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The Human Trafficking Scourge

Prepared by: Alexandra Silver
May 2, 2006


Globalization is often hailed as an engine for development with the potential to create opportunities in previously inaccessible parts of the globe. But the increasing flow of information, people, and goods has some unsavory side effects. Among these is human trafficking—what some call modern-day slavery—which has expanded along with the rest of international trade. A May 3 CFR symposium on human trafficking will explore approaches to combat the problem.

The number of victims is hard to calculate but is believed to be in the hundreds of thousands annually. Many originate in the former Soviet Union and Southeast Asia, although nearly every nation is affected by the people trade, whether as places of origin, transit, or destination, says the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in its recent report, Trafficking in Persons: Global Patterns. The U.S. State Department's annual Trafficking in Persons Report rates countries according to their efforts to combat the crime.

The Congressional Research Service says it is a lucrative business for organized crime. Traffickers ensnare those afflicted by poverty, war, crisis, and ignorance. Trafficking—the movement of people for the purpose of exploiting their labor—is distinct from human smuggling, in which immigrants hoping for a better life pay to be brought into another country. But the two tend to overlap, since the smugglers often force migrants to work to pay off the price of passage. The sex trade, involving women as well as young girls and boys, generates the most alarm, but trafficking of people for forced labor is likely more widespread. Even contractors in Iraq have come under scrutiny for human trafficking violations (ChiTrib).

The law is struggling to catch up to the criminals. In the United States, a common destination for trafficked persons, the government has stepped up its efforts. U.S. legislation includes the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA), which makes countries that do not cooperate in combating human trafficking subject to sanctions. The United Nations has increasingly spotlighted the issue; the advocacy group Global Rights provides an Annotated Guide to the UN Trafficking Protocol.

Activists are divided on the best way to address trafficking. Some prefer a more human-rights-based approach to a focus on law enforcement, saying victims are often treated as criminals and threatened with deportation after their ordeal. Others say there is too much attention paid to the sexual exploitation aspect of trafficking. Writing in Mother Jones, Lisa Katayama argues, "By pressuring countries to enact sweeping new anti-prostitution laws, the White House is glossing over many of the complexities of trafficking." Non-governmental organizations tend to fall into two camps. Some, such as the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, are focused on the abolition of prostitution, while others, including the Global Fund for Women, insist this distracts from the real problem.

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