When Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act in 2000, it found that even as the 21st century began, the degrading institution of slavery continued throughout the world. Trafficking in persons is the recruiting, transporting, harboring, obtaining, or selling of a person by force, fraud, or coercion, for purposes of commercial sexual exploitation or forced labor. Human trafficking is a multi-dimensional problem. It is a transnational crime connected to other transnational crimes, such as drug and arms trafficking; it is a human rights issue, because it deprives the people being bought and sold of their basic rights and freedoms; it is a global health problem connected to the spread of HIV/AIDS and other serious communicable diseases; finally, it is a national security issue, because it fuels organized crime, threatens the rule of law, and creates trafficking pipelines that can be utilized by terrorist and extremist organizations looking to carry out violent acts.

We do not know the full nature and scope of this modern-day slavery. However, experts estimate that as many as 27 million people are trapped in some form of slavery around the world today. According to the most recent analysis from the United Nations, many of these are women and children trafficked into the international sex trade. A report released by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) claims that human trafficking is a growing phenomenon, that 79% of the crimes are for commercial sexual exploitation (as opposed to 18% for forced labor), and that the vast majority of victims are women and children.

Similarly, between January 1, 2008, and June 30, 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice captured information from 42 jurisdictions covering nearly 25% of the U.S. resident population. While these jurisdictions were not representative of the entire nation, they were widely dispersed geographically. This information was categorized and analyzed by the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics before being compiled into a special report. The report noted that 81% of confirmed traffickers were male, while 94% of confirmed sex trafficking victims were female. Of confirmed labor trafficking victims, 68% were female. Most of the sex trafficking victims in the U.S. were younger than 25 years old.

Many people assume that trafficked persons in America come primarily from other countries—illegally smuggled immigrants, tricked by the promise of employment. While this is the case for some victims, surprisingly, most victims are not foreigners. They are actually young women and children born here in the United States. In fact, according the Department of Justice report, more than four-fifths of victims in confirmed sex trafficking incidents were identified as U.S. citizens (83%). These statistics confirm the fact that trafficking in the U.S. is not primarily an international problem. It is a domestic problem that involves the trafficking of our own young women and children into prostitution and pornography. Some experts say that as many as a quarter-million of our children are trapped in various forms of commercial sexual exploitation.

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Clearly, these grim statistics suggest that human trafficking is a problem of epidemic proportions. We urgently need to confront this crisis and undertake every possible measure to identify, rescue, and rehabilitate the victims. In addition, we need vigorous enforcement of federal, state, and local laws prohibiting trafficking. Finally, we need creative new approaches to addressing the demand side of human trafficking.

If our challenge at the end of the 20th century was to recognize that human trafficking was a growing phenomenon, the crime of choice for international criminal enterprises, our challenge in the 21st century is to link up our efforts—to make connections between the various forms of trafficking and to organize across various barriers. For too long our work has been stove-piped, with one organization focusing on sex trafficking and another on sex tourism, one on child pornography and another on child abduction. Traffickers are already organized; they are organized across language barriers, across ethnic and cultural differences, across national and geographic boundaries, and more. On the internet, they have learned how to use the new technologies to transmit sexually exploitive images. They have perfected techniques for stalking online. They have created special sex-oriented chat rooms and special global sex clubs. They have encrypted and encoded their activities to make them more difficult to find. They have formed professional associations to protect their interests and formulate new strategies for their future. On our streets, they have perfected methods for identifying and recruiting the most vulnerable of our children. They have developed domestic pimping circuits that move juveniles across state and county lines. They have located and cultivated a clientele to sell to—and in so doing, they have grown rich and powerful enough to build alliances, buy allegiances, and even set up and resource NGOs to make their points for them.

Across the globe, traffickers understood long before we did that sex tourism is just the opposite side of the sex trafficking coin. While in sex trafficking, you transport the women and children to the buyer, in sex tourism, you transport the buyer to the women and children. They have identified whole countries, usually resource poor, where the most heinous crimes can be committed with hardly anyone blinking an eye; and they’ve identified other countries, usually resource rich, where men will spend money to travel to commit unspeakable acts, if they think they can get away with it. The amount of money that passes hands in these criminal enterprises —over the internet, on our streets, and across international borders—is estimated at somewhere around 32 billion dollars, and that figure is probably conservative, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO). No wonder it is called a “sex industry.”

In the face of what some experts have called the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world, this Administration’s response has been anemic at best. Social conservatives have carried the water on this issue for over a decade and continue to demonstrate leadership. In 2012 and beyond, these are the six pillars for success in addressing human trafficking:

  1. Public Awareness. Human trafficking, particularly sex trafficking, is a burgeoning criminal enterprise in the United States and around the world. Victims are men and women, adults and children, international and domestic. Trafficking can happen in the commercial sex industry, including street prostitution, strip clubs, massage parlors, escort services, brothels, and on the internet; in factories such as garment centers, meat-packing plants, farms, mining industries, , or construction; in private homes that employ housekeepers, nannies, or servile marriages; in restaurants, bars, and other service industries such as nail or hair salons. Recognizing that we have a problem and committing to a zero-tolerance standard is the first step to solving it. We have had some small success with general awareness campaigns. If elected president, a candidate must start educational campaigns tailored to specific businesses and work sectors where trafficking occurs.
  2. Law and Law Enforcement. The U.S. has an excellent federal law against trafficking, but at the state level, laws are inadequate to deter trafficking and to bring traffickers to justice. Without comprehensive laws, law enforcement officials don’t have the tools to arrest, charge, prosecute, and convict traffickers. Most states have prohibited trafficking, but few, if any, have a victim-centered approach with shelters and services for trafficking victims. Some state laws still fail to reflect the gravity of the offenses involved. For example, in many states, an adult who sexually assaults a child is prosecuted under statutory rape laws, while if that same adult pays for sex with a child, he is most often charged (if he is charged at all) with a misdemeanor offense of soliciting.
  3. Focus on Demand. Like drug trafficking, human trafficking is a business involving a triangle of activity: supply, demand, and distribution. Unlike drug trafficking, however, there is very little focus on the demand side of the human trafficking business. While some men who buy sex are unaware of the harm to themselves, their families, their communities, and the women trapped in prostitution, far more are crass consumers in the sex industry. A renewed and vigorous focus on the men who fuel the market for commercial sex is imperative.
  4. Health Consequences. Trafficking exposes victims to serious health risks. Victims of trafficking often endure brutal conditions that result in physical, mental, emotional, and psychological trauma. Women and children trafficked in the sex industry are exposed to deadly diseases, including HIV and AIDS, TB, hepatitis, and other serious communicable diseases. In addition, many women trafficked into prostitution are given drugs or use them to numb themselves against the acts they must perform. Substance abuse and drug addiction are serious problems in human trafficking. Trafficking victims are beaten, burned, assaulted, threatened, and intimidated by traffickers and customers. Health consequences include pregnancy, forced abortion and/or abortion-related complications. In the first big sex trafficking case uncovered in the U.S., young women and children who were trafficked from Mexico to rural Florida were forced to have multiple abortions, and then forced back into the brothel the next day. In Turkey, young women and girls trafficked into prostitution had abortifacients injected into their stomachs with needles. In U.S. emergency rooms, community health clinics, HIV/AIDS clinics, and other government-funded health centers, health providers are the first (and sometimes only) people who encounter victims of human trafficking. Teaching health providers how to identify victims and catalyze a rescue is key. In the long term, preventing human trafficking will eliminate costs to the healthcare system that are inevitable consequences of human trafficking.
  5. Shelters and Service Providers. As one victim assistance organization has noted, appropriate protective shelters and services are critical for the protection and restoration of trafficking victims. Currently, these shelters are reimbursed on a per victim basis, making it virtually impossible to establish long-term institutional stability and proper care for victims. The situation of domestic minor sex trafficking victims is worse: they are generally placed in juvenile detention or returned to the home from which they fled. The lack of adequate anti-trafficking shelters across the nation is preventing first responders from succeeding in protecting and gaining justice for the victims.
  6. Nature and Scope of the Problem. The state of knowledge regarding the extent and nature of human trafficking, and efforts to combat it and ameliorate its effects, is insufficient. Most information regarding human trafficking is still anecdotal, limited in scope, and often affected by the advocacy biases of the researchers. Over the last ten years, the United Stattes has spent upwards of $800,000,000.00 (800 million dollars) in over a dozen USG agencies. Very little of these funds have been on research. Congress has called for more information on the causes of human trafficking, the nature and scope of the problem, the methods of recruitment and transportation, the types of trafficking, global and domestic law enforcement data, and the public and private health implications of human trafficking. The William Wilberforce Act of 2008 (TVPRA 2008) called for:

An effective mechanism for quantifying the number of victims of trafficking on a national, regional, and international basis and mandated the creation of a database utilizing information from all federal agencies and, to the extent practicable, applicable data from relevant international organizations to:

(A) improve the coordination of the collection of data related to trafficking in persons by each agency of the United States Government that collects such data;
(B) promote uniformity of such data collection, standards, and systems related to such collection;
(C) undertake a meta-analysis of patterns of trafficking in persons, slavery, and slave-like conditions to develop and analyze global trends in human trafficking;
(D) identify emerging issues in human trafficking and establish integrated methods to combat them; and
(E) identify research priorities to respond to global patterns and emerging issues.

While we clearly need research that yields rigorous quantitative and qualitative information on human trafficking, the political will to support such research is lacking. It is critical for candidates and for the future president to encourage research initiatives for generating systematic knowledge to combat global human trafficking. After all, which would we rather have: a hospital at the bottom of the cliff or a fence at the top? Good information/intel is the fence at the top.

Human trafficking is a global problem with regard to law enforcement, human rights, and health. It is a multi-billion-dollar industry, with millions of victims trapped in slavery and slavery-like conditions. Although it is a sizable and complex problem, it can be solved. Two centuries ago, British and U.S. citizens organized an abolitionist movement to eradicate African chattel slavery. They tackled first the slave trade and then slavery itself. They were successful in outlawing and eventually eradicating it. Today, we are building another critical mass of people to abolish these new forms of contemporary slavery. We must learn to coordinate and collaborate, to work together towards a common goal. A candidate for president must have a global vision and lead us toward abolition. If we have such a president, we will surely succeed.

This essay is part of the 2012 Election Symposium. Read all of the entries here: