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21 Million Victims of Modern Human Trafficking - How We Got Here, and How to Solve It

According to United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), between 2012 and 2014 a total of 63,251 victims of human trafficking were identified in 106 countries around the world. Of course, real numbers are hard to come by due to the nature of the crimes: cases go unreported, and some governments don’t keep track of trafficking victims worldwide. This results in underestimation of actual victims of any kind of human trafficking.

While we like to think that slavery is a thing of the past, it’s a large component of human trafficking around the world. In fact, it’s a big money-making industry around the world, with hundreds of trafficking routes that evolve daily. According to the International Labor Migration, human traffickers earn roughly a profit of $150 billion a year from all different forms of modern-day slavery.

UNODC defines human trafficking as “recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception.” While this definition only has been in place since 2000, the history of human trafficking has started long before any of us could remember.

The Atlantic Slave Trade is set to be the earliest recorded form of global human trafficking. From approximately 1526 to 1867, about 12.5 million slaves were shipped to the Americas. The volume of slaves differed over the years. Slave trade was not only legal, but it was a government regulated policy in the United States.

The first national law against slavery was placed by the British in 1807 and the process of ending slavery in the United States started prior to the American Civil War. After a long and deliberate fight for human rights, the 13th Amendment – adopted in 1865—officially abolished slavery. The first International attempt to end slavery was in 1904 when the International Agreement for the Suppression of “White Slave Traffic” was signed, mostly in response to rising number of white women or girls being forced into prostitution.

After the end of the First World War, the obvious need for international cooperation on humanitarian issues emerged, set the need for a global conference that addressed certain atrocities of war. In 1921, 33 countries at the League of Nations International conference signed the International Convention of the Suppression of Traffic in Women and Children. After the Second World War, United Nations was formed and created its own version of an international formal treaty that aimed to fight for human rights issues around the world. United Nations Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others was signed in 1949, however, to this day only 66 countries signed it.

I can go on forever about different treaties that aim to address human trafficking. However, nowadays, there are an estimated 21 million victims of modern-day slavery. That is almost twice as much as during the Atlantic Slave trade three centuries ago! But that’s not necessarily because of ineffective policy responses, but rather the unfortunate side effect of globalization. Even though we’ve seen an increase since those days, it’s not to say that there aren’t effective ways to address it and hopefully reduce the number of victims around the world.

To start with some unfortunate realities, there will always be people who are willing to pay for illegal exploitation and there will be people who are willing to supply it. People are trafficked for many purposes like forced labor, child soldiers, forced begging, sexual exploitation, forced marriage, selling of children, even removal of organs. With a variety of purposes, human trafficking becomes a worldwide industry that harbors criminals and victims.

As the world “shrinks” thanks to globalization, transport of people becomes more prevalent; whether it’s voluntary or forced. If I had more funds and fewer responsibilities, I could book a plane ticket for a flight across the globe today and leave tomorrow practically go anywhere my heart desires. Within the European Union, the free movement of persons is a “fundamental right guaranteed by the EU to its citizens” with the establishment of Schengen Area back in the 1990s.

Border-free Europe guarantees free movement of more than 400 million EU citizens! In reality, this also includes tourists and undocumented persons that were smuggled for one reason or the other. However, as we’ve seen through history, human trafficking is not the outcome of globalization, but rather an elicit part of an integrated global economy stimulated by the ease of access to parts all over the world.

Sarah E. Mendelson in her article for Foreign Affairs argues that an integrated programming of anti-trafficking education is a worthy policy response despite the challenges of accomplishment. During her years of working at the United States Agency of International Development (USAID), the author noticed significant lack of funding towards trafficking combined with the lack of attention on the issue itself. The agency has invested only about $16 million a year between 2001 and 2012. Additional $20 million was funded by the State Department and private donors in 2014. Compare that to $1.1 billion the Department of State and USAID requested to address the root causes of irregular migration in Latin America and the Caribbean in their 2018 Fiscal year budget.

Through the integrated policy model against human trafficking, the issue becomes a part of sectors such as health, education, and agriculture. By supporting the overall development, anti-trafficking can be discouraged through economic development and education; help the most vulnerable identify smugglers, support local businesses to stop child slavery. Ineffective criminal justice system and lack community responses towards human exploitation are problematic. Human traffickers see a profitable appeal to smuggling and only a few traffickers are arrested, prosecuted and sentenced for their crimes.

And yet again, the international advocacy networks come to our rescue! When discussing the USAID, we are limited by the national fiscal budget to effectively advance international development. It’s a government agency, so we can’t forget how politics play into decision-making. There are also other issues in international development that USAID is interested in focusing, and human trafficking may not the priority. Thankfully, there are international non-governmental organizations that specialize and serve multi-objective purposes to address an issue in focus.

Polaris Project focuses on the issue of trafficking in the United States and it advocates for stronger federal and state laws. Polaris operates National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline to help victims and survivors access to support and services they need. Not for Sale is an international organization that protects people and communities against human trafficking. As always, international organizations provide operational and informational support, as well as allow average citizens to participate in the advocacy network.

Addressing such a complex and historically rooted issue like human trafficking is not easy. There is not one golden approach that works for all vulnerable communities around the world. It takes years and a significant funding to address human rights violations; however, it’s crucial to continue the path of sustainable development for those who need it the most. It’s critical to those of us who believe that the protection of human rights is essential for our future.

Works Cited

"Budget." USAID from the American People, Accessed 7 Sept. 2017.

"11 Facts about Human Trafficking." Do Something, Accessed 7 Sept. 2017.

"The Facts." Polaris Project, Accessed 7 Sept. 2017.

"Facts about the Slave Trade and Slavery." The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, Accessed 7 Sept. 2017.

Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2016. New York, United Nations, 2016. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Accessed 7 Sept. 2017.

"Human Trafficking by the Numbers." Human Rights First, Accessed 7 Sept. 2017.

Jesionka, Natalie. "The Fight for Freedom: 7 Organizations Combatting Human Trafficking." The Muse, Accessed 7 Sept. 2017.

Mandelson, Sarah E. "Born Free: How to Prevent Human Trafficking." Foreign Affairs, 22 Sept. 2014. Foreign Affairs,

"Schengen Area." European Commission: Migration and Home Affairs, Accessed 7 Sept. 2017.

"Slavery in America.", Accessed 7 Sept. 2017.

"Timeline of Human Trafficking." Rutgers University Campus Coalition against Trafficking, Accessed 7 Sept. 2017.




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