There are 20-30 million victims of human trafficking living in the world today. These modern slaves cost an average $90-a-head. The term "slave" implies many forms of exploitation, including, but not limited to, sex trafficking, child sex trafficking, forced labor, debt bondage, domestic servitude, and unlawful recruitment and use of child soldiers. While 510 trafficking flows have been detected since 2012, the global issue isn't slowing down. Today, human trafficking is the third largest international crime industry, generating profits of around $32 billion each year.
When the US Department of State released its annual "Trafficking in Persons" report this past summer, Cuba and Malaysia were both "upgraded" from the list of worst offenders, while countries in South and East Asia, as well as Northern Africa, remained in the lowest category. Belarus, Belize, Burundi, Comoros, the Marshall Island, and South Sudan were all bumped down to red-alert status. This January was National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, in which President Obama asked us to "recognise the victims of trafficking, and let us resolve to build a future in which its perpetrators are brought to justice and no people are denied their inherent human rights of freedom and dignity."
Though the annual report and statistics are important, human trafficking is not going to end just because the President calls attention to the issue. To learn more about the state of modern slavery, we asked three organizations fighting trafficking about how things have progressed over the last few years, as well as what steps we can take to actually eradicate the practice. Andrea Matolcsi, Program Officer for Sexual Violence and Trafficking at Equality Now, Rebecca Clarke, spokesperson for Hope for Justice, and William Hassall, International Human Trafficking Institute (IHTI) Program Coordinator, all shared their thoughts with VICE over email. The interviews have been edited for clarity and length.
VICE: Since your charity formed, what's changed the most about the fight against human trafficking and what are the biggest issues or conflicts your organization is combating?
Equality Now (Andrea Matolcsi): The biggest change has been the increasing global trend towards enacting laws which target the demands that fuels sex trafficking. This has only happened over the past 15 years or so – within the lifetime of Equality Now. The biggest challenge is the scale of trafficking and exploitation in the sex trade and getting people to understand the realities of the sex trade and the gender dimension of prostitution and sex trafficking.
Hope for Justice (Rebecca Clarke): The biggest change has been a real upswing in political focus in the last two years. In the UK, where we're headquartered, we've seen the creation of a Modern Slavery Act (2015) and the appointment of an Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner. The press and the public sector listen, so this issue has got onto the radar of Police and Crime Commissioners nationwide. That's something we've been working at behind the scenes for a long time and the spotlight has helped our continuing efforts to bring the plight of victims into the public sphere. We're seeing increased political focus in the US, too, with Senator Corker's End Modern Slavery Initiative Act.
IHTI (William Hassall): Since our inception in 2014, IHTI has been able to empower more youth organizers to action on the issue of human trafficking. Our organization takes a holistic approach to combating human trafficking, so at any given time we are working to address both labor and sex trafficking both domestically and abroad.
Can you tell me some information about human trafficking that the average person probably doesn't know? How can we actually help fight human trafficking?
Equality Now: Most people do not seem to know that anyone who is under 18 in the sex trade is by default considered to be a victim of trafficking under international law. However the police continue to arrest these victims in many countries, including in the US. This needs to be stopped immediately. One of the best ways of fighting human trafficking is to help change attitudes towards the sex trade and communicate that information.
Hope for Justice: Most people think of human trafficking as a far away problem. Even if there are victims in the UK, they're not from here, right? Wrong. At Hope for Justice, we believe every life is worth the fight so, no matter where you're from, if you've been a victim of modern day slavery we'll fight in your corner, but it is powerful to realise that anyone can be tricked, trapped, or victimised.
Here are things you can do today: Get educated. Learn to identify trafficking in your community. Take a stand. Current victims and recently rescued survivors need professionals with serious experience and training, and the best thing you can do is support them, which we help facilitate through our Pledge Your Birthday campaign.
IHTI: The most common piece of information that we share is that human trafficking doesn't only mean sex trafficking, or sex trafficking of minors. Additionally, even when individuals are aware that human trafficking consists of both labor and sex trafficking, many don't realise that labor trafficking is more prevalent than sex trafficking. IHTI believes that the best way to combat human trafficking in all its forms is to take direct actions in addition to raising awareness. Legislation, protests, and letter-writing campaigns are some of the ways that people can get involved.
What's the current state of human trafficking on a global scale and what are the biggest hurdles we're still yet to overcome?
Equality Now: Sex trafficking happens around the world and is one of the most lucrative global trades. The cost is enormous to individuals and to society, yet it continues as it's extremely profitable and perpetrators are not being held accountable. We have to ensure good laws to end trafficking are in place, but we also need to update attitudes towards how the sex trade operates, who benefits and how much inherent violence there is within it.
Hope for Justice: There are an estimated 20.9 million slaves in the world today. One of the big barriers to reducing this number is the lack of successful prosecutions. Right now that sends the message to traffickers that they can still get away with this crime so long as no one notices. To them, it's low risk and high profit. Until we start creating serious judicial consequences, they won't be discouraged.
The key to securing prosecutions is making sure victims can get back on their feet and maintain a stable living environment, not just for the few weeks after their rescue, but for years. If survivors, still struggling with their trauma, are left without practical support after spending a few weeks in a recovery program, they'll likely fall back into vulnerability. When you lose your witness, you lose your conviction, and the whole cycle can continue.
IHTI: Human trafficking is a global problem that needs to be addressed at a global level. While we are seeing more efforts in the United States to address sex trafficking, more needs to be done to address labor trafficking as well. The largest hurdle to action on labor trafficking is creating a political will to take on an issue which involves immigration.
For more information on human trafficking, as well as how you can get involved to combat it, visit the websites of Equality Now, Hope for Justice, and the International Human Trafficking Institute (IHTI).
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