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Journalists, Officials Work to Raise Profile of Human Trafficking Problem - 2004-02-05

U.S. officials say profits from human trafficking are the third largest source of income for organized crime. But the problem has still not been recognized by many countries as a major criminal issue. Journalists and officials are working to raise the profile of human trafficking.

It is extremely difficult to estimate just how many people are smuggled each year around the world. The U.S. government estimates at least 800,000 men, women and children are trafficked annually across international borders, most of them for sexual exploitation. But officials admit this estimate is almost certainly low.

Trafficking victims frequently pay their smugglers for transport based on false promises for a better future in another country. But once they leave home, many become enslaved, are later sold and exploited.

"The first thing we have to do is get our language straight. We're not dealing with trafficking in persons, we're dealing with slavery," said John Miller, director of the U.S. State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. "Whether it's sexual exploitation slavery in brothels, whether it's domestic servitude slavery, whether it's child soldier slavery, we are talking about slavery and it is appalling but true that slavery is a major human rights issue in the 21st century." David Binder was a correspondent and editor who covered human trafficking crimes for The New York Times. He said the news media has not focused enough attention on the size and scope of human trafficking. "From my perspective as a journalist, one of the greatest problems is there is little or no reporting, and certainly no constant reporting on this major international crime scene," he said.

Reporting on covert criminal organizations is difficult, and human trafficking networks pose particular problems because many victims are coerced into helping their captors.

"It's a clandestine activity and it's really difficult for journalists to follow the story, even U.S. prosecutors have a hard time finding traffickers and pinpointing trafficking cases," said Jolene Smith, executive director of Free The Slaves, an organization in Washington that tracks international slavery. Despite the difficulties in reporting and prosecuting trafficking cases, some progress is being made. The State Department's John Miller says several countries broadcast public service announcements telling victims how to get help. Law enforcement officers now receive training on how to recognize and handle trafficking cases.

And Mr. Miller said journalism is also playing a role. "Finally we see this being recognized for what it is: slavery. And whenever journalists anywhere in the world write about this they are helping to increase public awareness and from that public awareness can come some true progress toward abolition," he said.

In recent weeks, major U.S. newspapers have published several extensive articles about human trafficking and sexual slavery. But the articles have sparked controversy over how journalists can responsibly report on the shadowy world of human smuggling.

Despite some public criticism over claims in the articles, Jolene Smith at Free the Slaves is unconcerned. She says as long as human trafficking issues stay in the news, controversy is good.