Release of the 2019 Trafficking of Persons Report
Three years ago, I sat in the expansive General Assembly Room at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City unknowingly awaiting a speech that would transform my perspective on global economics. A young woman from the United States bravely stepped up to the podium and shared her personal account of how she became a victim of human trafficking when she was just eight years old. She was not transported to a foreign and distant country, but instead brutally exploited in her own community, a typical American suburban neighborhood. Her trafficker preyed on her innocence and vulnerability to develop a relationship with her; he used psychological manipulation to gain her trust, slowly leading her into a trap of exploitation. If she did not obey his commands, he threatened to kill her mother and kidnap her younger sister. The adults in her life with a responsibility to protect her, such as her teachers and doctors, missed the warning signs of abuse and dismissed her poor grades as evidence of a mental disability. Each day, from 3-6pm, a time when most children are playing on the playground or finishing their math homework, she was sold for sex only two miles away from her house.
Her story underlines an element of the reprehensible practice of human trafficking often misunderstood: that human trafficking must involve the physical transport of a human being across national borders. On June 20, 2019, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo released the U.S. State Department’s 2019 Trafficking in Persons Report. This 538-page document provides an assessment of the current efforts taken by 187 governments to combat human trafficking and clarifies many of the misconceptions surrounding the crime. In the opening message of the report, Secretary Pompeo entreats all people to contribute their specific talents to eliminating an evil that presently “[robs] a staggering 24.9 million people of their freedom and basic human dignity—that’s roughly three times the population of New York City.” (Trafficking in Persons Report). This report offers invaluable insight into the most effective strategies for ending modern day slavery on both the national and international levels.
One of the common misunderstandings addressed in the report involves the term “trafficking.” The word “trafficking” in the term “trafficking persons” results in the misconception that human trafficking must include physical movement. This narrow understanding of the crime often causes countries to underestimate their responsibility to police human trafficking within their own borders and restricts the application of harsher penalties connected to human trafficking laws for prosecuting criminals. Alarmingly, the International Labour Organisation “estimated that traffickers exploit 77 percent of all victims in the victims’ countries of residence” (Trafficking in Persons Report). The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime also uncovered in its 2018 report that the majority of the perpetrators of this heinous crime are also citizens of the countries in which they were convicted. (Trafficking in Persons Report). These two facts reinforce the pressing need for each country to recognize human trafficking as a issue requiring a robust set of national laws followed by active enforcement, and not a international concern that can be passed off for another country to deal with.
To facilitate a uniform comprehension of the crime, and consequently stricter laws and enforcement, the United Nations formally adopted an international definition of “human trafficking” in 2000 within the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, commonly referred to as the Palermo Protocol. Human trafficking is defined as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labor or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs” (Trafficking in Persons Report). This wide definition expands beyond the typical associations, such as kidnapping citizens of one country and transporting them to another to engage in forced labor or prostitution, to include other equally reprehensible and enslaving forms of exploitation, such as with the young woman I heard from at the United Nations Conference. In simple terms, the Palermo Protocol lays out three components for an action to be considered human trafficking: “the trafficker’s action, the means of force, fraud or coercion, and the purpose of exploitation” (Trafficking in Persons Report).
The ratification of the Palermo Protocol by the United Nations marked the beginning of a more comprehensive and purposeful approach to human trafficking in the modern world. In the nearly two decades since, 168 countries have used the Palermo Protocol as the framework for the development of their own domestic laws to criminalize human trafficking (Trafficking in Persons Report). For example, the United States Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000 which defines the “severe forms of trafficking in persons” for US Federal Law in verbiage that parallels that used in the Palermo Protocol. Furthermore, the gradual adoption of domestic policies has developed a series of best practices that implement a victim-centered and trauma-informed approach to creating protections for victims. The 2019 Report noted a positive correlation between international and national acceptance of these measures and the increase in the identification of victims and conviction of traffickers. This conclusion provides an encouraging result for countries that have made targeted efforts to convict human traffickers and rescue their victims. However, the numbers behind the crime reveal that there is clearly still much left to be done.
Human trafficking is an abhorrent facet of the international economy, encompassing an estimated $150.2 billion in illegal profits annually (International Labour Office). This shocking number exceeds the annual revenue of Target, Starbucks, the NFL, and Nike combined. The overwhelming profitability of this dehumanizing crime incentives criminals to continue engaging in it and underscores the necessity of forceful punitive measures to penalize traffickers and deter potential ones as well. Furthermore, this $150.00 billion-dollar number uncovers the alarming societal reality that there exists an overwhelming demand for forced labor and sex. In the United States, the self-proclaimed land of the free, an estimated 8,914 and 10,507 children from the ages of 13-17 are sold and bought in sex slavery each year, respectively (Swaner). The meteoric rise of the internet facilitated the instant access to online pornography, which studies have linked to the increase in human trafficking cases in the country. The Minnesota Human Trafficking Task Force published a report citing that “46 published research studies on the effects of pornography found that exposure to pornographic material puts one at increased risk for committing sexual offenses.” Countries must convict traffickers and rescue victims to drive down the supply side of this abhorrent crime while also funding research exploring the reasons for demand and enacting public initiatives to stem the errant desire to purchase children and adults for forced sex and labor.
It is easy to become distracted by the economics and legal practices involved in human trafficking and forget that at the center of this egregious crime is a human person. A human being who has inherent dignity and worth that is being utterly disregarded. Dr. Lucy Steinitz, the Senior Technical Advisor for Protection at Catholic Relief Services noted that “[human trafficking is] a different kind of slavery than long ago… They are not in shackles or on plantations. People are coerced into harsh employment under horrible conditions, and then have no freedom to leave. They are beaten, violated and told they are worthless—that no one else wants them anymore” (Lemke). Each country must take responsibility to abolish modern day slavery in every one of its vile forms, whether its child labor in Nepal, debt bondage in India’s granite quarries, or a little girl being forced into the porn industry and prostitution in America. We cannot allow ourselves to be overcome by the severity of the issue or fail to contribute our unique talents to eradicating it. We cannot accept a world where human beings are sold.
If you know or have suspicions about a situation involving human trafficking, please call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at #1 (888) 373-7888.
Swaner, Rachel, Melissa Labriola, Michael Rempel, Allyson Walker, and Joseph Spadafore. Youth Involvement in the Sex Trade: A National Study. Center for Court Innovation. New York, 2016. https://www.courtinnovation.org/sites/default/files/documents/Youth%20Involvement%20in%20the%20Sex%20Trade_3.pdf.
Lemke, Rebekah Kates. 7 Things You Might Not Know About Human Trafficking and 3 Ways to Help. Catholic Relief Services. March 19 2019. https://www.crs.org/stories/stop-human-trafficking.
International Labour Office. Profits and Poverty: The Economics of Forced Labour. Geneva, Switzerland. 2014. http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---ed_norm/---declaration/documents/publication/wcms_243391.pdf
Minnesota Human Trafficking Task Force. http://www.mnhttf.com/site/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Human-Trafficking-and-Demand-FINAL1.pdf
Timothy Head. Porn Consumption is Contributing to Child Sex Trafficking Epidemic. The Hill. 3 March 2018. https://thehill.com/opinion/criminal-justice/376500-porn-consumption-is-contributing-to-child-sex-trafficking-epidemic.
Trafficking in Persons Report. Department of State Publication Office of the Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights. June 2019. https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/2019-Trafficking-in-Persons-Report.pdf.
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