03.24.12

Kirsten Powers: Fight Unseen U.S. Slave Trade on Day of Remembrance

Slavery is more prevalent than ever, and many victims are hidden in plain sight in the United States. This March 25, says Kirsten Powers, it’s time to fight for more funding to combat trafficking—and get educated.

Here is something that is hard to get your mind around: There are more slaves in the world today than were seized from Africa in four centuries of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

This Sunday, March 25, marks the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. It will be a day to remember and honor the fearless heroes who resisted slavery and fought for their own freedom and that of others.

If only that work was done. Today an estimated 27 million human beings still live as slaves throughout the world. These are people who are forced to work without pay under threat of violence and are unable to walk away. The majority of slaves are found in Asian and African countries, but many live right in this country, perhaps in your own neighborhood. They are hidden in plain sight.

Kevin Bales, president and co-founder of Free the Slaves, calls them “the slave next door.” “Just under half of all trafficked people in the U.S. are women trafficked into commercial sex exploitation,” he told me. “The next biggest category is domestics. [We see them] in the hair-braiding salons in New Jersey, in restaurants and [retirement] homes.”

Just this last month, a wealthy New York woman was arrested for holding an illegal immigrant from India as a domestic slave. For nearly six years, the woman was forced to live in a closet and was never allowed to leave the house. She was rescued when immigration agents acted on a tip from the National Human Trafficking Resource Center.

The Associated Press reported in 2008 that a wealthy Egyptian couple had transported a 10-year-old girl, Shyima, from Egypt in the late 1990s to work as a domestic slave in their luxurious California home. She was abused and forced to live in the garage when she wasn’t cleaning and cooking. She never had a day off. Shyima was rescued when an anonymous caller tipped off the California Department of Social Services to her plight.

Bales says that about a third of people are freed from slavery in the U.S. as a result of a regular citizen asking a question and starting to dig, and then reporting it. “When you see someone who looks beaten down, abused or hungry ... the person down the street, ask, ‘What’s up with them?’” he said.

A neighbor of Shyima told the AP: “I’d look down and see her at 10, 11—even 12 —at night. She’d be doing the dishes. We didn’t put two and two together.”

Part of the problem is Americans’ lack of education on the plight of slaves in the U.S. It wouldn’t naturally occur to someone that their neighbors have a child slave because it seems so barbaric. Yet this problem is far more common than most realize.

According to Free the Slaves, at least 17,000 slaves are trafficked into the U.S. each year. Of course, that doesn’t include people already in the country. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children says that at least 100,000 U.S. citizen children are victims of sex trafficking annually.

“People like me have to go around raising money to get rid of slavery, even though there is a law against it and it’s a felony.”

Sadly, the U.S. government has not made rescuing these victims a top priority. Bales said, “Consider this: there are 17,000 people trafficked into the U.S. every year. The number of people murdered each year is about 17,000. It’s interesting to compare [the resources]. There are about 45,000 homicide specialists in the U.S. Yet we maybe have 30 to 40 slavery specialists in American law enforcement. If you add up what we spend on homicide, it’s around $4 billion annually. On slavery and human trafficking, it comes to a little over $100 million.”

As a comparison, CBS News reported that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting got “a $422 million total allocation from the federal government in 2010.” Yet the work of fighting sex trafficking and slavery is left to charities. Why?

“Imagine someone came to your door and said they were collecting money to end murder,” said Bales. “You would say, ‘That’s why I pay taxes.’ Yet people like me have to go around raising money to get rid of slavery, even though there is a law against it and it’s a felony.”

That’s crazy. Fortunately, many charities are dedicated to this cause, from Free the Slaves to the Polaris Project to the International Justice Mission. But they can’t do it alone. U.S. law enforcement has to step up its efforts in this area.

The “slave next door” is waiting.