"So YOU'RE GOING TO RUN THE STATE DEPARTMENT'S trafficking office!" a friend exclaimed when he heard the news. "What qualifications do you have to run a motor pool?" That was back in 2002, and despite a history of involvement in human rights issues as a congressman from the state of Washington, I was almost as much in the dark about human trafficking as my friend. Like most Americans, I assumed that slavery had ended in the 19th century. As I was to learn during the next four years, slavery may be illegal, but it still flourishes around the world, even in the United States. Despite the phenomenal increase in worldwide humanitarian concern, it remains one of the most curiously neglected issues of our time.
During my years as director of the U.S. State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, and later as ambassador at large on modern slavery, I met with many survivors of slavery: sex slaves; farm, factory, and domestic servitude slaves; child soldier slaves; even children enslaved as camel jockeys in the Persian Gulf states.
In an Amsterdam hospital I encountered Katya, who recalled how, as a Czech teenager with a disintegrating marriage and a two-year-old daughter, she was told by a "friend of the family" that she could make good money waiting on tables in Amsterdam. A Czech trafficker drove Katya and four other girls to the Netherlands, where he linked up with a Dutch counterpart. After they took the girls' passports for "safekeeping," the men drove Katya to a brothel in Amsterdam's red-light district. When Katya said that she had come to work in a restaurant, she was told that she owed the traffickers thousands of euros for transporting her across Europe. When Katya continued to resist, she was told she must do the men's bidding if she hoped to see her daughter alive. She was freed only after several years, through the efforts of a friendly taxi driver who enlisted a gang to intimidate her captors.
In Bangkok, I met a teenager named Lord at a Catholic shelter. She told me that her parents in the hills of Laos had sold her at the age of 11 to a woman who promised to educate her. She was then resold to a Bangkok embroidery factory, where she was forced to sew 14 hours a day without pay. When Lord protested the first time, she was beaten; the second time, she was shot in the face with a BB gun. She was locked in a closet; her captors poured industrial chemicals on her face. Bars across windows and doors kept Lord and other girls from leaving. They were finally rescued in a government raid.
In Uganda I talked with Nancy, who had been abducted at gunpoint along with her sister from their family's garden by the Lord's Resistance Army, then forced to march to a remote camp where she was trained to kill. (I did not have the heart to ask if she had been forced to kill relatives and friends, a common practice.) Nancy tried to escape, was caught and beaten, then was turned over to a rebel commander to serve as his concubine. Nancy escaped only when her jaw was shot off in a clash with government soldiers and she was left behind to die.
In the United States I met with Susan, an African-American woman in her twenties who had been terrorized since her teens by her Minneapolis pimp. He exerted such control over her that she didn't know how to buy groceries, take a bus, or interact with people outside "the business."
It is not a coincidence that the vast majority of the former slaves I met were women and girls. Sex and domestic servitude slaves are the largest discrete categories in human trafficking across international borders. As many as 80 percent of all slaves are women or girls, making human trafficking, as antislavery activist Michael Horowitz calls it, "the great immediate women's issue of our time." Not surprisingly, feminists, along with faith-based groups, have become the biggest advocates of abolition.
Because slavery is universally illegal--though it was banned in Saudi Arabia only in 1962 and in Mauritania in 1981--its existence is subterranean. …