Had you asked me in college about human trafficking, I probably would have told you about the film, cornerstone of my Cardiff years (and still one of the best soundtracks ever).
I had no clue, then, that human trafficking meant modern day slavery. I had no idea that so many people were being traded like bags of rice inside their own countries, or across borders, to the highest bidder.
What about you? How many people do you think are affected by human trafficking?
Go on, have a guess.
The answer is: an estimated 20-30 million people worldwide.
Well, really, what did you expect? Human beings make great live fodder for labour, the commercial sex industry, organ ‘donations’, or domestic servitude.
And they’re not too pricey, either, as French weekly Le Point pointed out this week: a nine-year-old girl in the Islamic State will set you back only 150€.
Now, Ze F Word is a blog about gender equality. You may be wondering: why a post on human trafficking?
Well, of the 600-800,000 people trafficked every year, approximately 70% are women and girls, also the victims of the primary purpose of trafficking – sexual slavery (forced marriage, forced prostitution, sex tourism in back-street “massage” parlours).
Here’s how you’re ‘broken in’:
I cannot think what that does to you short or long term. Can you?
Even without imagining the horrific emotional trauma, victims face terrible physical consequences such as pregnancy (and risky abortions), sexually transmitted diseases, violence, or ensuing drug or alcohol addiction (often the girls are forced to take drugs).
It makes me want to weep.
And then rage.
I mean, come on. This is 2015. Almost 200 years after the abolishment of slavery: a period of history we view today with incredulity and shame.
How are there more people in modern slavery now than there were during the slave trade?
How is that possible, with layer after layer of international laws and conventions established since then, to protect people from ever being traded in that way again?
There are three parts to the answer:
- because it’s lucrative
- because the victims are often expendable, therefore invisible
- because there’s a lack of will or capability to track and prosecute.
Let’s take the first one.
Traffickers or “recruiters” (of whom an estimated 30% are women…) are commercial agents like any other – they just trade in human beings rather than wheat.
And why not, eh? You can get rich. After all, human trafficking is worth an estimated 32billion$ (roughly half of Luxembourg’s annual GDP) and is the second most profitable illegal income after organised drug crime.
Secondly, victims are often victims because they are vulnerable. All victims of forced human trafficking, male or female, suffer from little or zero value placed on their lives as human beings. This is particularly true for women or girls in countries where they are second-class citizens. You are trafficked because you are worth more to someone else than to your own family or partner, and they are poor/desperate/greedy; because you are not protected sufficiently within your country or community; because the people who are supposed to protect you – police, judges, local politicians – are the ones who orchestrate or turn a blind eye to your trafficking (because they are the first to benefit, either from freebies or a slice of the profit).
Thirdly, tracking trafficking is tricky (how’s that for alliteration!). The international definition is that of the UN Trafficking in Persons Protocol, which requires proof of three distinct elements of trafficking – the act (recruitment, transport, etc); the means (force, deception, abduction, fraud, abuse of power) and the purpose (forced labour, sex slavery etc).
The Protocol has been ratified by 167 countries since 2003.
Oh, but, hold on:
This is because the terms used in the Protocol, as the 2014 UNODC report on trafficking admits, ‘are not necessarily precise from a legal point of view and may be defined differently by different jurisdictions’.
Which means that what stands in one country doesn’t in the next – super helpful to tackle a crime where two thirds of the cases are cross-border.
So, in summary: profitable trade, victims no-one cares about, laws difficult to implement, traffickers when caught not always prosecuted.
Feeling depressed yet?
This is complicated by the fact that reporting is still at national level. There are hotlines in the US, UK, and other countries, but what do you do if you’re a citizen elsewhere, and suspect a case? Especially if you think the local law enforcement either doesn’t care, already knows or is actually protecting the traffickers?
Surely an international hotline/watchdog would be a good start: even it is difficult to prosecute, a good bit of bad publicity on social media might make governments take it more seriously, especially if tourists begin voting with their feet.
This is indeed what the NGO ECPAT-USA has been advocating with their Code (focusing on child prostitution in hotels) and #DoesYourHotelKnow Twitter campaign.
International mobilisation is important because, contrary to assumptions (mine included, before writing this) human trafficking is not just a poor person’s conundrum.
Between 2010-2012, victims with 152 different citizenships were identified in 124 countries across the world (and remember these are just the cases that float to the surface). In the United States alone over at least 100,000 people are trafficked every year: like Jennifer, from Columbus, tattooed by her ‘owners‘ as “Property of Salem” above her pubis.
Ditto in nice respectable Europe. Elena, a fifteen-year-old girl from Romania, was walking home from school one day when she was kidnapped and held as a sex slave for six months: she told the organisation who freed her “had I known what was coming, I would have preferred to be killed”.
So no, not just a poor country issue: relevant to all of us.
What, then, if I were the one sitting in the back of a car, having been sold by my father/boyfriend/male relatives for some paltry sum, to spend my life ‘servicing’ others?
What if it were my daughter in the back of that car, and I was running down the dusty road after her, wild with fear and unable to do anything, call on anyone, to stop it?
I suppose under that anguish I would be hoping that someone, somewhere, gave a damn, and was doing something about it on my behalf.
Well, good news: there are many organisations (national and international) working to challenge human trafficking. For example:
- Stop the Traffik
- Human Trafficking Org
- Not for Sale Campaign
- STOP (Stop Trafficking of People)
- Or the umbrella organisation, Alliance Against Modern Slavery
(Even Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher got stuck in before they split, creating the Thorn foundation in 2009).
So: you could support one of these organisations, or find one working in your local area; or what about trying some of these other simple ways to get involved?
Most importantly, you can also make a difference simply by keeping your eyes open – especially when travelling. Victims of human trafficking are often lack ID papers/autonomy, or show signs of physical or mental abuse. Report it, if you can.
Because I think we all agree that if slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.
Or so said Abraham Lincoln – in 1864. Plus ça change …