Human Trafficking: A Misunderstood Global Scourge

Article excerpt

During a diplomatic visit to Calcutta, India, in May, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton stopped at a shelter for young women and girls. It was not an ordinary shelter, but one with a specific mission a mission Ms. Clinton wanted reporters to broadcast to Americans back home. It was a shelter established to help victims of human trafficking, an international crime that Clinton and other international players have called one of the world's largest and most pressing human rights concerns. It was also, primarily, helping girls who'd been trafficked for sex.

This is a key cause for Clinton. In recent years, she and other international figures from United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki- moon to British Prime Minister David Cameron have raised the alarm about human trafficking, a practice involving forced labor, from mining to domestic work to prostitution.

"These victims of modern slavery ... their stories remind us of what kind of inhumane treatment we are still capable of as human beings,"

Clinton said in June upon the release of the annual State Department report on global human trafficking. "Traffickers prey on the hopes and dreams of those seeking a better life, and our goal should be to put those hopes and dreams back within reach."

Moreover, Clinton and others have said regularly, human trafficking is also an American problem. It doesn't just take place in the sweatshops of impoverished Indian villages or in Thai brothels, but on US streets from San Francisco to New York. The federal government has estimated the number of domestic trafficking victims to be in the tens of thousands annually. Victims range from Southeast Asian indentured nail salon manicurists to Mexican agricultural workers to underage American prostitutes.

Many advocates say this last group, made up of American girls and a relatively small number of boys victimized in America, is the primary trafficking problem in the United States. "Sex trafficking," as this particular strain of human trafficking is called, has become a national human rights crisis, they say, and deserves a huge public outcry.

Indeed, domestic sex trafficking has become a high-profile cause. Celebrities from Jada Pinkett Smith and Salma Hayek to former couple Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore have picked up the bullhorn of the anti-trafficking movement, with a focus on sex trafficking.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof's crusade last spring against domestic sex trafficking and the online marketer Backpage.com, which he accused of helping sell underage girls into sex slavery, prompted a widespread movement against the website and its owner, Village Voice Media. Many advertisers in Village Voice Media including Starbucks, AT&T, and Best Buy cut ties with the company.

There have been local benefit concerts against sex trafficking and, recently, even a Tennessee church rodeo to raise awareness about the issue.

Federal prosecutors have also increased their efforts against human trafficking with a primary focus on sex trafficking. The Department of Justice prosecuted only two human trafficking cases in 1998; in 2011 it charged 120 defendants with human-trafficking crimes. The bulk of cases were related to sex trafficking.

"For years, whenever we talked about sex trafficking in America the reaction was surprise," says Andrea Powell, executive director and cofounder of FAIR Girls, an anti-trafficking organization based in Washington, D.C. "The perception was that it happened to girls in foreign countries.... We've seen the beginning of a shift in the attitudes in the US, and that has to do with public awareness."

On one level, the new and growing focus on domestic human trafficking seems straightforward. Clearly, enslavement of individuals, and sexual exploitation of children, is cause for concern. But when the international issue becomes a domestic one, and when forced labor starts to involve sex, there also comes an emotional debate about where the real problem ends and where hype and sensationalism begin. …