January 7, 2009

Human Trafficking: 21st Century Slavery

During his recent trip to Asia, Nicholas Kristof, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and op-ed writer for The New York Times, wrote two informative articles about forced prostitution in Cambodia (see The Evil Behind the Smiles, If This Isn’t Slavery, What Is?, and The Face of Slavery). Having traveled to Asia for business, I have seen the tremendous size of the sex trade and heard similar horror stories from people trying to help thousands of victims. (Photo courtesy of Nicholas D. Kristof/The New York Times.)

In addition to Asia, sex trafficking is taking place everywhere including the United States, Canada, and Europe. In the U.S., girls and boys, young women and men, are transported across interstate highways to satisfy the demand for sex. In addition, underground sex parties are organized in U.S. cities hosting large sporting events such as the Super Bowl, college football bowl games, and the Final Four men's college basketball championship.

Child prostitution and sex trafficking is widespread throughout Asia. Mr. Kristoff summarizes this issue well, "The business model of forced prostitution is remarkably similar from Pakistan to Vietnam — and, sometimes, in the United States as well. Pimps use violence, humiliation and narcotics to shatter girls’ self-esteem and terrorize them into unquestioning, instantaneous obedience....Young girls and foreigners without legal papers are particularly vulnerable. In Thailand’s brothels, for example, Thai girls usually work voluntarily, while Burmese and Cambodian girls are regularly imprisoned. The career trajectory is often for a girl in her early teens to be trafficked into prostitution by force, but eventually to resign herself and stay in the brothel even when she is given the freedom to leave."

To fight human trafficking in the United States, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) created The Campaign to Rescue and Restore Victims of Human Trafficking. There are common patterns for luring victims into situations of sex trafficking including:
  • A promise of a good job in another country;
  • A false marriage proposal turned into a bondage situation;
  • Being sold into the sex trade by parents, husbands, boyfriends; and
  • Being kidnapped by traffickers.

According to HHS, "Sex traffickers frequently subject their victims to debt-bondage, an illegal practice in which the traffickers tell their victims that they owe money (often relating to the victims’ living expenses and transport into the country) and that they must pledge their personal services to repay the debt. Sex traffickers use a variety of methods to 'condition' their victims including starvation, confinement, beatings, physical abuse, rape, gang rape, threats of violence to the victims and the victims' families, forced drug use and the threat of shaming their victims by revealing their activities to their family and their families' friends....Victims may also suffer from traumatic bonding – a form of coercive control in which the perpetrator instills in the victim fear as well as gratitude for being allowed to live."

The private sector should educate their employees who work or travel abroad about trafficking in its various forms including the methods employed by traffickers and the risks to victims. Furthermore, I recommend increasing awareness about trafficking among immigration authorities and consular and diplomatic personnel so that they use this knowledge in their contacts with the private sector.

Larger corporations provide training workshops or seminars to employees who are about to relocate abroad. These sessions are aimed to facilitate the transition of living or working in different countries. Learning about the damage caused on innocent lives by the illegal sex industry should be made a mandatory topic. Accordingly, relevant training and support materials must be provided to businesses. The goal here is to reduce the demand for prostitution, thus having the same effect on the supply.

In 2000, the United States Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), which creates the possibility of sanctions against countries that tolerate trafficking. I hope the Obama Administration will use TVPA's authority to eliminate human trafficking. Should Hilary Clinton win confirmation as the next U.S. Secretary of State, in addition to taking on so many diplomatic issues, she should make the fight against human trafficking and sex slavery a priority. (Photo courtesy of Nicholas D. Kristof/The New York Times.)

Equally important, the European Union needs to take stronger actions in eradicating human trafficking and sex slavery within its borders and apply pressure on countries abroad that receive EU military and humanitarian assistance.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) published some resources that I think is worth your time in reading:

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