Sex trafficking, or the trading of women and children for sexual exploitation, is a major element of global slavery today. Governments around the world are taking action against this multi-billion dollar trade, but analysts say there is a long way to go. VOA's Brent Hurd reports on the trends in sex trafficking and how the U.S. government is leading an effort to hold both traffic young women and those who seek their services accountable.
For most Americans, the word slavery often invokes dark and sinister images of a by-gone era - captured in black and white photos of African slaves forced to work in fields of the New World. No government today officially sanctions slavery. The buying and selling of humans has been illegal in the United States since the late 19th century. Yet today millions of people work against their will with little or no pay in inhumane conditions around the world. The U.S. State Department estimates nearly another million are bought and sold across international borders each year.
The modern term to describe what has happened to these people is human trafficking, but observers say it is global slavery. Many of today's victims are enslaved for work in the commercial sex industry. John Miller, the newly appointed director of the U.S. government office to combat human trafficking, believes this is an unequivocal form of slavery. “If someone, against their will, is being exploited for sexual purposes and they have been coerced, sometimes by physical means, financial means, psychological means -- that is slavery,” he said. Mr. Miller describes a disturbing trend in the buying and selling of human beings. “Most people that work on this issue and on slavery in the last 15 years, have the impression that sex slavery is the fastest growing portion of slavery. It may turn out to be the component that has the most people trafficked across international borders. It is certainly the part of slavery that is most linked to organized crime.”
Global slavery is the third biggest source of income for organized crime after drugs and guns. A strong demand and a steady flow of profits from the sex industry - which includes prostitution and pornography - perpetuate this trade of human beings.
Many of the young women involved come from countries with crumbling economies and few educational or job opportunities. Isobel Coleman, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, believes the lure of a better life often drives women unknowingly into prostitution. In some cases they are even sold by relatives. “It is hard for us to imagine how we can sell our children, but I think it is a reflection of the extreme poverty that these families are living in,” she said. “In many cases they have multiple children and they really have trouble caring for them, feeding them, clothing them. I don't think parents knowingly sell their children into sexual servitude. What they are told and want to believe is that the girls are going to get a job, a factory job in a city that is a distance from a village. And they are told that the girls will live in some type of dorm situation. They are led to believe that what they are doing is right for the kid.”
Instead, the women are frequently put in brothels and forced to work to pay off debts. This is especially common in parts of Asia and Africa, where girls are often valued less than boys. Mrs. Coleman says war, famine and utter poverty lead to these desperate conditions. Sex tourism is also on the rise, particularly in Southeast Asia - an area that has opened up after decades of war.
Other observers say the tearing down of former police state borders - like those of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe - has added to the flow of smuggled humans. Jennifer Stanger, Training Director of the Los Angeles-based Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking, says criminal networks have exploited populations facing major transformation. “What happens when regimes fall or change, you have a large pool of vulnerable people,” she said. “And traffickers thrive in those conditions and target vulnerable populations to move them to perceived opportunities for a better life. What usually happens is they are tricked or deceived about the nature and conditions of work being promised in their place of destination. We see threats of violence or acts of violence, confiscation of identity documents. We see the use of debt - placing them in debt for the costs of transportation and upkeep used as a tool to keep them under the control of the traffickers.”
Jennifer Stanger says many of these women are enticed by the prospect of a better life in a foreign land. Their journey into servitude often begins with an advertisement promising a lot of money. The Japanese newspaper The Daily Yomiuri reported the story of a Polish women who responded to an advertisement on the Internet that claimed “you can make over $20,000 in three months. All you have to do is drink with and entertain Japanese businessmen.” Once she arrived, her trafficker took her passport and forced her to work as a prostitute at a massage parlor. By the time she escaped, she was still in debt to the trafficker and physically as well as emotionally exhausted. It is a story echoed around the world.
Scholars say governments are at least partly responsible for human trafficking. Some trafficking would not be possible without government officials 'looking the other way' at checkpoints and border crossings. John Miller of the State Department describes a new U.S. law that reduces aid to countries failing to crack down on traffickers. “It calls on the Secretary of State to evaluate how countries around the world are doing,” he said. “Just as the Department of Justice puts out a report on how the United States is doing, we put out a report. This past year, if a country was very poorly rated, there is a potential for losing significant amounts of certain kinds of U.S. aid.”
The law is widely supported by both Democrats and Republicans as well as non-profit and feminist organizations. Mr. Miller says the Annual Trafficking in Persons Report has persuaded some governments to take action against traffickers. “Last spring, efforts taken by non-governmental organizations and in part by our embassy, lead the Cambodian government to undertake many raids that led to many traffickers being arrested, thrown in jail, and many victims freed. I don't want to imply that there isn't still a terrible sex slavery situation in Cambodia. But for the first time we saw some significant efforts. And I think you could look at other countries and find similar examples. Greece and Turkey and Georgia are all examples of countries we poorly rated in the report. They had three months in order to avoid the President making a decision to reduce aid. They had to undertake efforts and they did so.”
Some analysts say it is too early to tell if this approach will work in the long run. But most agree the new initiative has heightened awareness of sex slavery and is leading to a global anti-trafficking movement. Other countries, including Sweden and Thailand, have proactively passed laws to combat trafficking and protect victims. Isobel Coleman of the Council on Foreign Relations says the Bush administration has made the issue a priority. “President Bush talked about it in his state of the union address. He put it on the map in a much bigger way than before.”
But she warn that Americans must look to their own contribution to the problem. “There is the danger that the United States will come off as the great moralizer,” she said. “When many of these girls are ending up in the United States, we must look at the demand side of the equation too. People who are paying to have sex with these young girls in the cities in Cambodia are often tourists. It is people coming for sexual tourism. There are now laws on the books that if you are going for sexual tourism to places like Cambodia, you can be arrested for that.”
The U.S. government is also cracking down on traffickers who bring tens of thousands of women into the American sex industry. Police are being trained to work with victims who are often afraid to speak out against their traffickers for fear of being hurt or deported. The Pentagon has recently issued a policy of zero-tolerance for any American military personnel involved in human trafficking. At home and abroad, the U.S. government is saying no to this modern form of slavery.