U.S. lawmakers have examined the problem of human trafficking for sexual slavery and forced labor in countries around the world. Members of Congress heard from victims of human trafficking, and organizations fighting to free people from an expanding network of international traffickers.
Each year, an estimated 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders, in a rapidly growing, $1 billion industry supported both by individuals and criminal gangs.
That figure would be far higher, says the U.S. State Department, if people trafficked internally within countries were taken into account.
Mostly women and girls, but also boys and young men, are caught up in the trafficking web with most attention focused on countries in South Asia, East Asia and to some extent Africa.
John Miller, director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons in the Department of State, described the scope of the problem in testimony to the House Human Rights Subcommittee:
“The categories of slavery that extend into every country in the world, there are no exceptions, including the United States, the categories of slavery [are] sex slavery, domestic servitude slavery, factory slavery, farm slavery, child soldier slavery, camel jockey slavery, we believe and I think most observers believe the biggest category is sex slavery,” he said.
Governments around the world have taken a more aggressive approach to trafficking, while non-government organizations intensified their activities to locate victims and assist with recovery.
Perhaps the strongest anti-trafficking campaigner in Congress, Congressman Chris Smith of New Jersey, says at least 24 countries have enacted laws to combat trafficking, with dozens of others in the process of doing so. Some 8000 traffickers have been prosecuted with 2800 convicted.
But more remains to be done. Beatrice Fernando, a native of Sri Lanka and former victim of human trafficking, says more public awareness is needed along with action to investigate and prosecute trafficking organizations, and monitor efforts by foreign governments:
“Every year the State Department's annual report on trafficking should list the amount of money each country spends on anti-trafficking efforts,” she said. “We need to evaluate if funding matches performance. The report should also document the repression [by governments] of anti-slavery groups, for instance in Mauritania [where] the government still bans the group SOS-Esclaves.”
Others spoke of the challenges posed by what is becoming a huge human trafficking industry.
Linda Smith, President of Shared Hope International, urges more efforts to identify trafficking victims, expose individuals and trafficking networks, and pressure governments to crack down.
“There is an underground in Europe where the girls are hiding so they don't get deported back to countries where they will get killed,” she noted. “We have a lot of issues there. There is a marketplace of victimization that has built up in several countries and some of them are our friends and their allies. Our government is telling our allies you can't have slaves either and I really do appreciate that because friends don't let friends have slaves.”
Shirley Barnes, a former U.S. Ambassador to Madagascar, says the trafficking problem in Africa is also growing.
“Of 53 African countries UNICEF surveyed, at least 49 percent responded that human traffic existed in their respective countries,” she explained. “And the problem requires effective action, targeted programs and strategies, and intra-African cooperation. Trafficking in African children appears more widespread than in African women. The number of African countries reporting trafficking in children is two times the number reporting trafficking in women.”
This year, Congressman Chris Smith is overseeing reauthorization of anti-trafficking legislation Congress first passed in 2000. Provisions of the new bill include steps to crack down on Americans, whether in the government or military, who engage in trafficking.
Other U.S. laws dealing directly or indirectly with human trafficking include the Protect Act, which, among other things, targets Americans who travel abroad to engage in sexual exploitation.
And the House of Representatives recently approved legislation to require organizations providing humanitarian aid overseas to subscribe to a code of conduct against sexual exploitation or face loss of U.S. government funding.