09 April 2012
A special session of the United Nations General Assembly made headlines last week with a disheartening announcement – 2.4 million people today, across the globe, are victims of human trafficking. Of those, 80 percent are being forced into sexual slavery, and 17 percent are enslaved into forced labor.
Even the statistic of 2.4 million people does not truly reflect the impact that this phenomenon has; the number only represents the souls caught up at any given time, but does not track those who escaped their living nightmares and found freedom.
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, human trafficking is “the acquisition of people by improper means such as force, fraud, or deception, with the aim of exploiting them.” Some prefer to dispense with the seemingly whitewashed term and refer to the practice as modern-day slavery. No country is unaffected. Because of the way traffickers transport their “goods,” the human cargo often follows the same shipping lines as illegal drugs. It is one of the world’s most lucrative forms of organized crime, creating a draw for cartels seeking to diversify as well as for individual pimps on the street.
Women make up nearly two-thirds of the world’s trafficked persons, and it is shockingly easy to sell these women for sex. Madrid police began an investigation last month into a prostitution ring, in which the pimps violently forced the women into sex slavery. The victims were chained to pipes and beaten into submission, and if they tried to escape or failed to pay their pimps, bar codes were tattooed onto their wrists.
In India, brothels are filled with the victims of human trafficking. Young girls are married off to seemingly nice men, who whisk them away from their families and off to larger cities. Once there, they are forced into sex slavery, forced upon by dozens of men each day, and kept in destitution so they cannot escape. All too often, their families will not even come to their rescue, adding social isolation to the women’s pain.
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently brought to light illegal practices occurring on Backpage.com, which made just over $20 million in 2010 on the sale of prostitution ads. Too many of these ads were known to sell under-aged girls or those forced into sex. Mr. Kristof wrote, “the Brooklyn district attorney’s office says that the great majority of the sex trafficking cases it prosecutes involve girls marketed on Backpage.”
However, sex is not the only business that trafficking profits from. There are few commodities in today’s world that have not been touched at some point by a victim of trafficking and forced labor. From the clothes in your closet to the computer on your desk, millions of slaves – from children working cotton fields or mines, to factory workers making mere cents off a long day’s labor – lubricate the globalized economy. Some willingly sign up for the work, only to discover the true terms of employment later.
In what the U.S. government called the largest human trafficking case in American history, California-based company Global Horizons would recruit workers from Thailand to work as farm hands throughout the western United States at minimum wage. To get the job, each of the nearly 1000 workers had to pay Global Horizons recruiters $11,000 to $20,000 up front; families mortgaged their homes and workers took loans from recruiters at 80 percent interest to get to the U.S. Once there, the workers found themselves trapped, unable to determine their work schedule, forced to live in overcrowded trailers without heat, and terrified to run away or alert authorities because of the threats Global Horizon made against their families back home. The case was only brought to light when a few workers in Utah and Hawaii managed to break away and contact non-profit legal groups.
M. Cherif Bassiouni, an emeritus law professor at DePaul University in Chicago, said at last Tuesday’s special General Assembly session that “there is no human rights subject on which governments have said so much but done so little.” That may be beginning to change.
In a project funded by the U.S. State Department, non-profit organization Slavery Footprint created an online website and mobile app that allows users to not only see how their consumer choices are affected, but also what alternatives they may have. The mobile app, like Foursquare, allows users to check in, and suggests more labor-friendly stores or products nearby. (I was shocked to discover that my personal Slavery Footprint was 61 slaves, due mainly to a large collection of ballpoint pens and a penchant for video games.)
While the app may bring more citizen attention to the issue, the UN is hoping to get more nations to take action as well. Tuesday’s special session announced the UN Trust Fund on Human Trafficking to help the survivors of trafficking with medical attention or in helping victims become financially independent, but officials also encouraged more active legal responses. “Where traffickers use threats and weapons, we must respond with laws and prosecutions,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said. ““To protect people from such exploitation, countries have to coordinate their labor and migration policies. […] It will take resources to build a bridge from words to deeds.”
The President of the sixty-sixth session of the United Nations General Assembly, Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, said, “Whether an individual, an organization, a State, I urge everyone to speak out against this terrible crime that does unspeakable damage.”
Photo by Ira Gelb.