What are your reflections from your first week at work?

A. I love Belize. It is a beautiful country, and—after moving from New York City—I love the different pace of life and the far less crowded streets. I am also excited by the multiple positive meetings I have had so far with Belizean officials. They are incredibly motivated to find ways to stop any trafficking that exists in their country.

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Jonathan Roberts

Jonathan Roberts

Prior to his role at the Institute, Jonathan was a Research Fellow at the Greater Mekong Research Center, a public policy think-tank in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. There, he conducted research on the political economy and development outlook of Southeast Asia. He is particularly interested in institutional reform and the rule of law in developing countries. Jonathan holds degrees from Seattle Pacific University and the Université Lumière Lyon II in France. He speaks English and French.