International Human Trafficking Awareness Month Sheds Light on Millions Trapped in Modern-day Slavery

Last month marked the second annual International Human Trafficking Awareness Month, and with the number of those victimized by human trafficking estimated to be anywhere from 12.3 million to 27 million worldwide, awareness of the practice is more important than ever.  To some, the slave trade may seem like a distant and ancient practice, but to this day it is a thriving $32 billion a year business.  Millions of people around the world are being forced against their will to perform horrifying sexual acts and grueling manual labor, generating massive profits for the criminals who perpetuate the trade. 

According to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, human trafficking is tied with the illegal arms trade as the fastest growing criminal industry in the world, with an estimated 100,000 children being forced into sexual slavery in the United States alone.  In January 2010, President Barack Obama and several other international leaders recognized the enormous scope of human trafficking and issued official proclamations calling for citizens around the world to learn more about the modern-day slave trade.  Information sessions, fundraisers, and conventions have been taking place throughout the country over the last month in an effort to inform the public.

California residents, especially those of us in San Diego, should be particularly concerned about the human trafficking taking place within our own borders.  San Diego is considered a major stop on the human trafficking highway that runs from Central America and Mexico into San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, funneling trafficking victims into the rest of the United States.  On January 28, 2011, ten alleged traffickers from Alameda County, California were charged with trafficking dozens of women from Taiwan and China to the U.S. and placing them in the prostitution circuit.  While those in custody have yet to be convicted, the story has drawn attention to the real threat of human trafficking taking place in our own back yard.

Despite the staggering numbers of those suffering and the growing criminal activity fueling human trafficking, the international community has made significant effort in the last decade to address human trafficking and punish those responsible.  In 2000, the United Nations created the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (also known as the Palermo Protocol), which both defined human trafficking for the first time and made it punishable by law.  Under the Palermo Protocol, human trafficking is defined as the recruitment and transport of people through the use of force, coercion, or abuse of power for the purpose of exploitation.  The Protocol has compelled hundreds of countries to adopt rigorous laws and regulations for the prevention and punishment of trafficking. 

Even more promising is the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) enacted by the United States in 2000, making human trafficking a federal crime in the U.S.  Since the enactment of the TVPA, 13 states have passed individual anti-human trafficking statutes, and the rate of prosecution is on the rise.  Under the TVPA, the United States identified 49,105 victims in 2009, and 4,166 traffickers were successfully prosecuted. 

In light of this progress, however, the road ahead is still vast.  Only 0.4 percent of those who are estimated to be enslaved in the U.S. have been identified as victims.  Internationally, there are still 62 countries that have yet to convict a trafficker under laws implemented in compliance with the Palermo Protocol, and 104 countries still lack any laws, policies, or regulations to prevent victim deportation. 

The best hope for those who are enslaved by human trafficking or at risk of being victimized is cooperation and collaboration between nation states and anti-human trafficking organizations.  Non-profit groups like the Polaris Project, Free the Slaves, and HumanTrafficking.Org are dedicated to stopping this horrific and widespread crime.  Many have been successful in educating the public about the dangers of trafficking, pushing the issue into the public eye and furthering the implementation of anti-human trafficking laws and regulations.  With the help of these organizations and international cooperation, there is still hope for those trapped in the living nightmare of forced labor, prostitution, and sexual exploitation. 

In the words of Free the Slaves President Kevin Bales, “We could eradicate slavery.  The laws are in place.  The multi-nationals, the world trade organizations, the United Nations, they could end slavery, but they’re not going to do it until and unless we demand it.” 

For more information on human trafficking and how you can get involved in the fight for freedom against modern-day slavery, visit www.humantrafficking.org or contact the local ACTION Network of San Diego at www.SDYCS.org.

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