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Transnational Crime

Trafficking in Human Beings:
The Slavery that Surrounds Us

By Ann Jordan
Director, Initiative Against Trafficking in Persons
International Human Rights Law Group

Nongovernmental organizations, such as the International Human Rights
Law Group, have been instrumental in raising global concern about human trafficking. This author reports that significant action is still necessary to protect the human rights of the victims.

At the end of the last century, the world witnessed the growth of a modern form of slavery -- trafficking in human beings. These modern traffickers treat women, men and children as commodities to abuse, sell, and move across borders like illegal drugs or stolen weapons.

Modern traffickers have many faces. They are diplomats who import domestic workers and hold them in isolation and forced labor in their homes.1 They are members of organized criminal networks that move people into forced prostitution. Some of them are men who import foreign-born women, ostensibly for marriage, but in reality for the purpose of holding them in servitude and subjecting them to sexual abuse. Others are families that import men, women, and children to work in forced labor in their offices, factories, and homes, and subject them to sexual and physical assault. Traffickers, then, are our next-door neighbors. Their victims are all around us. They force their victims to cook our food in neighborhood restaurants or in their own homes, sew our clothes or pick today's fresh vegetables. They could even be the foreign-born "wife" of a co-worker, or the woman held in isolation in forced prostitution in a quiet neighborhood.

One of the most difficult realities facing persons trafficked into forced labor, slavery, or servitude is the propensity of governments worldwide to treat trafficked persons as criminals or unwanted undocumented workers rather than as rights-bearing human beings. Appropriate responses -- respectful of human rights in law, policy, and practice -- are inadequate worldwide. Once victims manage to free themselves, or are freed by others from their captors, they are often re-victimized by governments in the destination country.

Many governments refuse to accept that human trafficking is a problem in their countries or are unwilling to address the problem given the high levels of corruption involved. Some governments view trafficking as merely another form of undocumented migration, and so they imprison victims for immigration or labor violations and deport them. Other governments focus solely on trafficking as it relates to the sex industry, ignoring the violations committed against persons trafficked into other industries or settings. The few countries that prosecute traffickers often treat victims as "disposable witnesses" and deport them after law enforcement no longer needs their assistance.

Compounding the problem, few governments have educated their immigration officials, investigators, prosecutors, and other civil servants on how to identify potential and actual victims of trafficking. Nor have governments insisted on compliance with international law standards or domestic civil rights laws that ensure protection of the rights of the victims.

In countries that take action to combat trafficking, the primary focus is on prosecutions, border interdiction, and cross-border cooperation -- actions which, taken alone, will not stem the rising tide of this crime. Persons likely to come into contact with trafficked persons must understand trafficking and how it differs from smuggling, the ways in which the psychological trauma suffered by victims affects their ability to cooperate, and the need to provide proper, rights-protective assistance and support to trafficked persons.

The international community recently took a step towards ensuring that the crime of trafficking receives universal recognition. Governments signing the new Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children2 agree that trafficking is a serious international problem and is not the same as smuggling of migrants.3 The progressive, modern view contained in the protocol reflects the complicated reality of this crime: trafficking involves all forms of documented and undocumented movement of people across or within borders, by whatever means, for the purpose of slavery, forced labor, or servitude in a multitude of industries and sites.

While the Trafficking Protocol represents a tremendous step forward, it does not fully incorporate international human rights standards guaranteeing all persons, even undocumented victims of trafficking, access to justice and basic services such as temporary shelter, medical care, and food. It contains provisions ensuring some physical safety for trafficked persons who assist in prosecuting their traffickers, but it leaves provision of services and protections to the discretion of governments, even if the government has adequate financial resources or has confiscated the assets of the traffickers. The protocol does not require governments to grant temporary visas or permanent residency to victims when traffickers in the home country pose a serious threat to their safety. Domestic legislation, then, must cure this serious failure by the international community to affirm that migrant victims of trafficking are entitled to basic human rights protections.

The new U.S. trafficking law -- the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act 2000 -- is a positive step in the right direction.4 It offers substantial protections for trafficked persons. It recognizes all forms of trafficking into forced labor, slavery, and involuntary servitude, and it authorizes a temporary visa and permanent residence for trafficked persons who are willing to comply with "reasonable" requests for cooperation and who would "suffer extreme hardship involving unusual and severe harm upon removal." Work authorizations are available; funding is provided to service providers; foreign aid is authorized for prevention and assistance programs abroad; and federal personnel will be trained to identify and protect trafficked persons. The law is very comprehensive although some gaps remain in its coverage.

Concerned members of the public and government officials at all levels can help to improve the situation of victims by better understanding the problem and the law and by identifying potential victims in their daily work and life. Neither the public nor law enforcement should expect trafficked persons to come forward immediately, to trust them, or to be willing to speak out against their traffickers until they and their families are safe. Trafficked persons have been intimidated, both psychologically and physically, into submission. They suffer harms similar to the violence suffered by victims of torture.5 The obstacles faced by trafficked persons, however, are different in some ways from those faced by torture victims seeking asylum. Trafficked persons do not understand their rights, and are typically not prepared to remain in the country of destination. They are also disoriented and often unable to understand that what happened to them is a crime. Thus, people who seek to assist trafficked persons or to recover information about the traffickers must be extremely sensitive to the psychological, cultural, and, in cases involving women, gender aspects of the victimization in order to prevent re-victimization.

The general public, especially health care workers, religious institutions, and community organizations, can assist in locating and assisting victims of trafficking simply by being aware and knowing which questions to ask. For example, individuals can be alert for signs of abuse and forced labor conditions when they visit the homes or businesses of persons using unskilled or low-skilled immigrant labor. Unfortunately, it is necessary to use caution in contacting law enforcement because, in many countries, corruption plays a central role in the ability of traffickers to operate. Consequently, reporting cases to the authorities in many countries should only be done after discussions with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that are knowledgeable on the trafficking situation in the country.

Public officials play an especially important role in detecting trafficking because their work often takes them to potential sites of trafficking or places them in direct contact with potential or actual trafficked persons. For example:

  • Consular employees who authorize fiancee and domestic worker visas could provide information to the women about their rights in the country of destination and provide them with names of NGOs to contact for assistance. They could also scrutinize the domestic worker contracts for signs of trafficking, such as egregious violations of domestic labor laws. Employers using such contracts often are traffickers.

  • Immigration officials at the point of entry and inside the country should be trained to ask questions of potential victims of trafficking in a safe and confidential environment. Before questioning potential victims, they should physically separate them from their traveling companions who may, in fact, be traffickers. Without this step there is little possibility of obtaining the truth. Immigration officials should be provided with appropriate questions to ask if any suspicion is raised or if false documents are discovered. Traffickers often force trafficked persons to travel on false documents. At the point of entry, a victim may still not be aware that she or he is holding false documents or being trafficked. A list of supportive NGOs in the country should also be provided to potential victims. Officials working in the field should not assume that all sweatshop workers are simply unfortunate, exploited, undocumented workers who need to be deported. They should ask questions capable of eliciting responses that distinguish between sweatshops and forced labor.

  • Housing inspectors, agricultural inspectors, labor inspectors, emergency medical teams, health workers, and others can maintain a high level of awareness when they encounter immigrants who are working or living in extreme conditions or suffering from very serious untreated medical conditions. They can report the situation to the authorities for investigation.

  • Police, investigators, and prosecutors handling smuggling, labor abuse, and sexual abuse cases involving immigrants could consider the possibility that trafficking might be involved and include the appropriate questions in their investigations.

Lastly, cooperation among all levels and branches of government is essential. Governments should form interagency working groups to ensure that all relevant actors work together to combat trafficking. The working group, as well as the individual departments, should form partnerships with, and provide financial support to, local anti-trafficking and other community NGOs. Neither the government nor the NGOs alone can stop trafficking, but together they have the power to significantly reduce the ability of traffickers to operate as freely as they do today, to empower potential victims so as to prevent trafficking, and to adopt rights-based laws, policies, and practices that enable governments to prosecute and punish, and trafficked persons to recover with dignity and respect in a safe environment.

1 Council of Europe Report on Domestic Slavery, submitted to Committee on Equal Opportunities for Women and Men by Rapporteur, John Connor (Doc. 9102, 17 May 2001). Available at: http://stars.coe.fr/doc/doc01/EDOC9102.htm Back to text

2 Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (2000). www.odccp.org/crime_cicp_convention.html#final (The Organized Crime Convention and the list of signatory countries is also found on this site.) The crucially important Interpretative Notes (Travaux Preparatoires) (A/55/383/Add.1 Addendum) to the protocol are at: www.odccp.org/crime_cicp_convention_documents.html. See particularly the explanation of the definition of trafficking. Back to text

3 The Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air, supplementing the U.N. Convention against Transnational Organized Crime was also adopted. Back to text

4 U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act. 18 USC sec. 1590: "Whoever knowingly recruits, harbors, transports, provides, or obtains by any means, any person for labor or services in violation of this chapter" (involuntary servitude, slavery, forced labor) shall be fined or imprisoned for up to 20 years or for life if kidnapping, aggravated sexual abuse, attempt to kill is involved. http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?c106:H.R.3244.ENR: Back to text

5 Okawa has summarized some of the similarities of torture and trafficking on their victims in Impact of Trafficking Offenses on the Individual: post-traumatic stress disorder, severe depression, overwhelming shame, devastated sense of self, dissociation, loss of sense of safety, chronic fear, anxiety and phobias, and difficulty talking about rape. She points out that trafficked persons are subjected to many types of torture (physical, social, psychological, and sexual) and deprivation (hygiene, nutritional, health, sleep, and sensory. Judy Okawa, Ph.D., Program for Survivors of Torture and Severe Trauma, Center for Multicultural Human Services, Jan. 2001 (conference materials). Back to text

Copyright © 2001 International Human Rights Law Group. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction of this article for resale is strictly prohibited. This article, in its entirety and including the name of the author and the organization, may be reproduced and distributed, with no charge to recipients, for the promotion and protection of human rights.

Ann Jordan and the International Human Rights Law Group have been prominent advocates for stronger laws on trafficking and the protection of victims.