Human Trafficking: Confronting the Ugly Truth

By Jose Fermoso Human trafficking often exists in the dark corridors of communities. But it’s also out in the open, where most people don’t recognize that it’s happening right before their eyes. The media usually highlights stereotypical cases—think of women sex slaves chained up in a basement—leaving many to think of trafficking as a small issue confined to distant communities. But the truth is that human trafficking is everywhere, and—if there’s any hope of ending it—we need to start understanding it and combatting it within our own communities. That’s why this month, in honor of the World Day Against Trafficking in Persons on July 30, HIP is publishing a series of articles explaining what trafficking is, what regular people can do about it, and what challenges lie ahead. So what is human trafficking? How does it work, and where does it happen? Let’s take a look.

1. Human Trafficking: It’s Everywhere

According to Sienna Baskin, director of the Anti-Trafficking Fund at Neo Philanthropy in New York, human trafficking happens in diverse settings—from cities in the U.S. to small villages around the world. Likewise, many people might be surprised to learn the most prevalent form of human trafficking is labor trafficking, not sex trafficking. According to the International Labour Organization’s 2012 report, of the 21 million victims of forced labor around the world, only 4.5 million are victims of forced sexual exploitation. Businesses large and small are part of the human trafficking problem. They can range from local restaurants to transnational corporations and everything in between. The working class is extremely vulnerable to poor labor conditions and exploitation—and at their worst these factors can lead to trafficking. Trafficking can happen in any industry where labor protections are not included. It happens where people are vulnerable and don’t have access to formal jobs. Migrant workers are especially vulnerable because they may lack legal status, or at the very least, they are outside of their communities and do not have a support network of friends or family. In the U.S., Baskin says trafficking can be found in low-income communities, upper-class neighborhoods, strip clubs, and even county fairs. “Think about the people who set up and break down traveling fairgrounds. They could be trafficked and be from anywhere,” she says. Even shepherding in agriculture has human rights abuses, according to Baskin, because cheap labor and lack of worker regulation facilitates abuse.

2. Trafficking is Exploitation

According to the United Nations’ internationally established and accepted definition (a.k.a. the Palermo Protocol), human trafficking means recruiting a person and forcing them (physically or psychologically) to work against their will. This forced exploitation can involve sex work, or work in a wide range of industries and sectors. In fact, the Polaris Project, a U.S.-based nonprofit combating trafficking, has identified at least 25 situations of forced exploitation where trafficking victims end up: landscaping, forestry and logging, and health and beauty services, among others. According to Baskin, the passing of the Palermo Protocol in the early 2000s helped clarify the definition and understanding of trafficking beyond sexual exploitation to include labor. Looking at human trafficking through the lens of human rights helps us understand its relation to economic crises, conflict, and any other situations where human rights are “under siege.”

3. It’s Based on Desperation and Fear

Desperation is the primary situation that causes people to accept shady job offers, or to run off with a newly-found boyfriend. The executive director of the Ricky Martin Foundation, Bibiana Ferraiuoli, says this is why traffickers are able to mislead many into trafficking situations like labor or prostitution with false hopes, promises, and opportunities. Fear is then what allows traffickers to keep their victims working for them against their will. Ferraiuoli says that traffickers enforce fear by using or threatening violence against their victims. This sometimes includes threats of violence against the victims’ families. Traffickers offer attractive help and ways out of bad situations for marginalized people suffering from domestic violence, generalized violence in their communities, a lack of job opportunities, etc. With sexual trafficking, there’s also Stockholm syndrome, where a man or woman may stay with the trafficker as a survival mechanism. In order to understand the mental state of victims and prevent trafficking from expanding, authorities need to understand how criminals treat them and use fear, says Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, Associate Professor at the Department of Public Affairs and Security Studies at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

4. It’s the Most Lucrative Crime in the World

The trading of drugs and arms used to be the first and second top moneymakers in the black market, but they’ve been surpassed by trafficking. Why the change? Because of the new understanding of human exploitation as a multi-level, multiple-exchange crime, Ferraiuoli says. “If you sell drugs, you usually take them or pass them off once. If you sell arms, same thing. But with a human being, you can exploit them in multiple ways. You can exploit a child, for example, sexually and commercially for years. It’s a 360-degree business and the most vicious violation of human rights.” It’s no surprise that drug cartels are increasingly involved in human trafficking. According to Correa-Cabrera, labor trafficking cases frequently present in the drug and arms trade. Drug cartels across the world, she says, diversify their activities and launder money in different ways. Among these activities are the management management and manipulation of the people dealing and trading arms and drugs.

5. The Internet, Tourism, and Even Natural Disasters Facilitate Exploitation

Everyone knows of the dangers that lurk in the dark corners of the internet and yet, it is still a primary recruiting tool of traffickers. Experts say parents of children and young teenagers should continue to monitor their use of social media and chat applications both on PC and mobile devices. In terms of public media safeguards, parents and young adults should also use caution. Ferraiuoli is especially worried about adults posting geographic and physical information to services like Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. “When you are putting personal stuff on social media, you don’t know who’s seeing it. Don’t take pictures of your kids in their school uniforms. If adults are meeting people from a dating app, always meet in a public place.” The internet as a platform can also be a positive thing, though, says Correa-Cabrera and Baskin. Twitter and Facebook can be used to highlight urgent trafficking situations and use the power of the crowd to find a victim or create a timeline that can be used in later prosecutions. Moments of extreme peril like natural disasters are also one of the biggest targets of traffickers, says Ferraiuoli. Kids and adults are often separated, just like many were during the massive Asian hurricanes earlier this century. She points to the awful story of one child during the December 2004 Tsunami, which led to 4,500 missing persons. In the disaster’s aftermath, there were reports of traffickers going around to local shelters pretending to be parents to lost children, looking to exploit them. While this is a dispiriting development, she says knowing it happened has made shelters around the world more aware of the danger. Disaster preparedness organizations like the Red Cross added this problem to their lists of key dangers. In connection to the problem in Phuket, services in high tourism areas have an abnormal rate of trafficking incidents. Indeed, the UN Voluntary Trust Fund for Victims of Human Trafficking says tourism attracts large numbers of people to areas with high-rates of at-risk populations. And the transient nature of clients and victims make it more difficult for law enforcement to keep track of crimes. For the 2010 World Cup in the developing country of South Africa, for example, visitors were warned in advance through marketing channels of the trafficking dangers they might face on the streets. Sadly, this problem still continues in some of the most popular tourism destinations around the world, including Southeast Asia and Africa. Now you know more about what trafficking looks like. But what can you do to help prevent and combat this horrific crime? Stay tuned for the next article in our series, “Human Trafficking: What Can We Do About It?”