Where Modern Slavery Thrives: State Department Unveils Trafficking Report

The buying and selling of humans is big business around the world, including in the U.S. A new report zooms in on the countries that are winning and losing the fight.

AP Photo

The U.S. State Department released its annual report card grading countries around the world on how they are combating—or not combating—modern-day slavery on Tuesday, finding progress among some countries in political transition, including Egypt and Burma, as well as continued trouble in other hot spots, such Uzbekistan, where schoolchildren are forced to pick cotton in the fields each fall.

The buying and selling of humans is big business, consigning an estimated 27 million people to an existence of forced labor, coerced prostitution, and physical abuse.

“We’ve seen a fairly dramatic increase in number of victims identified around the world, said Luis CdeBaca, the Ambassador-at-Large in charge of the State Department’s trafficking division, and one of the most decorated federal prosecutors in U.S. history. However, he said, “This increased identification is a good thing—not that there are many more victims, but that we’re more successful in identifying them.”

The twelfth annual Trafficking in Persons Report, unveiled by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the State Department, highlights the horror of individual cases in 186 countries and territories. It tells the personal tales of a broad range of people who got tricked or threatened into slavery—a 13-year-old Mexican girl trafficked into the sex trade in Florida; a young Bangladeshi woman who took a job as a maid in Lebanon, only to find herself tortured, molested, and locked up indoors; a pair of men enslaved for 10 years on a Brazilian ranch, where they lived in squalid conditions in a hut. In Cambodia, girls under 10 years old are sold into grimy brothels to service men.

The report also recognizes the activists and policymakers who have made a difference in the global fight against slavery, such as Gary Haugen, president of a U.S.-based human-rights organization called International Justice Mission; Vannak Anan Prum, a survivor of forced labor who fights for victims in Cambodia; and Marcelo Colombo, a proactive prosecutor in Argentina.

In the report, governments fully in compliance in addressing trafficking, such as in France, Australia, Taiwan, and the U.S., are given the highest status of Tier 1; governments that show progress, such as in Albania, Japan, Tanzania, and Gabon, get Tier 2 status. Governments unable to demonstrate compliance with minimal standards, such as in Sudan, Algeria, Syria, and Cuba, are given Tier 3 status and can be subject to significant economic sanctions. The Secretary of State can issue waivers to governments for up to two years, upgrading Tier 3 countries into a kind of purgatory, called the Tier 2 Watch List.

Uzbekistan is one country on this year’s Tier 2 Watch List. During its fall cotton harvest, the country’s elementary schools are emptied and children stream into the fields to pick cotton under severe forced-labor conditions.

Such a ranking can spark controversy. “I think there’s little doubt from the description of the law that Uzbekistan belongs in Tier 3,” said Jeff Goldstein, a senior policy analyst at the Open Society Foundation. “This year is Uzbekistan’s last year to be eligible for a waiver. Over a million people, kids, adults, are forced to work in the cotton fields.” He feels the decision to issue the waiver is political. “I think the decision to give Uzbekistan a waiver this year has everything to do with strategic realties and keeping troops supplied in Afghanistan, in particular in light of the closure of the supply routes in Pakistan,” he said.

CdeBaca said the State Department works “on a case-by-case basis as to what might move a country and to whether a calibration of sanctions will be effective. Reputational harm may be more of a motivator than the sanctions. Sanctions are such a zero-sum game, a number of countries would say OK, we dare you to sanction us.”

CdeBaca pointed to progress in Egypt, where a bill targeting sex trafficking has received crucial support from the Muslim Brotherhood, and in Burma, which recently quashed a 1907 colonial law empowering the government to enslave people for national infrastructure projects. “The amount of attention given to trafficking issues over the past few months by the government in Burma is pretty impressive and shows you can’t be part of the community of nations without addressing forced labor,” said CdeBaca in an interview before the report was released.

The report’s numbers on prosecution of trafficking paint a dismal picture. In the last eight years, the number of government prosecutions around the world for human trafficking has risen only slightly, from 6,885 in 2004 to 7,909 in 2011. And almost all of those prosecutions targeted sex traffickers, not labor traffickers. Sex-trafficking victims make up only 22 percent of the global enslaved. More than three-quarters of trafficked persons—who do not have to move locations to be considered trafficked—are forced into labor or armed groups.

“We have to be careful to avoid giving governments full credit for policies that focus solely on sex trafficking,” said Martina Vandenberg, a Washington, D.C., attorney providing pro-bono legal assistance to trafficking victims. Governments can juice their enforcement numbers by reporting ordinary prostitution and pandering cases as trafficking prosecutions, according to Vandenberg. “Governments must focus on all forms of trafficking. Countries that haven’t dealt seriously with forced labor are receiving positive rankings in the report. That lets them off the hook.”

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The 2012 report emphasizes the need for governments around the world to cease arresting the victims of trafficking. For instance, in the case of Elena Maria, the Mexican girl trafficked into sexual slavery in Florida, she was initially arrested as a prostitute; many trafficked victims are arrested and imprisoned when they seek rescue from authorities.

Vandenberg, who closely tracks trafficking cases in the U.S., said this is an area where the U.S. itself sometimes falls short. “Some U.S. jurisdictions have held trafficking victims as undocumented immigrants, criminal defendants, or material witnesses. Given that a major theme of the report this year is victim protection, and that the report strongly condemns the detention of victims, this is a problem.”

But if one focus of the report is to assess and assign responsibility to governments, another is to galvanize public opinion.

“We’re not going to prosecute ourselves out of this crime. It takes a cultural shift,” said CdeBaca. That means “moving away from the sort of boys-will-be-boys joking about going to prostitutes and [moving toward] consumers looking at their own lives and saying: Where is this shrimp coming from? Who made these cosmetics?”

To learn more about women and girls around the globe, visit our Women in the World Foundation.