Slave Trade: Combating Human Trafficking

By Miller, John R. | Harvard International Review, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

Slave Trade: Combating Human Trafficking


Miller, John R., Harvard International Review


The underground market in people, termed human trafficking, functions by the benign rules of supply and demand--which makes this market particularly grotesque because the commodity is human life and the exchange results in modern-day slavery. By describing trafficking in persons (TIP), the relationship between trafficking and prostitution, and US efforts to end this burgeoning phenomenon, I hope to convey the urgency of the new abolition movement and the limits of the market metaphor in suggesting an appropriate response to global slavery.

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Between 600,000 and 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders each year--approximately two-thirds are ensnared in sexual slavery, according to US Government estimates. This number does not begin to include millions more captured in labor and sexual exploitation within their own countries. By definition, human trafficking involves force, fraud, or coercion--legally sanitized words that cover intimidation, kidnapping, beatings, rape, deceit, abandonment, and murder. Victims describe mind-numbing varieties of torture, psychological abuse, and physical deprivation that are at the heart of the trafficking experience.

Portraits of Exploitation

Those numbers should not obscure the tragedy to each individual. The following are confirmed examples of typical victims, although names have been changed:

At 15 Shadir accepted a job that promised good clothes and an education. It proved to be a case of false advertising--a typical ploy of traffickers--for the job actually took him to a rural village in India where he was forced to work 12 to 14 hours a day producing hand-woven carpets. His only payment was two helpings a day of lentils and rice. When Shadir was unable to work, he was severely beaten.

Twenty-something Sorina was promised a restaurant job. So she left home, in Belarus, and was flown to a foreign capital where criminals locked her in an apartment and raped her. Not allowing her out of the apartment, they used her as a prostitute. She became so desperate that she jumped from the bathroom window. Still alive, on the sidewalk below, the sex buyers ran down to the street and watched her die.

Neary grew up in Cambodia. At 17 her sister arranged for her to be married to a man who, for US$300, sold her to a brothel owner. For five years, Neary was used by up to seven men a day until she contracted HIV and was discarded because she became too sick to make money for the brothel. Neary died of AIDS at 23.

Silvia, a single mother living in Sri Lanka, answered an ad for a housekeeping job in Lebanon. Once at the job agency, however. Silvia was put in a line with other female job applicants to be inspected by potential buyers. She was purchased and taken to a fourth-floor condo where she was used as a domestic servant 20 hours a day. Forced to rummage through garbage for her food, treated as a prisoner, and beaten daily, Silvia escaped by jumping from a window. She is now permanently paralyzed.

New Forms of Slavery

These stories are typical of human trafficking worldwide. Several common themes emerge from these cases. Each victim is manipulated through the threat of violence or its use; each is a displaced person, in foreign circumstances that increase his or her dependence on the slaveholder; each represents a profitable input in an underground market but is also considered, paradoxically, a highly expendable input; and each is, practically, surviving in a reality that evades the intervention of law. As Dr. Kevin Bales writes in Disposable People, the new slavery "is not about owning people in the traditional sense of the old slavery, but about controlling them completely. People become completely disposable tools for making money." The slave victims I have met and the accounts anti-slavery advocates and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) submit to the US State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons confirm these common aspects of human trafficking. …

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