Policy makers and human rights activists gathered in New York recently to raise awareness about human trafficking and to address the challenges governments face trying to stop it. From VOA's New York Bureau, Amanda Cassandra has this report.
Each year, according to the U.S. State Department, 600,000 to 800,000 people around the world, most of them women, are the victims of human trafficking. Many are lured by the promise of a better life and others are simply kidnapped and held by violence or coercion.
Described as a form of modern slavery, human trafficking includes forced prostitution, forced domestic servitude, forced labor, and child soldiers.
New York Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney says human trafficking is a global scourge.
"Sex-trafficking is the third largest crime in our country and internationally, preceded only by guns and drugs," she said. "And unlike guns and drugs that are only sold once, you can sell a human body over and over and over again until the person dies."
The U.S. State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, led by John Miller, assists in the coordination of anti-trafficking efforts worldwide and domestically.
Miller says slavery is not part of distant history, but a reality for thousands of people right now.
"The slavery of centuries ago was state sanctioned and it was based on color," he said. "You look around the world today, I'm not aware of any countries that say slavery is legal, and it is not primarily based on color. But it is the denial of freedom and the tricks of the slave masters are the same: deception, fraud, abuse, kidnapping, rape, and beatings. It is slavery and we can't shy away from it."
Maloney and Miller participated in a discussion on human slavery at New York University's Center for Global Affairs. Panelists agreed the lack of economic opportunity and poverty are basic causes of human trafficking. They stressed the importance of raising standards of living to prevent thousands of people from falling victim to different kinds of exploitation, from prostitution to forced labor.
Actress Julia Ormond works with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. She says the plight of trafficking victims is often compounded as local law enforcement is sometimes complicit.
"One of the reasons why prostitution has emerged as the story is because the prostitute is visible," she said. "The prostitute is often on the street believe it or not. I always imagined these girls in rooms, but there are a number of trafficked women who are walking the streets and I met a victim who was a Romanian girl who had been trafficked into Italy. And I was like 'Ok, tell me why did not you find a policeman?' It seemed so logical, find a policeman, tell him your story. She said my first client was a policeman."
Speakers also urged people to get involved in fighting human trafficking, telling people to write their legislators for anti-trafficking laws and to not visit places where the government has failed to intervene in cases of trafficking.
John Miller says Sweden has the most successful anti-trafficking law of any country to date. Introduced in 1999, the law criminalizes people who buy sex, not the prostitutes. The idea behind the law is that without buyers there would be nothing to sell.
Although human trafficking has not disappeared completely in Sweden, Miller says it has decreased dramatically and enacting similar measures in other countries may have the same effect.