Awareness of human trafficking has increased over the last few years, yet the extent to which it continues indicates that a great deal remains to be done if this abhorrent practice is to be ended. The U.S. has taken serious steps to combat trafficking since 2000, while the new measures bring hope that modern-day slavery is not something that has to be accepted in this day and age.
For the skeptic, allow me to clarify the issue. Modern-day slavery does not merely involve individuals in developing countries undertaking low-wage employment, nor does it refer to the absence of democratic ideals and economic freedom. While all of these conditions may be present, modern-day slavery quite literally involves the forced labor of individuals with little or no pay, who are either unable to escape the situation or are in grave danger should they try to do so. This has become a big business around the world and, as the president noted, involves some 20 million men, women and children.
According to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, human trafficking involves the transportation or transfer of individuals using coercion or force for the purposes of exploitation. This takes place daily within and across international borders. The U.S. Department of State estimates that some 600,000 to 800,000 individuals are trafficked across borders every year, 80 percent of whom are female, and almost half being children. Human trafficking exposes the dark side of free markets, involving humans as viable commodities in an industry worth more $32 billion a year.
A major proportion of those trafficked end up in the illicit sex trade, or forced prostitution. Whether lured by the promise of authentic employment or by simply being abducted, women and children find themselves the victims of this abominable business. According to UNICEF, some 2 million children are involved in the commercial sex trade around the world today.
Another major aspect of the modern-day slavery to which the president referred involves bonded slavery. Many such victims are forced into labor either by violent coercion or through procuring debt, whereby individuals work to pay off small loans, only to discover their wages rarely cover the interest placed on the loan, sometimes as high as 5,000 percent annually. The debtor’s family is often employed to help pay off the loan, resulting in a multi-generational sentence that may have no foreseeable end.
Several years ago I met Nagaraj, a man forced to work in a brick kiln in India since the age of 12, alongside his wife and children. Unable to satisfy the owner’s financial extortion, Nagaraj would work as many hours as the day would bring, enduring threats and physical abuse on a regular basis. It wasn’t until the organization International Justice Mission, along with local authorities, stepped in to shut the kiln down, that Nagaraj and his family would ultimately achieve their freedom.
Awareness of the issues of human trafficking and slavery has led to many good outcomes and actions are being taken to combat the practices around the world. However, evolving communications and increased mobility have presented new opportunities to traffickers and not just in developing countries. Trafficking for sexual exploitation has become a huge industry in Europe, while around 20,000 people are trafficked into the United States annually. Around 80 percent of these are for the purposes of sexual exploitation, and almost half are under the age of 18, according to the Department of Justice. Furthermore, some 300,000 children in the United States are thought to be involved in prostitution, with an average age of 11, according to the FBI. Once involved in the sex trade, the average life span of these children is two years. Atlanta is considered the No. 1 hub of child trafficking and sexual exploitation in the United States.
There is a great deal to be done both at home and abroad if human trafficking is to be successfully combated. The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 challenges trafficking domestically and worldwide, while Tuesday’s Executive Order increases scrutiny of government contracting of foreign companies in production chains. Forty-eight U.S. states now have anti-trafficking laws (an increase from 28 in 2007), and in a recent study, the Polaris Project praised the efforts of most states, placing only Wyoming, Arkansas, Montana and South Dakota in its lowest tier of action taken against trafficking.