Famine. Disease. War. President Bush says another humanitarian crisis just as critical yet hidden from view should be added to that list: human trafficking. He urged the countries gathered at the 58th session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York to join the United States in combating the problem:
“We must show new energy in fighting back an old evil. Nearly two centuries after the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, and more than a century after slavery was officially ended in its last strongholds, the trade in human beings for any purpose must not be allowed to thrive in our time.”
President Bush was extremely critical of those engaged in the trafficking of women and children for sexual exploitation: “Those who create these victims and profit from their suffering must be severely punished. Those who patronize this industry debase themselves and deepen the misery of others. And governments that tolerate this trade are tolerating a form of slavery.”
There are estimates that from 800,000 up to four million human beings are bought, sold or forced across the world's borders each year. The profits from human trafficking are estimated close to $7 billion annually.
Victims of trafficking can find themselves working anywhere: Western Europe, oil-rich Gulf States, Japan, Thailand, Israel, Bosnia, and even the United States. Sharon Payt is the former senior coordinator for the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons at the U.S. State Department: “As you've had more fluidity between countries and the borders are coming down, what we get is a lot of people being free to travel between countries who weren't free before. The criminal networks have taken advantage of this. There are increasingly vulnerable populations now for all kinds of different reasons regionally throughout the world. These trafficking networks are so well organized they're able to take advantage of that extreme poverty, that extreme vulnerability that a lot of people groups find themselves in.”
Namju Cho, advocacy coordinator with the Los Angeles-based Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking, or CAST, welcomes the increased focus. She says while the President highlighted the problem of sexual exploitation, there are other ways human beings are exploited today, as well: “There are all these different kinds of trafficking forced labor situations, in addition to sex trafficking, such as domestic servitude, sweatshop labor, restaurant-labor, as well as farm labor.”
Jenny Stanger, also with the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking, says human trafficking isn't a problem of poor people working for slave-like wages. It's real slavery: “I hear the phrase virtual slavery all the time or slave-like. We are finding people in slavery. There's nothing virtual or slave-like about it. It just is slavery. People whose identification has been taken away from them. There's violence being used to control them, and they're not being paid. And they're being forced to work all day, every day, no days off.”
CAST works mainly with women in the Los Angeles area, where the biggest problem is forced domestic servitude. Namju Cho says different parts of the United States have different types of problems with forced labor although it's hard to come up with accurate numbers:
“It's extremely difficult to come up with hard data about the phenomenon. It's very much underground and it's not easy because people do it behind locked doors basically. So it's extremely difficult to find data. And the data we have so far is that 50,000 women and children are trafficked into the U.S. each year. Now, that's not really categorized by different types of forced labor situations. We have, based on our own clientele a survey of how that's divided. But I should tell you that we're in Los Angeles. So we tend to have less people who are in farm labor situations than in places like Florida, where obviously there's a lot of slavery involving the farm labor of tomato pickers and so forth that are trafficked from Mexico and Central America.”
In his speech to the U.N. President Bush acknowledged the problem in the United States and told the General Assembly that the U.S. government is committing $50 million to support the work of organizations like CAST that are rescuing people from exploitation:
“This problem has appeared in my own country, and we are working to stop it. Under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, the United States is using sanctions against governments to discourage human trafficking. The victims of this industry also need help from members of the United Nations. And this begins with clear standards and the certainty of punishment under the laws of every country.”
The Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act that President Bush referred to was passed by the U.S. Congress in October 2000. The legislation created the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, which works with international, state and local law enforcement agencies to protect victims of trafficking, prosecute the traffickers, and educate the public about the problem.
Ann Jordan, a director at the International Human Rights Law Group, says the U.S. law has already had an impact on the problem, although she says more needs to be done: “I think we have made progress. In the United States, we have not a perfect law, but really quite a good law. It recognizes that people who are trafficked are victims. They're not simply undocumented migrants. And we have prosecutors in the Justice Department who are working enormous hours on these cases, putting them together and prosecuting them. And we have a good conviction record here in the United States.”
On the global scale, the United Nations ratified the U.N. Protocol to Prevent and Punish People Trafficking which complements existing U.N. measures that protect children from commercial sexual exploitation. Advocates for stricter measures to prevent trafficking, such as Namju Cho, say it is a good start:
“This ratification of this optional protocol on trafficking that was ratified at the United Nations is also a positive thing, but that's not enough to completely fight and combat the human trafficking phenomenon both in and outside of the U.S. There needs to be better policies and procedures. And there needs to be training of government officials, law enforcement officials, and community based service providers so that trafficking cases can be handled with the greatest care and safety for the victims. And finally more resources need to be allocated both for government as well as non-governmental organizations to fight this egregious human rights violation.”
In an increasingly globalized world where ethnic and religious conflict force people off traditional lands and from rural areas into crowded, economically depressed cities, more and more people will be desperate for work. At the same time, the demand for cheap labor continues to grow in the United States and Western Europe. Unless governments begin to address this imbalance, observers say human traffickers will be more than willing to step in and take advantage of the situation.