July 27, 2006

The long war ahead against human trafficking.
Field Report, Bryan Collinsworth, July 27, 2006

The long war ahead against human trafficking.

By Bryan Collinsworth

Numbers are a huge part of any sporting event, and the recent World Cup was no exception. Thirty-two countries sent 736 players to duke it out in 90—sometimes 120—minute games in which victory often turned on just one goal, scored in as many seconds, before 40,000 to 80,000 people. An estimated five out of every six human beings on the planet tuned in at some point to watch the action.

But there was another shocking number that didn’t show up in most rundowns of World Cup statistics: 40,000. That was the number of women predicted to arrive in Germany during the tournament to provide sexual services for those in attendance.

Prostitution is legal in Germany, but everyone from Amnesty International to the Vatican to Swedish Equality Ombudsman Claes Borgström agreed that a huge portion of the women coming in for the Cup would be forced into sexual servitude as victims of one of the most widely-practiced and least acknowledged human rights violations in the modern world: trafficking in persons.

Modern-Day Slavery

The World Cup is just the tip of the iceberg. The U.S. Department of State estimates that between 4 million and 27 million people (that’s the entire population of Los Angeles and the entire population of California, respectively) are being kept in modern-day slavery throughout the world at any given time.

Advocacy groups debate the precise definition of trafficking, but the State Department’s 2006 Trafficking in Persons Report includes in those numbers people subjected to “forced labor, bonded labor, forced child labor, and sexual servitude.”

The most common stories are of young women and girls who are lured from poverty-stricken places with promises of work as servants or nannies, only to find themselves turned into shut-in sex slaves in alien countries where, even if they do escape, the authorities are often inaccessible to them. There are also men and boys, offered well-paying labor in faraway locations, only to be told when they arrive that they must work off the (previously unmentioned) costs of their transportation, and that their passports, wages, and freedom will be withheld until they do.

As the disparities in trafficking estimates and definitions already suggest, however, much about human trafficking remains a wretched mystery. Those who seek to measure the scope or track the effects of what many call “modern-day slavery” are stymied for the very same reason that the crime itself flourishes even in the 21st century: Human beings can still be abused in secret, coerced into silence, and frightened from escape.

In sparse, straightforward tones, brochures issued by the State Department demonstrate the difficulty of identifying victims of human trafficking. “Most trafficking victims will not readily volunteer information about their status because of fear and abuse they’ve suffered at the hands of their trafficker,” explains "Tips for Recognizing Victims of Trafficking in Persons." “They may also be reluctant to come forward with information from despair, discouragement, and a sense that there are no viable options to escape their situation. Even if pressed, they may not identify themselves as someone held in bondage for fear of retribution to themselves or family members.”

And yet they may live right next door. When the subject of human trafficking does break into mainstream discourse—a shamefully rare occurrence—the stories are often of girls in Southeast Asia being forced into brothels, or boys in Uganda kidnapped to fight for warring armies. These crimes deserve a huge part in the trafficking narrative, but modern slavery thrives even within the United States—to the tune of 18,000 to 20,000 new victims each year, according to various government estimates.

But thankfully, it is also in the United States—and even in that peculiar corner of it called Washington, D.C.—that another human trafficking story desperately in need of telling is developing. Over the past five years, the U.S. government has embarked on a serious effort to curtail trafficking in persons. And working side by side with public officials have been college students and young activists who are starting to take the lead in a growing American anti-trafficking movement.

Unprecedented Action

For progressives who pride themselves on being at the cutting edge of humanitarian causes, the recent history of the fight against trafficking will be full of surprises. After all, U.S. Government action against trafficking began in earnest in 2000 when the late Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-MN) and Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KA) came together from opposite ends of the political spectrum to co-sponsor the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which made trafficking for sex or labor a federal crime, channeled funding to anti-trafficking advocacy groups, and created a new network of executive agencies and offices to crack down on the practice in the U.S. and abroad.

And while saying that the Bush administration has made “unprecedented use of its executive powers” has been cause for great concern in many other contexts, in the area of human trafficking it has done so to significant positive effect. Since 2001, the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (created by the 2000 legislation) has released annual reports ranking countries around the globe based on their progress (or lack thereof) in apprehending, prosecuting, and convicting traffickers. Meanwhile, Justice Department prosecutions of traffickers have increased by more than 300 percent since Bush entered office.

Over at the Capitol, Congress has continued to approve more and stronger anti-trafficking legislation since 2000, most recently the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2005.

And finally, this flurry of government action has been mirrored and fed by a rise in public support. For decades, NGOs have worked to combat trafficking by raising awareness, investigating and tracking trafficking activity, providing support and rehabilitation for victims, and even actively working to free slaves. But that movement has recently seen a grassroots groundswell as well.

A Growing Student Movement

“[Y]ou’re seeing the explosion of student groups, the explosion of community-based groups,” says Bradley Myles, National Program Coordinator for the D.C.-based anti-trafficking group Polaris Project, which was started by two Brown University students in early 2002. “[W]e have 90 or 100 colleges now joining this student movement,” he continues.

The movement he’s speaking of is the Campus Coalition Against Trafficking (CCAT), jointly founded in summer of 2005 by Polaris Project and Fair Fund, a group that “look[s] at human trafficking through a gender violence lens,” according to Co-founder and Executive Director Andrea Powell.

“We were getting 50, 60 calls a week from students interested in working in the anti-trafficking movement,” Powell recalls of the time before CCAT’s founding. She and other advocates had the same thought: “I get the same questions from the same students all over the country—let’s bring them together and really make this a movement.”

In the year since its founding, Powell and Myles say the Campus Coalition has grown from 10 members to a network of nearly 100 college groups, including several outside the United States. Groups range in size from five to 100 students, usually starting with a core group of few dedicated advocates and then expanding to become a presence on campus.

And while student anti-trafficking activists engage in standard campus organizing efforts such as movie nights or speaking events, Myles and Powell both emphasize that the disturbingly close-to-home nature of the trafficking issue gives rise to more unique student actions as well. “So many victims who are identified, here in the United States and elsewhere, are identified by community members,” Powell explains—so students reach out beyond their campuses “to raise the level of victim identification in the community,” Myles says.

“I find that many of the students that we work with through the Campus Coalition…they end up telling their friends and family, and in fact some of our Campus Coalition members have had their family members calling and saying ‘I think I’ve heard of this case,’ or ‘I think something is suspicious,’” Powell adds.

A Long Way to Go

This spring, CCAT worked with the Northwestern University Conference on Human Rights to sponsor the first National Student Summit on Trafficking. Approximately 100 student leaders from across the country attended. The coalition also offers students a database of internships with 95 different anti-trafficking groups across the nation.

Still, for CCAT and students working on the front lines, this is a long-term struggle with many challenges ahead. Maheen Kaleem, who helped organize a regional student conference on trafficking as one of the leaders of the Georgetown University anti-trafficking group SSTOP (Students Stopping the Trafficking of People), argues that a truly effective movement against human trafficking will require “a long-term shift in perspective.”

“Awareness…is almost more important than advocacy at this point,” she contends, because so few people currently have any conception of the problem or even the mental framework to conceive of slavery still existing in the 21st century, much less the knowledge to debate and advocate effective policies to stop it.

Moreover, Kaleem and her fellow Georgetown leaders see the student movement against trafficking as a response not only to an opportunity, but to a serious need. “The adult movement is highly, highly, highly politicized,” Kaleem says, by debates over distinctions between consensual prostitution and sexual slavery, or between accepted low-wage labor practices and indentured servitude.

She hopes that the rising generation of anti-trafficking activists can avoid or push beyond this debate, and focus all of their energy on ending one of the greatest and most persistent evils in the modern world. And she hopes that more and more students will join the fight every day.

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