Combating Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery

Thursday, February 17, 2022
REUTERS/Go Nakamura

Senior Counsel, Krevolin & Horst; Former Ambassador-at-Large, Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, U.S. Department of State (2015–2017); Member, Board of Directors, Polaris Project; CFR Member

British Academy Global Professor and Associate Professor of Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery, University of Nottingham; Senior Fellow, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

Former Supervising Deputy Attorney General, Special Crimes Unit, State of California; Author, Taking Down Backpage: Fighting The World’s Largest Sex Trafficker 


Chief Policy Officer, Friends of the Global Fight Against AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria; Former Ambassador-at-Large, Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, U.S. Department of State (2007–2009); CFR Member

Following National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, panelists examine efforts by the private sector, multilateral institutions, and governments to combat human trafficking and raise awareness about the crimes of modern slavery.

LAGON: Thank you. Welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting on “Combating Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery.” I’m Mark Lagon. I’m chief policy officer at Friends of the Global Fight Against AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, and I’ll be presiding over today’s discussion.

Human trafficking is a horrendous atrocity in our world. It takes many forms. Sometimes it’s for the exploitation of people for labor, sometimes for commercial sex. It is something that crosses borders but need not cross borders for the child sex trafficked in the United States or the bonded laborer in India. It’s something that is largely done in the private sector and in the informal economy, but it is sponsored directly by states in some cases. And for the—for the migrants, sometimes it involves guest workers who are documented, as well as undocumented migrants.

We’re joined by the very best array one could imagine for this discussion.

We have Susan Coppedge, who is senior counsel at Krevolin and Horst. She’s the former ambassador-at-large at the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons at the State Department, and she’s a member of the board of directors of Polaris Project. I had the privilege of being the ambassador and heading Polaris Project, so I’m delighted to work with her.

Siddharth Kara is British Academy Global Professor and Associate Professor of Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery at the University of Nottingham. He’s senior fellow at the Chan School of Public Health at Harvard, and author of multiple books on human trafficking, including Sex Trafficking, Bonded Labor, Modern Slavery, and another about to come out.

Maggy Krell is supervising deputy attorney general—was supervising deputy attorney general in the Special Crimes Unit of the state of California. She’s author of the recently published book Taking Down Backpage: Fighting the World’s Largest Sex Trafficker: A Prosecutor’s Story. She’s also been chief legal counsel for Planned Parenthood affiliates in California.

I’d like to start with a question for each one of you and then some questions for all of you. Let me start with Ambassador Coppedge.

You know from when the last human trafficking ambassador, John Richmond, used to get together those who had held the post, the three people who had held the post before him, that I’ve said that there’s a tension between the goal of prosecution and the goal of re-empowering survivors. The Trafficking Victims Protection Act and the U.N. Palermo Protocol heavily emphasize prosecution. One of the great, distinctive qualities of your time as ambassador was to put the focus far more on survivors and their voice in shaping responses. Could you talk a bit about the tensions between these two important goals in combating trafficking?

COPPEDGE: Yeah, and I want to—I thank you, Mark, for moderating today and I’m thrilled to be with Siddharth and Maggy and thank the Council for convening on this important topic.

Our country rightly values our justice system and we believe that prosecution is a deterrent to all crimes, including human trafficking. But two factors—of many, I’m sure—highlight the importance of not focusing solely on prosecution but also on survivor-centered justice. One is the inequities in our criminal justice system, which continue to need our attention and are constantly being brought to our attention, importantly, so that we can continue to correct those inequities. But, two, we really can’t prosecute our way out of this problem. The numbers are too large and our resources are too small. So we look at what we can do to assist survivors and empower them on the other side of the equation, as you posed that question, and governments need to recognize the integral role that survivors have in combating trafficking. And the State Department stood up a Survivor Advisory Council that does this work, has done it through three administrations now, and we take policy advice from survivors from their lived experience. And we can craft better policies with the help of survivors, while also lifting up those who have been unjustly exploited.

But I have to devolve into a story because I’m a storyteller, I’m a litigator, where prosecution and empowerment collided and the survivor’s rights and dignity in this case were trampled. We had been talking since I was ambassador about vacatur and expungement, which is removing a criminal record that a survivor has based on a crime that was committed as a direct result of being trafficked. That’s kind of the magic language. The hook is that the trafficker caused the crime. And we’ve been talking about that. I brought it up with the Association of Attorneys General in 2015, and we’re still talking about it. It’s still on the recently released National Action Plan the Biden administration just put out, and Senators Gillibrand, Portman, and others are proposing a federal version of this vacatur. And the concept is easy. Right? We don’t want survivors to have a criminal record follow them around when they’re trying to improve their lives and get housing and jobs and raise their families.

But I want to broaden this effort and move upstream in the criminal justice process to stop the prosecution of trafficking survivors in the first place, and the way we do that—in the legal system it’s called an affirmative defense and we have affirmative defenses like insanity or coercion or self-defense, but we need to have an affirmative defense for survivors of trafficking. And this is not a problem in search of a solution; it’s a concrete problem that I have here with a case in Georgia. I always say that human trafficking is a global crime that we fight locally.

And I have a seventeen-year-old—a client who was seventeen when she was susceptible to trafficking. The signs are common: She ran away from home, she was sexually abused, she was put into commercial sex for food and for housing and shelter, and then she met a man twice her age who told her he loved her and was going to take care of her, and proceeded to sell her. He controlled her with love, promises of love, threats, psychological and emotional abuse; he threatened her family; he got her pregnant, which is another means of control, and then when she tried to leave, he stabbed her, resulting in the loss of so much blood that she had to go to the hospital. And I have to give you a little bit of background because then, one day after the stabbing—she’s still seventeen; she’s still pregnant—she’s texting a fourteen-year-old friend of hers and that fourteen-year-old wants to run away and the trafficker says, tell your friend we’ll come get her. And the trafficker then took the fourteen-year-old to a trailer park—not some exotic mansion in New York, which is the stories you hear about in the media—but to a trailer park where he sold the fourteen-year-old to four men, in the same place that he’d been selling my client for nine to ten months.

And the police arrested and charged my client and her trafficker, and it gets worse because the D.A. put on the record that at seventeen she’d been sold in commercial sex, so he knew she was a sex-trafficking victim, and then her own lawyer said that she’d been prostituted by her co-defendant, called her “damaged goods.” We turned to the judge and we hope he’s going to do something having heard this; instead, he mocks my client. When she said she was afraid of her trafficker, the judge responded, that’s why you shacked with him for ten months. And this happened ten years ago when I did not represent her; I represent her now, trying to get her out of custody. But it shows why we need an affirmative defense, because no one in that courtroom understood the trauma that survivors face. She was given thirty years to serve twenty while the four men who raped the fourteen-year-old were given twenty years to serve five. They are all out of jail and Tiffany Simpson still sits in custody.

So that’s just an example and I’m sorry if I’ve gone on too long with my story. I promise all of my future answers will be shorter. But that is where survivor rights conflict with prosecution and where we need to improve our justice system.

LAGON: That’s great, and of course, it’s super important to U.S. diplomacy working on trafficking internationally to have that perspective of U.S. conduct at home.

Let me move to Siddharth.

Siddharth, I came to know you first through your first book on human trafficking, Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery. Part of your work has been to look at the economics of human trafficking. I wanted to ask you about a couple major global trends that, you know, have an impact on trafficking: one, the global migration situation over the last two years; secondly, COVID-19. Any observations about how that affects the economics of human trafficking?

KARA: Absolutely. And Ambassador Lagon, thank you. It’s a pleasure to be with you and my esteemed colleagues on this panel today.

The most important element in my experience that people need to understand about the issue of human trafficking is there is a sub-class of humanity that exists at the bottom of our global economic order. They are perpetually impoverished, vulnerable, destitute, and any little crisis or catastrophe—be it military conflict, climate change or, in recent years, a global pandemic—pushes them over the edge into desperation, and traffickers are the first responders in that scenario, the first ones to look for vulnerable individuals who are desperate, recruit them, or otherwise ensnare them in forced labor and other modes of servile labor exploitation. And I’ll give you two case studies in brief that I think put this in very clear focus.

You remember in March 2020 when the world sort of went into lockdown, and at the top of our global economy, companies sort of paused everything, and at the bottom, that meant catastrophe. And you may recall images, for instance, from South Asia, the apparel sector, for instance. So much production, so many of the clothes we wear are produced in South Asia, and when the economy shut down, you had millions of people literally jobless migrating, walking, in some cases, a hundred kilometers to get back to their village. Now they don’t have a job; they don’t have income. Children are pulled out at school; they have to take on debts and end up in debt bondage, and an entire generation of progress is lost because when those jobs slowly come back, there’s a surplus of labor, which means poor wages, poor conditions, taking on more debt, children are not getting back in school, and this particularly affects young girls.

The other case study I’ll give you in brief comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I was just there a couple of months ago; in fact, I’ve been traveling there extensively, looking at the cobalt mines, and most of the world’s cobalt comes from the Congo. And that’s—if you can plug in anything, a car, a phone, it has Congolese cobalt in it, and it’s mined in horrific, subhuman conditions, again, by this sort of sub-class of humanity at the bottom of the global economy—forced labor, child labor, hazardous labor, people are injured, people die in tunnel collapses. But what happened with COVID is suddenly, again, everything sort of shut down. The big mines shut down. But the demand for cobalt, in this case, didn’t stop. In fact, during the pandemic, we needed our rechargeable gadgets more than ever to conduct life or for children to go to school from home. And so this put immense pressure on the peasant population of the Congo to dive into the tunnels and pits and trenches and keep the cobalt flowing. So what happened again was tens of thousands of children pulled out of school, put into tunnels to dig, and again, they will probably not go back to school. This particularly impacts young girls. And so you see this sort of cycle of vulnerability and poverty, of labor exploitation repeating itself whenever there’s a catastrophe.

And these people also, then, to touch on your other point, migrate. When there’s nothing for them where they are, out of survival, they’re compelled to move, whether it’s just children on the move or families on the move. And I’ll say it again and I’ll—it’s very crucial to understand: the first responders to any mass migration event that is crisis-driven are traffickers and other exploiters who are on the lookout for people they can pluck out of that bottom rung of humanity and put into servile labor conditions, and all those goods feed up into the global economy, into the top of the chain, and then ultimately touch our lives. We wear it, we use it, and we consume it every day.

LAGON: Tremendous. Those two case studies give great texture.

Maggy, it’s delightful to engage you today. There’s been a sweep of change in terms of U.S. policy regarding the sale of people for sex on the internet. When I was CEO of Polaris, there was hot debate about craigslist as a place where children were sold for prostitution. The Village Voice’s Backpage was a real turning point for prosecutors around the country and legal standing of internet free speech. 2018 legislation made a shift in the Communications Decency Act to close loopholes for the internet. And then today, more broadly, you know, we see discussion about the responsibilities of Facebook and some other major information technology companies and platforms for protecting privacy, protecting free expression. Could you situate sort of the question of trafficking online in today’s debate?

KRELL: Absolutely. And thanks so much to the Council for having this important discussion and to my colleagues here on this panel.

We’re in a really dynamic moment here for the Communications Decency Act. I would say that, you know, five years ago the idea that that act would be amended, the idea that it was even touchable, you know, would be mind-blowing to people. This is an act, of course, that was passed in 1996 when the internet was really in its infancy. And then as the internet expanded, you know, for the most part, things had been good. The technological advances have led us to greater efficiency, greater accessibility, but of course, it’s also led to, frankly, you know, people being sold for commercial sex with, you know, ruthless efficiency, and kind of figuring out how to prevent that has been a big challenge for tech and certainly for lawmakers. And so, you know, starting with, you know, craigslist and then Backpage and the shutdown of Backpage and the filing of criminal charges and a congressional subcommittee and a report, we started seeing a shift in Congress’s willingness to really move on the Communications Decency Act and create some limitations and create some guardrails to protect kids and vulnerable people online. So that was the SESTA-FOSTA act that you mentioned that was passed and signed into law in 2018, and there’s another act right now that’s pending, that’s advancing in the Senate, called the EARN IT Act.

But what I think we’re doing right now, and you kind of alluded to this with Facebook, is that, you know, there’s this idea that we can take this piecemeal in terms of sexual abuse as a vulnerability, but there’s also the idea that maybe we need to look at the whole thing as a whole, as we’re fighting with, you know, these problems of disinformation and misinformation and sexual abuse and all kinds of other illegal conduct that’s being facilitated through the internet. And this might sound a little bit retro, actually, but the idea of a standard of care, of a company’s duty to act reasonable, that sort of got away from us online. There isn’t really a requirement that companies do that the same way they would in a brick-and-mortar shop. So I think, you know, as Congress continues to wade through this and, you know, there’s certainly plenty of experts on this that are kind of throwing out different ideas and talking them through, but the idea of a standard of care, of best practices, of reasonableness, and then figuring out how to really incentivize innovation. Right now there’s not really a disincentive for companies, you know, when they are platforms, when they’re protected by the CDA shield, and when they’re, you know, proliferating abusive conduct online. So we need to flip that. We need the incentives to be to innovate around preventing harmful material and we also need, you know, strong disincentives and strong legal guards.

LAGON: Great. And this prompts another question that I’d ask of all of you, Susan, Siddharth, and Maggy, which is, more broadly, where does private sector responsibility come in? How do we deal with that issue across the board in human trafficking issues?

Ambassador Coppedge?

COPPEDGE: Responsible businesses want to do the right thing because they’re customer-facing and they want their customers to like them. The problem comes in with businesses that aren’t responsible and I think it’s hard to police those entities who are more interested in making a profit than in doing the right thing. Government has started to police that and I think Maggy suggested we might be increasing our vigilance with the internet companies, but with products and things that are made overseas, Customs and Border Protection is now issuing withhold release orders on goods that are being imported, if the goods were made with child or forced labor. And since this started under the Trump administration—it’s continued into the Biden administration—it’s something that we are really focusing on and looking at. The withhold release orders have detained approximately 1,500 shipments to date. From October of 2020 to September of 2021, there were forty-nine active orders that addressed different types of commodities, a lot of them coming from the Xinjiang region of China where the Uighurs are being forced to make apparel products, cotton-based. Silica-based products for our solar industry are coming from China and those are being withheld. Rubber protective gloves: Right when we needed them when COVID hit, there was a factory in Malaysia that was given a withhold release order because they were using forced labor to make the protective gloves that we needed in our medical settings.

So I think that’s one area where government’s coming in and saying, business you weren’t doing enough and so we’re going to put some guardrails on this. I think, again, responsible businesses want to do more, but it’s just hard when there are actors that are undercutting them financially by not behaving responsibly.

LAGON: Siddharth—private sector responsibility.

KARA: Yeah, absolutely. I think—look, there’s two ways you can run a global capitalist economy, OK? Number one is you pay no heed to conditions at the bottom of the chain, and Ambassador Coppedge gave us a perfect example of that vis-a-vis China solar panels, silica, and other things. If you spend any time walking up and down Africa, you will see the same practice taking place there. So many Chinese mining companies, construction companies, other types of companies paying no heed not just to the people but to the environment as well, and that’s sort of one model. We need to champion another model, which is, companies at the top of the chain, good actors and bad actors, must accept full accountability, ethical, moral, and legal responsibility for conditions at the bottom of their chain. Right now most of the companies at the top of the chain rely on some sort of assurance downstream from some supplier and that person relies on an assurance from the next person downstream, and everyone’s pointing their finger downstream until the last finger is pointed at some person at the bottom of the chain who’s being exploited holding the bag. And so whether it’s regulations at the top, withhold orders, as Ambassador Coppedge mentioned, there needs to be an inversion of this sort of concept of responsibility, because when no one’s responsible at the top of the chain and no one’s compelled to be responsible at the top of the chain, the reasonably foreseeable outcome of that is servile labor exploitation, and we’ve seen that across history.

I mean, going back centuries to the days when the sugar barons of England were running slave plantations in the West Indies, they accepted no responsibility; they said, well, it’s up to the people on the plantations to look after the slaves and make sure their conditions are OK. Well, what was the outcome there? We know what the outcome there was. Same thing here. If consumer-facing companies and big brands take the same approach, well, it’s up to them down there to make sure conditions are OK, we’re going to have the same thing: slavery, child labor, forced labor persist on and on and on and continue to permeate across the global economy. So there has to be a complete inversion and shift so that there’s ultimately significant liability at the top of the chain, because that’s where the demand starts and that’s where the solutions have to start. And if the top of the chain accepts responsibility for the bottom—and I say this: Why are the people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for instance, not treated with the same dignity as any employee in Cupertino or, you know, Seoul, South Korea, in the case of Samsung? Why are they not equal employees in the chain and why are they not treated the same? And we can’t just assign responsibility for that for—to the mining companies on the ground. Right? The top of the chain is where responsibility needs to be taken. We wouldn’t treat our children and ask them to go into toxic pits or to sit in apparel factories ten hours a day making cheap clothes, so why do we allow other people’s children to be in that position? And it’s really as simple as that, and when we have that inversion in sort of mindset and accountability, then I think the work that was started back then by the British abolitionists and following on with Douglas and Lincoln and Tubman and Garrison and so on, to rid the world of this mode of appalling treatment of slaves, that work will finally be finished.

LAGON: Great.

Maggy, you inspired this question; do you want to elaborate a bit?

KRELL: I do. I agree a hundred percent with what Siddharth said and he said it so well. It’s a—(laughs)—I don’t even know what I should be adding to it, but I will say that I don’t think that we can trust the private sector to kind of self-police, because it hasn’t worked on the internet and it hasn’t worked with the largest companies. It just simply has failed. So I think the government has to be involved to hold accountable those bad actors, those who don’t exercise good moderation practices, those who don’t care about the people at the bottom, I think, you know, without government—you know, they don’t enforce their own terms of use when it comes to online platforms, necessarily. So I think we absolutely need intervention, you know, when it comes to—you know, my background as a prosecutor, you know, I think that our focus should be, you know, disrupting systems that enable trafficking and slavery, so that might mean going after a website, it might mean going after a hotel chain, it might be going after a company that’s, you know, making products offshore and not upholding our standards. But I think we absolutely need that balance and that force coming from government.

LAGON: And business needs to be at the table and shaping those new norms. I helped found the Global Business Coalition Against Human Trafficking and that’s one of the things its companies—Coca-Cola, Google, and others—are concerned with.

I have a speed round here so that we can then move to questions from our super group of participants. What one, single, short recommendation would you make to the Biden administration on human trafficking policy? And I’m going to take one away from you. My recommendation is get someone in place to be the ambassador to combat human trafficking by the time the second annual report comes out under your watch next June.


COPPEDGE: My—one of my issues—it’s, again, recognizing the National Action Plan but I would pull it up to the top of the to-do list, is to examine and improve the temporary non-immigrant worker visa program because right now in the U.S., your work visa is tied to a specific job and a specific employer, which means that sometimes workers are subjected in the U.S. to abusive work situations that they can’t leave. Workers need another prospective employer to file another petition so they can stay here and work, and this is the framework that I criticized Middle Eastern countries for when I was the ambassador, and yet we do the same thing here. So we have a bit of egg on our face that we’re telling other people not to do this when we do it.

And in this day and age, how easy would it be to have an electronic clearinghouse where employers could post jobs and workers could go and find them if they needed to leave an abusive situation? So let’s remove the dependence on one’s employer from the worker visa program.

LAGON: That’s great. That’s something when I was ambassador it became an issue of focusing on actually guest workers who are subject to the worst conditions in the Gulf. It’s true here.


KARA: Well, you took my idea, Ambassador Lagon. (Laughs.) I agree completely that it’s just so necessary that we have a figurehead at the top of the TIP office. That’s a sorely deficient aspect of our fight against human trafficking globally. But the next best idea: I think we have to, as a nation, our government, massively increase the available pool of resources in fighting this issue. I think we probably spend more on defense in a day than we’ve spent in the last decade to fight slavery at home and abroad, roughly. And of course, those numbers shouldn’t be equal, but it just gives you a sense of the massive asymmetry in resource allocation. We’ve inherited a proud and extraordinary legacy of slavery abolitionists in this country who fought against immeasurable odds with one fraction of the tools we have today, and they won. They won their fight but we’ve not continued that fight. And a big part of it—I see it everywhere I go, around the world and here domestically—is deficiency in resources, and we really need to make a bigger financial commitment as a country to be the leader in finally, finally extirpating slavery from this country and the planet.

LAGON: Thanks.


KRELL: Since Susan went in another direction, I will do this recommendation that I know we both agree on and that’s a memo to the DOJ to expand safe harbor and affirmative defense to make sure that we’re recognizing, you know, the intersectionality between offenders and victims in the human trafficking space. You know, Susan’s story about her client Tiffany is not the only story like that, unfortunately, and we do have victims who are stuck in trafficking and they’re committing other crimes, not voluntarily but to survive, and we need to do a better job recognizing that.

LAGON: Blame the victim. The vulnerable being, then, held accountable for what they’ve been exploited for or harmed by, which I see in the AIDS field.

So now at this time I’d like to invite members to join our conversation with questions. And a reminder that our ground rules are on the record for all of us, so our operator will remind you how to join the question queue.

OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)

Our first question will be from Peter Galbraith. Please remember to state your affiliation.

Q: I’m Peter Galbraith, I guess a former lots of things.

But more relevantly to my question, I’ve been dealing with a different form of slavery and indeed just came yesterday from northeast Syria and this is the problem of Yazidi girls who were kidnapped, used as sex slaves, then had their children taken away from them and finally able to reunite them this year. My question is about that kind of slavery. In other words, you’ve been talking about trafficking and combating that, but I wonder if you have some comments about, you know, the direct human slavery, people enslaved not just the way ISIS did but in other parts of the world. Mali, for example, legally had slavery till the 1980s. But, you know, where are—what about people who are not just in the economic system slaves but literally slaves?

LAGON: As presider, I’m going to try and direct questions to one person or maybe two.

Susan, do you want to take this one?

COPPEDGE: I mean, you point out an interesting discrepancy, Peter, in the way we use the terminology today, and I don’t want to be too wonky but, as a prosecutor, I didn’t like calling it modern-day slavery because it set the bar too high, because truly those enslaved—like you mentioned the Yazidi girls or I would submit also the Uighurs in China who are enslaved in factories, much like we had slaves historically on farms and plantations—that that’s a different kind of slavery, which is why we use the term modern-day slavery or human trafficking. Certainly, where states sponsor slavery, the Trafficking in Persons Report every year should be assigning that country a Tier 3. As you noticed, though, sometimes it’s military extremists that are doing this, non-state actors who are enslaving as a tool of violence and as a tool of war, and it’s hard to hold—for the U.S. government to hold a non-state entity accountable in the Trafficking in Persons Report. But certainly calling that out—I know that some of the Yazidi individuals have spoken at the United Nations and it’s just important to keep shining a light on the different types of slavery we encounter today, equally pernicious, I would submit, because the girls who are being sold in commercial sex—and I say girls; it can be girls or boys or young adults—here in the U.S. are also being raped daily, as are those Yazidi sex slaves; it’s just a different structure. And I think there is some accountability now in the international courts, as well, for those international actors, but it’s important to tackle it on all fronts.

Thank you so much for raising that, Peter.

LAGON: Siddharth, do you want to move on to another question or do you have something you want to throw in?

KARA: I think Ambassador Coppedge covered it brilliantly, yes.

LAGON: Another question?

OPERATOR: Our next question will be from Shirin Tahir-Kheli.

LAGON: Hello, Shirin. How are you?

Q: Good to see you. I’m sorry you can’t see me, but anyway.

My question is, how robust is our multilateral engagement on this issue? Mark, you’ll remember that even when one had an ambassador for this important topic how difficult conversations were on this issue, even with friends and allies, let alone other countries. So without that presence, how robustly are we following this issue globally?

LAGON: Susan, do you want to take that? I came to the job having been in the international organization bureau and had multilateral organizations on my mind, but do you have a thought about that side of diplomacy?

COPPEDGE: Shirin, I appreciate that. I think that the talented and capable individuals at the State Department are engaging fully on this issue, even without an ambassador, but I was surprised, maybe naively so, when I got to the State Department at how hierarchical our global diplomatic efforts are and how it really is important to have someone with that title to be able to speak to an equally impactful individual in a foreign government about this issue. So it is just vital that we have an ambassador to engage in that, to strengthen the efforts that the office engages in all the time.

I know it was mentioned at the G-7 conference so it’s being brought up in global, international, multilateral engagements, as well, even without an ambassador. I think it’s important to have someone in the White House who handles the trafficking portfolio. There was someone like that in the Trump administration; there is not yet someone like that in the Biden administration. And so I think it’s important not only to have the ambassador but to carry that across the street into the White House, as well, to have someone raising this issue across the whole range of other issues that it touches upon.

LAGON: That is very—you know, in the U.N., there are many different, not so well-coordinated efforts. The Council of Europe has perhaps the best treaty on this. Some sub-regional organizations have held dialogues that at first take the place of action but have sometimes facilitated it.

Another question.

OPERATOR: Our next question will be from Kristin Lord.

LAGON: Hey, Kristin.

Q: Hi, Mark. Hi, everyone. This is Kristin Lord from IREX. My organization, IREX, along with our partners at Walmart—and I see Sarah Thorn is on the call as well—have actually been working on some projects that focus on the prevention side.

You know, how do you actually work with potential victims to give them information about how to evaluate what is a real or credible job offer versus something that’s not going to turn out to be what you expect? What are some simple steps you can take, like making sure your family or others have a copy of your passport and you don’t just surrender it—things like that to protect yourself. I have been very surprised that these preventive efforts are not more prominent in the conversation. I heard some about prevention today but it also wasn’t one of the top things you mentioned. I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about where do you—do you think focusing more on prevention is promising, and if not, you know, why does this tend to slip down on the priority list? Thank you.

LAGON: Siddharth, might I ask you to address this question?

KARA: Yeah, absolutely. I’m so glad you brought this up. You know, human trafficking operates on a few key variables; one of them is, of course, vulnerability, economic vulnerability; another one is isolation, and I think that’s part of what we’re talking about here. When individuals are isolated and cut off from social networks, family networks, agencies, local stakeholders that could assist them when things go wrong, that’s how exploitation starts and persists. And so some of the things you’re talking about are so very important. Setting up social networks or connective tissue in a destination country for a migrant worker is super important, ensuring they have some way of communicating with friends and family, copies of passports, and other documents. You know, the confiscation of documents, as you know, is one of the first things that happens before forced-labor exploitation of migrant workers. All of that is very important and will no doubt—no doubt—prevent a substantial rate, a number of human trafficking outcomes.

The other side, though, is that we have to recognize there is still so much massive vulnerability and massive desperation at the bottom of the sort of global, social, socioeconomic order, and in some cases, I’ve also seen that just no amount of prevention, when someone is just absolutely desperate, can stop them from having to take an offer, having to move, having to migrate, and so on top of prevention, we have to also be more ground-heavy in terms of inspections, auditing, monitoring—you know, that other kind of prevention post-migrant move to bring into the light this type of exploitation and to ensure that isolation doesn’t persist.

So, you know, prevention starts before movement, after movement, but then also recognizing that people are going to take offers because of desperation, particularly in post-crisis, post-catastrophe contexts, as we’ve seen in the last couple of years. And there’s another whole layer of underfunded intervention and underfunded prevention that needs to take place after those offers are taken and to also protect them and their families from threats. And I know my colleagues Susan and Maggy would have immense experience in this area that, you know, a person can be aware that something really bad is happening, but the level of threat against them or loved ones, parents, siblings, children, could be so great that you can hand them all the pamphlets you want but they’re not going to do anything, not going to rock the boat, cooperate, or even try to escape because of those threats. And that’s—you know, when Susan gave that example of that judge saying, you know, oh, so then you shacked up for ten months—it just shows complete ignorance of the level of threat, coercion, and control. I mean, we don’t know what was being said to her about her siblings or loved ones, her friends, so that’s another whole level of protection that has to be coupled with prevention to ensure these outcomes don’t devolve into the worst forms of trafficking.

LAGON: Let’s go on to other questioners, even though all three of you would have something to share and I hope we can pull Maggy into some of these answers.

OPERATOR: Our next question will be from Elizabeth Verville.

Q: Thank you. Elizabeth Verville, former State Department, retired. I was involved in the negotiation of the protocol to combat trafficking, and I’m now very happy to see it has 178 parties. The major challenge we had was to arrive at a definition that would serve as a basis for countries around the world to create a crime of trafficking in persons as a separate crime, instead of trying to enforce kidnapping or some other crime when trafficking was involved.

I’m just interested in your perspective on how well it’s worked to promote decent legalization— criminalization provisions around the world. And then, secondly, how about the—how have the international cooperation provisions worked? Are they being relied on because so many cases involve more than one country? Have they been helpful? And just, your work is wonderful, and I think maybe Maggy might be able to answer the second question of the utility of the convention in international cooperation, law enforcement cooperation. Thank you.

LAGON: Who’d like to take this up?

COPPEDGE: Maggy, if you don’t mind, I’ll jump in for a second because it’s interesting you talk about getting international laws to be consistent across defining trafficking, and one of the parameters that the TIP Report judged, which was an objective parameter, was, do you have a law criminalizing trafficking or not? It wasn’t subjective like many of the standards are. So it was actually part of that carrot-and-stick diplomacy. There’s a great book called Scorecard Diplomacy written by Judith Kelley at Duke. I always tout her because I’m a Duke grad and I really enjoyed her book on this topic. It’s very insightful. But it was very easy to put out model legislation for countries of best practices. This is what we’ve done; this is what other countries have done; this is what’s working. And so one of the first thing countries were able to do was actually pass laws criminalizing trafficking. Then you get into where Maggy and I worked as prosecutors. Like, once you have the law on the books, you have to have people who can enforce that law and the resources to do it.

And Maggy, if you would talk for just a minute about how resource-intensive these crimes are and how law enforcement initially didn’t really have the tools to tackle it.

KRELL: Sure. Thanks. You know, and I think this piggybacks with Kristin’s question about prevention that, you know, exploitation and trauma are often, you know, precursors for a cycle of more exploitation and further trauma, and so, when we talk about prevention, we’re also talking about intervention that’s effective. These cases are incredibly resource-intensive. You know, in the example case you mentioned, it’s not just fear of threats of other people; it’s a real trauma bond that we see in sex-trafficking cases where, you know, similar to, you know, in intimate partner violence relationships, domestic violence relationships, there is a real bond between a victim and a perpetrator, you know, that’s just, you know, a lopsided power dynamic where somebody’s taken advantage of over and over again. So to get that person out of that situation and to a point where they can maybe cooperate and give some useful information takes a ton of resources; it’s not resources that, you know, one prosecutor’s office could even offer. It involves partnerships with nonprofit organizations. You know, housing is, you know, one of the biggest issues domestically that, you know, trafficking survivors are facing, because again, and this goes back to a point Siddharth made a couple times, it’s just the desperation. It’s that you have these people in such vulnerable kind of dire straits situations. So, you know, to help them get out of that, it really requires wrap-around services, and this isn’t just for sex trafficking but labor trafficking as well. And it’s, you know, it’s the poverty issue, it’s stability, it’s economic stability, as well as health care and mental health care and all of that.

COPPEDGE: And on the international framework, we do have excellent international cooperation agreements with Mexico and Canada with respect to U.S. prosecutions. I was part of some federal international efforts that involved cases being taken down simultaneously in Mexico and the U.S. And then on the worker visa component I mentioned earlier, we are entering into agreements with Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador to have special worker visa programs for individuals from those countries. So there are areas of international cooperation that are certainly hopeful in this area.

KRELL: So I was just going to add: No, I mean, I do think, you know, especially in countries that, you know, tend to neighbor and do business with the United States, you know, having not necessarily a match with our human trafficking laws but some sort of framework, some sort of effort is so important. You know, I’ve seen cases—it’s not necessarily, you know, a trafficking case that gets prosecuted, although that is what we see, but it’s—you know, it’s money laundering and it’s other law violations that can be identified and prosecuted because of international cooperation.

LAGON: Another questioner?

OPERATOR: Our next question will be from Jaeduk Seo.

Q: I’m Jaeduk Seo from Radio Free Asia.

U.S. Government Accountability Office published a report about trafficking this week. The report points out that North Korean government generates hundreds of millions of dollars annually from human trafficking. So how do you see the situation of human trafficking in North Korea?

LAGON: Maybe Susan and Siddharth, briefly each? Then I have a question for Maggy.

COPPEDGE: Well, North Korea is one of the governments that’s frequently called out in the Trafficking in Persons Report for state-sponsored forced labor—(audio break)—labor, much of it is going into China, so there’s some correlation between China’s state-sponsored trafficking and North Korea’s state-sponsored trafficking. Again, when you have a government that doesn’t respect international norms and doesn’t care to engage on human rights issues, there’s very little the carrot-and-stick method of the State Department can do in this area. I think it’s still important to shine a light on that and to talk about it and to talk about the atrocities that are happening to individuals there. But it’s a complicated policy question where we have very little leverage, as we do in countries that want to be seen as complying with international human rights standards, want to do better. With countries that don’t care about their citizenry, it’s a much more challenging problem.

LAGON: Siddharth, do you want to add anything?

KARA: No, I think Ambassador Coppedge is right. I mean, this is one of the most challenging scenarios when you have state-sponsored forced labor in isolated countries with strongmen at the top of the regime that, again, as she said, have little to no concern for the basic human rights and dignity of their own people. This is a very, very challenging scenario to deal with. There’s only so much that can be done in terms of isolating the country, calling it out, shining a light on it, and all of that needs to be done. But it only works—it only works if they have a partner—right?—because those people are making goods and that only has value if those goods are sold somewhere and that’s generating profit. So that means China has a role to play here, and they’re not playing the role and we can see that because they do the same to members of their own population. And so that’s the problem. That’s the problem is there’s a partner in a bilateral state-sponsored forced-labor system, and we can’t do much about North Korea because we’re not a huge trading partner with them; we are with China and I think there is much being done. You know, there are bills floating on the Hill about their presumption that any solar panel coming out of Xinjiang is made with forced labor, and those goods cannot come in. I mean, we do have leverage there that we can use and are starting to use and should continue to use, and then the next step down is to apply that to other state actors that are using their own population to generate money and to support and enrich themselves and the oligarchy at the top through forced labor. I mean, we have to be the beacon, a strong, strong presence, a moral leader against that kind of political and economic system.

LAGON: I have a question for Maggy that’s sort of informed by the international context. Specialists and activists in the trafficking field tend to be focused mostly on labor trafficking or mostly on sex trafficking and there are tensions between those sides. When I happened to have been the ambassador to combat human trafficking, there was a real shift from a focus on sex trafficking to also account for the probably larger, demographically larger problem of labor trafficking. We also started breaking down prosecutions, convictions, and identification of victims in countries around the world by labor and sex, and there’s still far more impunity and less government enforcement action on labor trafficking. As someone who has been very involved in really important work related to sex trafficking, what do you—how do you feel about the mix and balance between sex trafficking and labor trafficking in U.S. prosecutions as model for the world?

KRELL: Well, first, I would say that labor trafficking and sex trafficking are equally egregious crimes and I think human trafficking is a helpful umbrella term that, you know, covers both of those forms of trafficking. I think what’s important about them and why they are in this same umbrella term of human trafficking is we’re looking at the exploitation, the fact that somebody is being taken advantage of and somebody’s being exploited. So we’re not necessarily focused on whether that is for farming or washing dishes or having sex. We are focused on the fact that somebody is being exploited, and I think that’s really important, you know, especially in the sex-trafficking world, you know, where there are, you know, consensual commercial-sex situations, that our focus needs to stay on, you know, whether somebody is being exploited or somebody is under eighteen, a child, and so, you know, I think that’s really important.

In terms of the prosecutions, I mean, clearly there’s a, you know, some lopsided statistics there that even though we know that labor trafficking happens just as much, if not more, in the United States, we see most prosecutions focused on sex trafficking. And, you know, I would speculate on that—it’s because commercial sex is illegal so it’s much easier to spot, it’s much easier to prosecute sex-trafficking cases when you have, you know, other crimes like pimping and pandering and other, you know, types of sex crimes that fit, you know, under that framework, and when you have labor trafficking, it’s a lot harder to detect. I mean, you can go into a restaurant and have no idea that somebody isn’t, you know, being paid. So I think that, you know, we are getting—law enforcement is getting more tools; there is more training in the Department of Labor. You know, there’s state and federal law enforcement agencies that are looking at, you know, a whole continuum of labor crimes from, you know, kind of wage theft all the way to human trafficking. I think it’s really important that we’re acknowledging that and starting to build prosecutions there. But again, I mean, the labor trafficking, you know, has kind of, in terms of prosecution, has lagged behind sex trafficking.

LAGON: Susan or Siddharth, did you want to comment?

KARA: Yeah, the only thing I might add is we should also take note that it’s not like there’s a very thick, impenetrable line between these two categories. Right? I mean, a person can be exploited both for labor and commercial sex simultaneously, one after the other, back and forth. You know, our law enforcement and judicial systems tend to bifurcate it and it’s understandable because you’re looking for a definition for a crime, you have to prosecute it, and it meets certain indicators and so on. But in the real-world context, there’s a lot of grayness between these two categories, and that’s just also important to note.

LAGON: Great. I might have another question. Some of us here have been talking about how what we do in the United States as our policy is very important, you know, including, as an example—Maggy, in your work on the vulnerability of internet platforms, you know, to human trafficking, what kind of model can the United States be for the world, or are there some norms that you could imagine either the private sector or the government taking out to the world that could help?

KRELL: I think the government of the United States really needs to look at reforming the Communications Decency Act in a way that’s not piecemeal but really looks at it as a whole in terms of how the internet accelerated and facilitated illegal activities. Of course we need to continue to vigilantly protect free speech online, but when it comes to algorithms that are speeding up disinformation or speeding up, you know, commercial sexual abuse material, you know, literally videos of children being raped, you know, we absolutely need to draw a line and shut that down and have policies which require our platforms to do that.

LAGON: Great. Well, I have one last question. There are some who argue for a development approach to human trafficking, to create better economic circumstances and job opportunities so that people are not tempted to listen to, you know, a trafficker who, you know, entraps them or gets them to become a migrant laborer across borders. Is there a danger of focusing on development widely as a kind of prevention measure? Because admittedly, in the human trafficking field, we don’t have the best metrics; we don’t have the best count of how many human trafficking victims there are in the world, and we’re just getting our arms around evidence about which interventions, which policy solutions work, it seems to me a broad development approach that would be very hard to measure how you’re doing. Does anyone want to take that on, you know, like prevention through broad development policy? Something good, something bad?

Siddharth maybe?

KARA: Sure. You know, without question, anti-poverty initiatives, child-education initiatives, a strengthening of poor communities across the global south—I mean, all of these sort of development-related metrics, particularly relating to education of young girls across the global south. I mean, all of these things will be powerful prevention measures and tools against the negative outcomes of any range of exploitation, whether it’s child marriage or human trafficking. And I think to your point, those are very important, under-resourced, underfunded efforts, and particularly coming out of the pandemic. You know, we have to sort of reassess where everything is now across the global south because I don’t think we really have a sense of what the severity of impact has been on the poorest members of humanity. We have a much clearer sense of the impact it’s had on our lives, but not so much at the bottom.

Now, that said, you’re right. We don’t really have good baseline metrics and measures at all. It’s much better than, you know, Mark, when you were ambassador and when I was getting started in my research, you know, where we were just doing this with numbers for understandable reasons.

LAGON: (Inaudible.)

KARA: (Laughs.) You know, we’ve come a long way in terms of having some basic skeletal sense of scale and scope, but we don’t have a good baseline to measure against, to see, does this development-related activity attenuate levels of human trafficking or does this other one work three times as good? And so getting back to what do we need, we need more baseline research, which comes back to the resource question I raised earlier because research is, again, woefully underfunded. You really can’t tackle a problem or measure impact and efficacy and then decide, yes, this is what we need to be doing here, until you have a baseline that you can measure against, and that’s a fundamental deficiency, even today, in the international and even domestic human trafficking world. I mean, do we know how many sex-trafficking victims there are in the United States? You know, with all of our transparency, power, influence, and money, do we have a good number of the number of people who are victims of human trafficking within our borders, let alone everywhere else in the world? And if we don’t have that, how do we start to implement programs and measure impact and determine what works best and what doesn’t?

LAGON: I appreciate that, and we’ve run out of time. I will say, as someone who works in the AIDS, TB, and malaria realm, having enough resources to deal with a problem that you could devote some of it to metrics and research is deeply important. So the resources question you raised earlier, Siddharth, really matters.

Well, alas, with time having run out, I want to thank you all for taking part in this virtual meeting, and I especially want to thank three wonderful and complementary voices in this field. The video and the transcript of today’s on-the-record meeting will be posted on CFR’s website, so go back to it and share it with colleagues. Thank you very much.


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