by Molly Edmonds
As schoolchildren, we learned that Abraham Lincoln freed slaves in the United States. And we learned that the elimination of slavery, in combination with the Civil Rights Movement that would come a century later, was a fulfillment of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, which states that all men are created equal.
In the U.S., we tell ourselves that we’ve learned this lesson, that we don’t value one human life over another. Yet, in the world today, there are more slaves than at any other time in human history [source: Wallace]. Modern slavery isn’t just something that happens in backwards countries; it continues in the most developed countries in the world, including the U.S.
These present-day slaves are the victims of human trafficking. Traffickers use force and fraud to compel their victims into forced labor or sexual exploitation. Here’s how that might work: A woman in a poor, Eastern European country sees a billboard advertising glamorous waitressing jobs in Paris or New York City.
Eager for a chance to work in an affluent country, where people make their own destinies, she calls the number on the billboard. She’s told that for $3,000, a company will take her to Paris or New York, where she can claim the waitressing job. She ponies up the money, or agrees to pay the company out of her waitressing earnings, and boards a plane.
When the plane lands, however, that woman isn’t taken to a café or a restaurant. Instead, she’s taken to a brothel, where she’s sold to the owner and forced to become a prostitute. She must pay off that $3,000, she is told, in addition to her daily room and board. She’s in a country where she knows no one, where she has no official paperwork and where she’s been threatened with violence or death if she runs away from the brothel. If she’s not taken to a brothel, she might be taken to a sweatshop, where she works alongside small children for 15 hours a day. She might work in a private home, tending to a family’s needs; unlike a nanny or a housekeeper, however, she’ll never receive a paycheck or a chance to talk to her family again.
Human trafficking claims many victims — men, women and children from all over the world. It’s a crime that many people want to put an end to, but it will be no easy task. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at human trafficking and the struggle to stop it.
Sex Trafficking and Labor Trafficking
Discussions of human trafficking are generally divided into two components: sex trafficking and labor trafficking. Sex trafficking tends to garner more headlines in the media due to its sensational nature, but labor trafficking is more common. Victims of labor trafficking might work in sweatshops, agriculture, mines, construction, service industries and restaurants. Younger victims may be exploited for their innocent looks and forced to beg on the street all day, with all the funds going to their captors, or they may be enlisted in armies as child soldiers. Working conditions, as you might imagine, are usually primitive and exploitative, and the workers are at great risk of physical injury.
Sex trafficking victims are forced into prostitution, pornography and other commercial sex acts, such as performing in sex shows — and they might have to perform sexual acts for dozens of men a night. They may live in what looks from the outside like a private home, but is known locally to be an operating brothel; they may also be transported from city to city as local men tire of them. These girls and women bring in tens of thousands of dollars for their captors each year; for example, the average annual salary in Bulgaria is $2,600, but a prostitute in that area can earn $23,500 for her trafficker [source: Madslien]. In industrialized countries, a woman could earn even more.
As sex slaves, these women are in danger of physical injury from violent johns or pimps, and they’re also at risk for a host of sexual health issues, including sexually transmitted diseases (everything from syphilis and gonorrhea to HIV and AIDS), unintended pregnancy, forced abortion and sterilization.
While trafficking victims may be forced into different types of work during the day, they’re linked by the psychological damage done to them as well as the ways in which they’re forced to perform this work. On the next page, we’ll examine how traffickers capture their victims.
Force, Fraud and Coercion
These three words, used in legal definitions of trafficking, get to the heart of how traffickers do their dirty deeds.
Force refers to how traffickers gather their victims, as well as how they maintain control over them. For example, some human trafficking victims are kidnapped, and once enslaved, traffickers use tactics like rape, physical abuse, food and sleep deprivation, or drug administration to control and condition them. The traffickers usually keep their victims under lock and key, complete with guards who become violent if anyone tries to escape.
In the introduction, we talked a little bit about how fraud works in human trafficking. In addition to luring victims with the promise of a good job or a better life, traffickers may also approach poor families and offer to send their children to countries where they’ll be able to get an education and live with a loving family, only to sell the children to a diamond mine. When fraud is used in this way, the victim’s initial consent becomes invalid.
Traffickers often use fraud — by setting a price for travel or shelter, and ordering the victim to pay it off through prostitution or forced labor — to convince their victims to work. Such a practice is illegal; you can’t dictate how a debt has to be paid off. However, victims don’t know this, or they may lack the math skills to notice that no matter how much they work, the debt owed never seems to get any smaller. Practices such as these are often called debt bondage.
Lastly, coercion is a powerful tactic in keeping trafficking victims enslaved. Not only do traffickers threaten violence against their captives, they also threaten violence against beloved family members and friends should the slave get out of line. Traffickers may use blackmail: They may threaten to send compromising photographs to the victims’ families. In some countries, a woman’s loss of virtue would be a black mark on the family’s name, or could even result in the victim’s arrest or deportation back to a shamed family. Since the captors usually hold their prisoners’ travel documents (if there were any), this is a frightening prospect for people in a country where they may not even speak the language.
Fear, fraud and coercion work together to control trafficking victims. These methods cause psychological damage, and victims grapple with shame, grief, fear, suicidal thoughts, anxiety and an inability to trust. Unfortunately, these emotions also make it harder for law enforcement officials to find and rescue human trafficking victims, which we’ll talk about on the next page.
Sometimes people confuse human trafficking with migrant smuggling. Though the word “trafficking” implies that people are being moved across borders or state lines, the people don’t have to be taken elsewhere to be victims of this crime. Smuggling, on the other hand, does involve movement and the breach of borders. And people who are smuggled into another country consent to go, whereas people who are trafficked are subject to force, fraud and coercion.
NATIONAL HUMAN TRAFFICKING RESOURCE CENTER
If you suspect that you’ve met a trafficking victim, contact the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC). The center maintains a toll-free hotline 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and the number is 1-888-373-7888. The center can begin the process of alerting law enforcement and corralling resources for the victim, including visa support.