The United Nations says human trafficking is now the world's third largest criminal business, victimizing hundreds of thousands of women and children each year. The U.S. government has made the campaign to combat it a foreign policy priority. In his U.N. speech last week, President Bush also pledged 50 million dollars to help victims of the sex trade. Correspondent Laurie Kassman takes a look at what is being done.
For too long, U.N. officials and human rights activists say, human trafficking has fallen through the cracks of international law enforcement. That is changing now with the implementation of the U.N. Protocol to Prevent and Punish People Trafficking, especially women and children. The agreement supplements the U.N. Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and other U.N. agreements to protect children.
Law professor Mohamed Mattar says the newly ratified U.N. protocol on human trafficking clearly defines it as a crime to be punished, just like drug trafficking. Governments, he adds, need to remember it's the trafficker who is the criminal, not the person being transported for servitude or sex exploitation.
"Legal systems have to recognize trafficking of persons as a human rights violation and that means you recognize the trafficked person not as a criminal but as a victim entitled to basic human rights," says Mr. Mattar, who helps run the Protection Project at Johns Hopkins School of International Studies in Washington.
The Protection Project is advising several East European governments that are trying to set up laws to prosecute people smugglers and sex traffickers. The non-government organization also has programs in the United States that assist trafficking victims.
Individual governments now are taking more steps to prosecute those who take advantage of innocent, often desperate people. Last week, during a speech to the U.N. that otherwise focused on urging international cooperation in re-building Iraq, President Bush took time to highlight what he calls the hidden global humanitarian crisis.
"Each year an estimated 800,000 to 900,000 human beings are bought, sold or forced across the world's borders," said President Bush. "Among them are hundreds of thousands of teenage girls and others as young as five who fall victim to the sex trade."
Ann Jordan, of the International Human Rights Law Group in Washington, says governments also need to deal with the economic, social and political motivations for trafficking. Ms. Jordan points out that women and young girls are often duped into illegal or degrading jobs out of desperation.
"Women find it very difficult to migrate to work legally so they have to find other ways to migrate to work," says Ms. Jordan. "They end up going underground and working with smugglers who take them some place, to another country or another part of the country promising them jobs as domestic workers, waitresses or nannies, and quite often they get forced into the sex trade."
Ms. Jordan says the international sex trade is a multi-billion dollar business for the traffickers but also for those who transport, hire or enslave women and children in bars, brothels or private homes.
Other analysts also raise concerns about unregulated mail order bride operations or arranged marriages that often put young girls into abusive situations.
Ever since the Clinton administration approved the Trafficking Victims Protection Act in the year 2000, the U.S. government has made the fight against human trafficking and the sex trade a focus of its foreign policy. The law allows for imposing sanctions on countries that do not meet the three main criteria for combating human trafficking: prevention, prosecution and protection.
Nicole Bibbins says the threat of sanctions has been an incentive for progress. Ms. Bibbins, who deals with human trafficking issues for the State Department points out, "We have seen that the tool provided by Congress has been very effective in mobilizing some countries to really take steps to address this issue."
In his U.N. speech, President Bush acknowledged sex trade crimes are a problem at home too. The Protect Act, signed into law last April, now makes it a crime for anyone to enter the United States or travel abroad for sex tourism involving children.
The day after Mr. Bush's U.N. speech, a 69-year-old American was charged with sex tourism in one of the first indictments under the new law. He could face up to 30 years in jail. President Bush also pledged $50 million to help programs that rescue and shelter women and children from exploitation.
Still, some rights activists see the Bush administration's new attention to the sex trade as too narrowly focused. Jodi Jacobson of the Center for Health and Gender Equity says Washington needs to address all aspects of human trafficking.
"You have to look at this issue not just as legal or sanctions but really as a socio-economic issue," says Ms. Jacobson. "And unless you're willing to approach it from this angle and really look at the context in which this is happening, we're really not going to address this issue very effectively."
Law professor Mohamed Mattar says the tools are in place and now it is a matter of using them. That, he says, means rigorously enforcing the laws that punish the criminals and providing more protection and assistance to the victims.