Trafficking and the International Market in Women and Girls

Amy Risley. Women and Politics around the World: A Comparative History and Survey. Editor: Joyce Gelb & Marian Lief Palley. Volume 1: Issues. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2009.

In recent years, scholars, activists, and members of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have urged policy makers in the United States to take measures against the flourishing global trade in human beings. The president of the International Justice Mission, a human rights organization dedicated to rescuing victims of sexual exploitation, oppression, and violence, emphasized the devastating effects of human trafficking during a 1999 hearing before members of the U.S. Congress. Gary Haugen told his audience the harrowing tale of Jayanthi, an Indian girl who was trafficked into prostitution at the age of 14:

She was drugged, abducted off a train, [and] sold into a brothel. She was held in a windowless room for 3 days and beaten with iron rods, plastic pipe, and electrical cords until she agreed to have sex, and then she proceeded to … have sex with about 20 customers a day over a 3-year period and was forced to have three abortions over that time. (U.S. Congress 2000, 41)

Jayanthi’s story provides a glimpse into the underground world of trafficking for sexual and labor exploitation. Countless people are forced to inhabit this world: according to some estimates, between 2 and 4 million people are trafficked both within countries and across international borders each year (Miko 2005). Although the details of each individual episode vary, the common themes of coercion, threats, violence, and deception tend to surface in most accounts.

Trafficking is first and foremost a human rights issue. The practice has been called “the very antithesis of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” because it violates the most fundamental rights of its victims: freedom from involuntary servitude; freedom from cruel, degrading, and inhumane treatment; and freedom of movement (U.S. Congress 2000, 9). The ordeal of being trafficked can even claim lives. Traffickers and their accomplices sacrifice the rights, dignity, and humanity of other people by treating them like commodities to be bought and sold. Additionally, the trafficking of minors makes a mockery of the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Rights of the Child, which requires states to protect children from sexual exploitation and from being sold or trafficked for any purpose (Chill and Kilbourne 2001). Trafficking is also a gender issue. Untold numbers of men and boys are trafficked each year for the purpose of labor exploitation. However, the vast majority of all trafficked people are women and children. In particular, female victims are disproportionately targeted for commercial sexual exploitation. The trade in human beings thus has far-reaching consequences for women and girls.

Moreover, trafficking is a problem with clear implications for the rule of law, economic and social development, public health, immigration, and globalization. The purpose of this essay is to provide an introduction to this complex and multifaceted issue. The analysis is organized into four main parts. The first section outlines the definition of trafficking adopted by the UN, the nature and scope of the problem, and the experiences of its victims around the world. The regional patterns of sex trafficking (or sex “trade routes”) and countries of origin, transit, and destination are then identified. The third section reviews the causes of trafficking for the purpose of sexual servitude that are most often cited in existing research. These contributing factors help us understand the prevalence of trafficking across the globe. The essay concludes with a synopsis of how members of the international community have responded to the problem.

The Nature and Scope of Trafficking

The UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children defines trafficking as:

the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs. (United Nations 2000, 3)

Four aspects of this definition must be underscored. First, rather than exclusively address the victimization of women and children, the protocol addresses human trafficking more broadly. Second, the definition extends not only to individuals who are trafficked across international borders but also to persons transported within their countries of origin, a practice known as internal trafficking. Third, the protocol identifies a process whereby an individual is subjected to the threat of force or the actual use of force, coercion, misrepresentation, and/or fraud. These characteristics are essential for understanding trafficking and differentiating the practice from human smuggling, which entails the consent of the smuggled person to be guided or transported illegally across a border by the smuggler (Schauer and Wheaton 2006). Finally, the protocol establishes the ultimate purpose of trafficking: the exploitation of the trafficked individual. The text specifically mentions forced labor and sexual servitude, the most common reasons behind trafficking.

Countless trafficked individuals are exploited for their labor. They live in conditions of involuntary servitude and slavery (or near slavery) in sweatshops, factories, and private homes. Some victims assume debts in exchange for employment. Over a period of several months or years, the terms of the bargain are altered, the debts—and thus the amount of work needed to repay them—increase, and the workers find themselves in a seemingly perpetual state of “debt bondage” (U.S. Department of State 2005, 15). Other individuals are simply bought and sold outright. Traffickers have been known to purchase children from their families to sell them into forced labor. In some countries, traffickers exploit parents’ willingness to send their children to live in another locale with a relative to pursue educational opportunities, to learn a trade, and/or to earn wages, thereby supplementing the family’s income. They subsequently traffic the child into commercial or domestic servitude. “In the end, the family receives few if any wage remittances, the child remains unschooled and untrained and separated from his or her family, and the hoped-for educational and economic opportunities never materialize” (U.S. Department of State 2005, 18).

Traffickers use similar means to force, coerce, or dupe young women and girls into prostitution, pornography, and other commercial sexual activities. The conventional wisdom indicates that the typical victim is someone with few employment or educational opportunities. Traffickers, taking advantage of these limited prospects and preying on her hopes for a better life, offer a good-paying job overseas as a waitress, factory worker, maid, nanny, model, or dancer. Alternatively, they may lure the victim by posing as representatives of a matchmaking or marriage agency. For many, promises of lucrative jobs, the chance to generate income for one’s self or one’s family, and a rose-tinted view of life in the big city, a foreign country, and/or the West are difficult to resist. Once traffickers have recruited and transported the person to another country or region, they fail to deliver on their promises. In a classic bait-and-switch scheme, they induce the trafficked individual to sell sex to pay off her travel expenses, documentation, food and board, recruitment fees, and other sizable debts (King 2004, 2).

Relatives, boyfriends, and acquaintances—people whom the victim knows and/or trusts—are often involved in the initial recruitment process. In some cases, traffickers use the fact that they are originally from the community, region, or country in which they are recruiting to allay the concerns of girls and their parents. To illustrate, members of the notorious Cadena-Sosa family deceived fellow Mexican nationals with phony job offers in the United States. Promising employment as nannies or waitresses, the seemingly well-meaning recruiters assured parents that their daughters (some as young as 14) “would be safe in their care” (King 2004, 27). The girls were then transported to Florida and the Carolinas and forced to provide sex for migrant farm workers. One victim later testified that they serviced approximately 32 clients every day: “Our bodies were utterly sore and swollen” (29).

Although some traffickers rely on brute force, existing studies suggest that they are more likely to use their cunning to keep victims from leaving. Members of anti-trafficking NGOs and government officials therefore insist that anyone “trapped in compelled service after initially voluntarily migrating or taking a job willingly is still considered a trafficking victim” (U.S. Department of State 2005, 10). Steven Glaster, executive director of Global Survival Network, notes that in clear-cut cases of sex trafficking, women and girls are utterly duped or coerced into selling sex. Yet many other individuals are grossly misled or told half-truths by recruiters about the terms of their employment: “For example, they may have been told they would have to dance and strip for clients but not that they would be expected to perform extra services or that the sums of money they were promised were completely fictitious,” that they would have to relinquish their passports, and that they would be confined in the destination country (Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe 2000, 14). Experts still consider these to be instances of sex trafficking. A third category of people usually judged to be victims of trafficking are actually informed that they will be performing sex work in the destination country. Such individuals knowingly put their fate into the hands of the traffickers; however, upon their arrival, they experience the same forms of abuse and coercion mentioned previously. Research conducted in the Caribbean likewise established that a number of women who had been contracted as laborers “were aware that they were migrating for sex work abroad but were unprepared for the slavery-like conditions that awaited them” (Kempadoo 1999, 15).

Coercion is a powerful tool that ensures the acquiescence of trafficked persons once they are “in custody.” Victims’ testimonies indicate that they are held virtually captive in their new environment, and their movements are controlled and restricted. One account describes how trafficked teenagers were locked up in a run-down building with bars on the windows and forced to sell sex. “A video camera tracked all the movements of the women in the building, and they were only allowed to step outside for thirty minutes a day” (King 2004, 23-24). In addition, traffickers and their accomplices use physical and sexual abuse—for instance, battery and rape—and threats of abuse to achieve compliance. They warn women and girls that any attempt to flee or failure to perform sex acts will bring harm to themselves and to their families, who will be held responsible for their unpaid debts. They also seize (or destroy) passports and other documents and threaten to turn their victims over to the authorities as illegal immigrants.

In short, trafficked individuals are typically subjected to deception and false promises, coercion, intimidation, threats of violence, and the use of violence (or a combination thereof) in both their home environments and their new “work” environments. The specific circumstances surrounding their recruitment and subsequent exploitation vary considerably, but the general patterns described previously tend to recur. The pattern is so recurrent, in fact, that the numbers of victims are staggering. According to some estimates, between 600,000 and 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders each year. Around 80 percent are women and girls; approximately 50 percent are minors (U.S. Department of State 2005). Taking internal trafficking into account, the total estimated number climbs to an unknown figure between 2 and 4 million, as noted earlier. Most trafficked females are younger than 25, and many are teens (Miko 2005). Moreover, the International Labor Organization estimates that 12.3 million people are enslaved in forced and bonded labor, forced child labor, sexual servitude, and involuntary servitude at any given moment (U.S. Department of State 2005). Meanwhile, other observers have arrived at more than twice that number.

Unfortunately, reliable data and accurate estimates are scarce due in part to the illicit nature of trafficking. In fact, the perpetrators of this crime “go to great lengths to keep it hidden” (U.S. Department of Justice 2006, 15). Consequently, the evidence presented in reports and scholarly works on the topic is often anecdotal and tentative. The same figures surface in multiple sources without being updated, revised, and/or corroborated. Notwithstanding these major limitations, the existing literature suggests that the problem of trafficking—and especially sex trafficking—has worsened in recent decades. In particular, analysts cite the expansion of sex trafficking since the fall of communism in east-central Europe and the dissolution of the Soviet Union (Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe 2000). Where does trafficking occur most frequently? What are the primary countries of origin, transit, and destination? The busiest global and regional trafficking routes are summarized in the sections that follow.

Regional Overview

Virtually all of the world’s regions are affected by some aspect of sex trafficking. Experts contend that the sex trade has grown most dramatically in Eastern and Central European countries and Soviet successor states. Examples of source countries include Poland, the Czech Republic, Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan. An estimated 250,000 women and children from the region are trafficked to Asia, Canada and the United States, Israel and other areas of the Middle East, and Western Europe (namely, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands) each year (Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, 2000). Some speculate that this constitutes one-fourth of international sex trafficking (King 2004).

The plight of the so-called “Natashas” has heightened awareness of the problem of sex trafficking (Malarek 2004); however, the phenomenon remains unquestionably global in scope. Western Europe is not only a destination for Natashas but also for sex trafficking victims from countries as diverse as the Philippines, Thailand, Colombia, and the Dominican Republic (Kempadoo 1999). Additionally, women and children are trafficked into the United States from Asia, Latin America, Central and Eastern Europe, and the former Soviet Union.

In fact, parts of Asia, and especially Southeast Asia, continue to supply the highest overall numbers of trafficked persons (King 2004). Southeast Asian victims from Burma, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, and elsewhere are transported to Japan, Western Europe, the United States, Australia, and the Middle East. Vietnamese women and girls, for instance, are trafficked to China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and other destinations as sex workers or brides. Similarly, young women and children from Thailand, the Philippines, and other Asian countries become prostitutes or brides in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Miko (2005) identifies the Middle East as a destination for trafficking more so than a source of victims. Women and children are trafficked there for sexual exploitation and domestic servitude; boys are also used as jockeys in the sport of camel racing. Each year, organized criminal groups reportedly traffic hundreds of Thai women to Australia for sexual exploitation (Miko 2005). In New York, it was discovered that traffickers had charged Thai women debts of more than $30,000 each and induced them to repay the amount by selling sex. The profits exceeded $1.5 million in just one year (King 2004). Furthermore, Southeast Asian countries—Thailand, Cambodia, and the Philippines, in particular—are popular destinations for sex tourists from Australia, Japan, and North America (Miko 2005). Sex tourism, leisure travel that entails the purchase of sexual services, is often cited as a major cause of trafficking in the region and other parts of the world.

China and South Korea are examples of nations that serve simultaneously as source, transit, and destination countries. Individuals from Burma, North Korea, and Thailand are trafficked into China, and Chinese are transported to Japan, Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia, Australia, Europe, and North America. South Korea is the recipient of victims from the Philippines, Thailand, China, Russia, and other countries; South Koreans are, in turn, trafficked to Japan and the United States (King 2004). Recent data suggest that a large proportion (23.5 percent) of the total number of trafficked individuals in the United States come from Korea (U.S. Department of Justice 2006).

Areas of South Asia, most notably India, are likewise source, transit, and destination countries. Women and children from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan are trafficked to India, and some eventually end up in Europe or the Middle East (Miko 2005). Girls and young women have been trafficked from Nepal to India, joining the ranks of an estimated 200,000 Nepalese prostitutes there (Chill and Kilbourne 2001); thousands more allegedly are sent to Hong Kong and other East Asian countries (Miko 2005).

African women have also been trafficked to the Middle East and Western Europe. There are accounts of children from West African countries being transported to other nations within the region as well as to Europe (Ould 2004). Italy is said to be one of the main destinations for Nigerian women and youth (UNICEF n.d.). In addition, unknown numbers of children are trafficked regionally and exploited as laborers and soldiers in armed conflicts. Although more reliable estimates are needed, poverty, gender inequality, and political unrest in many African countries would suggest that women and girls are highly vulnerable to sex trafficking (Miko, 2005).

Latin America and the Caribbean are sites of regional and international trafficking routes for both sexual and labor exploitation. Latin American women and girls are reportedly taken to Western Europe and the United States. For example, tens of thousands of children from Central America are trafficked into the United States and other countries for commercial sexual exploitation (Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe 2000). According to the government’s own estimates, 10 percent of all trafficked persons in the United States come from Peru, and another 9.6 percent are Mexican (U.S. Department of Justice 2006). Central America and Mexico are identified as major transit areas, and internal sex trafficking of children is widespread in Mexico. Internal trafficking likewise occurs within Colombia, and Colombian women are trafficked to Western European countries and Japan, among other destinations (King 2004). Trafficking for the purposes of sex work and forced labor also occurs in the Caribbean, though it is hard to differentiate such trends from the voluntary migration that has long been characteristic of the region (Kempadoo 1999). Moreover, increasing numbers of sex tourists from Europe, North America, and Australia are traveling to Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and other countries. Some conclude that this has fueled trafficking in the region (Miko 2005).

Stated briefly, sex trafficking routes crisscross the globe. Countries of origin, transit, and destination are found in nearly all of the world’s regions. What explains the high incidence of trafficking? The next section explores several factors that have contributed to the burgeoning global sex trade.

Causes and Contributing Factors

To adequately understand sex trafficking, it is necessary to analyze conditions in both countries of origin and destination countries, the life circumstances of potential victims, and the motivations of the traffickers and other actors who stand to profit immensely from this enterprise. In the following paragraphs, some of the most frequently cited causes of trafficking are reviewed. For the sake of simplicity, two main sets of explanatory factors are discussed: “push” and “pull” factors. Push factors are related to the supply of trafficked individuals: they encompass a broad array of economic, social, cultural, and political conditions in source countries and underscore the gender inequities that exist within most societies. In contrast, pull factors basically entail the demand for sex and the bodies of women and girls all over the world. The section then examines several additional factors that appear to facilitate contemporary trafficking, such as increasing transnational flows of people and goods, pervasive corruption, and organized criminal networks.

Analysts argue that “economic desperation” is one of the main drivers of trafficking (U.S. Congress 2000, 15; see also U.S. Department of State 2005 and Beeks and Amir 2006). Potential victims abound where poverty is widespread and jobs are few. In locales, countries, or regions where economic prospects seem bleak, people are susceptible to promises of employment or educational opportunities elsewhere. Rather than analyze overall poverty rates and aggregate data on unemployment (or underemployment) in a given area, most studies emphasize gender inequality and the special vulnerability of women and girls. Female members of society tend to be disproportionately affected by poverty and discrimination and excluded from employment and educational opportunities. Scholars therefore suggest that sex trafficking is correlated with the increasing “marginalization of women” in various parts of the world (Schauer and Wheaton 2006, 146).

In east-central Europe and the former Soviet Union, for example, women and girls are at a high risk due to poverty, a dearth of employment and other economic opportunities, and their lower social status in general. In Russia alone, the estimated 6.5 million unemployed women and 2.5 million children not attending school are easy prey for traffickers (Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe 2000, 2). The weakness of the rule of law and, more specifically, the growth of organized crime in the region since the breakup of the Soviet Union are also linked to the increase in trafficking.

In addition to investigating the economic and social conditions within countries of origin and their implications for women and girls, specialists have taken into account the political circumstances in which victimization occurs. Some conclude that political unrest, armed conflict, and a large population of internally displaced persons or refugees make women and children extremely vulnerable. Wendy Young, an attorney with the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children, argues that “refugee crises are fertile ground for trafficking.” Women and children “are often left facing dire levels of poverty because they have lost the support of their principal breadwinner and/or because their families have lost their property and businesses” (Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe 2000, 25). Furthermore, traffickers exploit the weakened (or absent) rule of law, the troubled economy, and the loss of community support networks in post-conflict situations (Khaleeli 2004). Women are at increased risk of being abducted or lured by false promises of employment. Just such a scenario played out in the Balkans, where Albanian traffickers targeted refugee women fleeing Kosovo and transported them to Italy and other destinations for sex work in the 1990s. Considering that women and children represent approximately 80 percent of the world’s refugee population, one can easily grasp the magnitude of these risks (Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe 2000).

Cultural practices and traditions constitute a final broad set of push factors emphasized in existing studies. According to a report published by the U.S. Department of State, traditions of bonded labor are prevalent in areas of South Asia, where “millions of people are enslaved from generation to generation. They seldom know the amount or terms of their debt, for this is the form of force and coercion used by employers” (2005, 15). The same document suggests that traditions of fostering—parents sending their children to live under the tutelage of a relative as an apprentice or laborer—increase the likelihood of trafficking. Where child labor and marriage are widely accepted, opportunities for traffickers likewise are said to multiply. It bears mentioning, however, that analysts often tread lightly while addressing such themes for fear of being viewed as culturally insensitive.

As discussed up to this point, much of the research on trafficking focuses on factors that “push” women and girls into the hands of traffickers, the profile of the typical victim, and her fate after she has been trafficked and pressed into sexual service. Studies devote comparatively less attention to the global demand for sex that fuels trafficking. Nevertheless, this demand—and the international, regional, and domestic markets in the bodies of women and children that it creates—is an inescapable cause of trafficking. Similarly, the demand for cheap, unregulated labor obviously drives trafficking for the purposes of exploitation in factories, on farms, and in private homes.

Thus, some experts have advocated closer scrutiny of the consumers (usually men) who purchase sex and the individuals who profit from the sex industry in destination countries, namely, brothel owners and operators, pimps, madams, and pornographers (Hughes 2004 ). Demand tends to be highest in densely populated urban centers, near military bases, and in areas where sex tourism is flourishing or where prostitution is tolerated (King 2004; Miko 2005). Women trafficked into the United States are often taken to larger cities in New York, Florida, California, and other states; they also are found in smaller cities and suburbs (Miko 2005). Hughes (2004) argues that states indirectly contribute to the demand side when they tolerate or legalize prostitution.

Sex tourism has grown since the 1980s and is estimated to generate billions of dollars in profits every year (Wonders and Michalowski 2001). Indeed, sex tourism may be tolerated at the national level as a viable alternative for countries in search of a “commodity niche” in the global economy (Wonders and Michalowski 2001, 551). The Internet is widely used to advertise (and to shop around for) sex on an international scale. One can easily locate customer satisfaction reports and how-to guides that detail where to go and how much sex acts cost, prompting one observer to comment that the “world’s oldest profession is teaming up with the world’s newest technology” to satisfy the global demand for sex (Worden 2001, 92). Moreover, child sex tourism is pervasive, especially in developing countries. High rates of HIV infection among sex workers have led to the “expansion of sex trafficking, with pimps seeking increasingly younger girls and boys in an effort to market them to customers as clean” (U.S. Congress 2000, 10; see also Brown 2000, Miko 2005, and Willis and Levy 2002). Given that the global demand for purchased sex is closely related to trafficking, further research is needed on this topic.

Other pull factors are also at work. For example, gender gaps, or skewed sex ratios, heighten the demand for young women and girls in certain areas. In India, girls from West Bengal and Assam are reportedly trafficked to the states of Punjab and Haryana, where a gender imbalance exists; girls and women from Burma, North Korea, Russia, and Vietnam are likewise trafficked into China as forced brides and prostitutes (U.S. Department of State 2005).

Additional factors that facilitate trafficking in source, transit, and destination countries defy simple categorization as either push or pull factors. Examples include ever-increasing flows of people and goods around the world, corruption, and organized crime. To begin with, the relative ease with which products and people (immigrants, travelers, and tourists) are transported across borders today makes trafficking hard to detect, prompting Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton to call it the “dark underbelly of globalization” (Clinton 2003). The weakness of the rule of law in many nations can aggravate trafficking, as well. Complicity and corruption in countries of origin make trafficking a fairly low-risk enterprise. Perpetrators obtain false passports and visas from corrupt employees of consular divisions of embassies; they also bribe police officers and border guards to look the other way (Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe 2000). Law enforcement agents in destination countries often overlook the fact that trafficked women or girls are selling sex in local brothels or other venues; in cases of willful ignorance, they are paid off by proprietors of such establishments. Where acts of collusion and attitudes of indifference are ubiquitous, it is difficult for victims to seek help from the authorities.

Victims face an even greater deterrent against attempting escape or failing to comply with traffickers’ demands: their connections to organized crime. When members of violent gangs, mafias, or crime syndicates threaten harm against victims and/or their families, the threat is credible. The involvement of Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Russian, Ukrainian, Georgian, Albanian, Nigerian, and other criminal organizations in trafficking overseas is thought to be extensive (King 2004); similarly, “loosely connected criminal networks” play a role in the U.S. trade in human beings (King 2004, 193). Trafficking for sexual and labor exploitation is attractive to crime rings because it is a highly lucrative business, generating an estimated $9.5 billion in annual profits worldwide. Government officials and analysts therefore conclude that trafficking is the fastest-growing source of revenue for organized criminal groups around the world—surpassed only by profits from drugs and arms—and that these profits have fueled their expansion in the United States and beyond (U.S. Department of State 2005). For example, criminal elements from Japan, South Asia, and China trafficked an estimated 40,000 people to work in factories on the American Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. The laborers were forced to work for low (or no) wages in poor conditions, and the garments and other goods produced were shipped to the United States labeled “Made in the USA” until the scheme was discovered in the late 1990s (King 2004, 40).

Furthermore, relatively weak law enforcement and light penalties for convicted traffickers mean the risks are minimal. To illustrate, several of the perpetrators in the aforementioned case of the Cadena-Sosa family were convicted of violating victims’ civil rights, transporting women and minors for the purpose of prostitution and involuntary servitude, and committing visa fraud, among other offenses. Yet their prison sentences ranged from just two to six years. Some family members simply returned to Mexico, where they were not brought to justice (King 2004).

In summary, although the specific circumstances surrounding individual episodes of trafficking vary significantly, it is possible to discern broad similarities across cases. A number of factors appear to facilitate trafficking in source, transit, and destination countries. Demand for sex gives rise to global, regional, and domestic markets in the bodies of women and girls. Traffickers respond to this demand. Meanwhile, economic desperation, political turmoil, and other conditions within countries of origin create multitudes of potential victims. In particular, the disadvantaged position of women and girls within most societies ensures a steady supply of female victims. Finally, organized crime, corruption, high profits, and relatively low risks make trafficking a growth industry. Because myriad factors contribute to trafficking, this complex problem does not lend itself to any “quick fixes.” What can be done to combat the practice? The next section provides an overview of the anti-trafficking strategies that members of the international community are using at present.

Efforts to Combat Trafficking

A diverse array of actors has become involved in the global struggle against trafficking. Government leaders, officials in the United Nations and other intergovernmental organizations, and members of human rights, feminist, and faith-based NGOs have conducted research on trafficking and worked tirelessly to raise public awareness of the problem. The process of negotiating an acceptable definition and a preferred set of anti-trafficking policies has not been a completely harmonious one. An especially controversial aspect of the debate hinged on whether to emphasize trafficking for sexual exploitation over trafficking for other purposes. Moreover, some activists supported a definition of trafficking that would encompass prostitution in general, even voluntary sex work, while others sought to de-link these (Kempadoo 2005).

Proponents of setting aside the issue of voluntary prostitution and keeping the definition broad ultimately prevailed in drafting the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons. The protocol supplemented the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, which the General Assembly adopted in 2000. The document sets forth guidelines on criminalizing and preventing trafficking, protecting victims, and enhancing interstate cooperation to combat the practice (United Nations 2000).

The new norms against trafficking that have been incorporated into the convention are helpful tools for activists within affected countries. In general, after states ratify such conventions, domestic groups frequently clamor for policy reforms that conform to international standards (Risley 2005). In the case of trafficking, however, numerous obstacles will potentially hinder this reform process: governing elites may lack the political commitment and financial resources needed to respond vigorously to the problem; additionally, they may choose to ignore international conventions and even their own domestic anti-trafficking laws.

Since the late 1990s, the U.S. government has enacted a number of anti-trafficking policies that enjoy substantial bipartisan support. Trafficking has also achieved a prominent place on the foreign policy agenda. State Department officials are now monitoring and influencing other countries’ efforts to combat the problem. Given these policy reforms and the considerable political weight of the United States in international affairs, it is useful to summarize the conventional wisdom that currently dominates policy making in this issue area.

The Clinton administration launched an anti-trafficking initiative comprising prevention, victim protection, and prosecution of traffickers and superior law enforcement (Miko 2005; U.S. Department of Justice 2006). Measures from each of these three areas are outlined in the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (TVPA), which President Clinton signed into law in 2000. First, the act calls for programs designed to help prevent trafficking in source countries. Some prevention policies disseminate information and educate the public on the risks and dangers of trafficking. Others try to augment existing economic and educational opportunities in areas where hard times have made residents more susceptible to the false promises of traffickers. For instance, poverty alleviation, education, and microenterprise programs administered by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) are designed to reduce the vulnerability of women and children to traffickers (USAID 2006). Similarly, the Department of Labor has funded programs that provide job-placement services and vocational skills to women in Eastern European cities and increase school retention in the Balkans and Ukraine (U.S. Department of State International Information Programs 2005).

In the area of victim protection, the TVPA allows government officials to grant a certain number of special visas to victims who face a high risk of retribution if they are deported. Additionally, the act calls for repatriation and reintegration assistance for victims who return to their home communities. Advocates of victims often emphasize the need for comprehensive assistance, including access to legal, psychological, and medical services. Individuals who have been trafficked for sexual exploitation frequently contract sexually transmitted diseases; some also require treatment for substance abuse. Along with the physical scars that result from beatings, substandard housing and nutrition, and other forms of mistreatment, victims typically have psychological scars. Many suffer from depression, anxiety, and/or post-traumatic stress disorder. The health and emotional consequences for sexually exploited children and teens can be even more profound (Willis and Levy 2002).

U.S. policies have not relied exclusively on the victim-centered approach. Prosecuting traffickers is also a priority, and the TVPA increases the maximum penalties for peonage, enticement into slavery, and sale into involuntary servitude from 10 to 20 years in prison (Miko 2005). Furthermore, government documents call for better coordination among different branches and levels of government, training of relevant personnel (namely, judges, prosecutors, and police officers) in anti-trafficking methods and victims’ rights, and various other reforms (U.S. Department of State 2005). Unfortunately, because of their underground nature, criminal rings are hard to infiltrate, and trafficking cases are difficult to investigate. Meanwhile, victims are unlikely to seek help from the authorities and to testify against traffickers for fear of reprisals (King 2004; Miko 2005). Most also risk being deported as illegal immigrants.

Finally, the TVPA created the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking within the Department of State, which is charged with various tasks: drawing attention to the problem, promoting international cooperation, assisting foreign governments in their anti-trafficking efforts, collaborating with NGOs, and carrying out other policies related to this issue (U.S. Department of State 2005).

The George W. Bush administration’s anti-trafficking policies likewise have emphasized the “Three Ps” of prevention, protection, and prosecution. President Bush signed the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Acts in 2003 and 2005; these were designed to expand and fine-tune existing policies and increase funding for anti-trafficking initiatives (Miko 2005). Between 2001 and 2005, the Civil Rights Division and United States attorney’s offices prosecuted 248 defendants (a 200 percent increase over the previous five years), secured 140 convictions and guilty pleas (a 109 percent increase over the same period), and opened 480 new investigations (up 325 percent) (U.S. Department of Justice 2006). Moreover, the U.S. government has conducted more than 190 investigations of citizens traveling abroad for the purpose of sexually exploiting children since the passage of the Prosecutorial Remedies and Other Tools to End the Exploitation of Children Today Act of 2003 (U.S. Department of Justice 2006). Individuals found guilty of this crime can receive a maximum sentence of 30 years (U.S. Department of State 2005). The U.S. government has also endeavored to protect children from traffickers, sex tourists, sex offenders, and pornographers through the implementation in 2003 of Operation Predator. Since the program’s inception, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has made more than 7,000 arrests in the United States and contributed to more than 1,000 arrests abroad by sharing information with its attaché offices and foreign law enforcement agencies (U.S. Department of Justice 2006).

The United States continues to finance initiatives overseas. Examples of funded programs include developing or improving anti-trafficking legislation, training government personnel, supporting NGOs that support victims, creating shelters and safe houses for victims, and assisting with reintegration efforts (U.S. Department of State 2005). Indeed, the government’s obligated anti-trafficking project funding for 2005 exceeded $94 million and was destined for more than 100 countries ranging from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. According to the United States Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (2006), 29 percent of all projects were mandated for the Western Hemisphere, 25 percent for Africa, 15 percent for Europe and Eurasia, 14 percent for South Asia, 11 percent for East Asia and the Pacific, and 1 percent for the Near East; 4 percent of mandated projects were global in scope. Additionally, the government-mandated funding for domestic projects was over $25 million.

The U.S. Department of State has begun to publish the annual trafficking in persons reports mandated by the TVPA. In assessing the anti-trafficking efforts of foreign governments, the United States presently groups countries into four tiers (Table 1). Tier 1 countries comply fully with the TVPA’s minimum standards for eliminating trafficking. In contrast, Tier 2 nations are not in full compliance but are making significant efforts to comply. The Tier 2 Watch List includes countries where the number of victims of severe forms of trafficking is “very significant” (or on the rise) or that fail to provide evidence of greater efforts to combat these severe forms of trafficking since the previous year. Tier 3 includes countries that fail to comply with its minimum standards and are not taking “significant” steps toward compliance with those standards; as a consequence, the United States may choose to withhold nonhumanitarian, non-trade-related aid (5).

Table 1. Trafficking in Persons Report. Released by the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, June 4, 2008.
Source: U.S. Department of State Web site. http://www.stategov/g/tip/rls/tiprpt/2008/105383.htm .
Tier Placements
Tier 1 (Fully complies with TVPA minimum standards for eliminating trafficking)
Australia Finland Lithuania Slovenia
Austria France Luxembourg Spain
Belgium Georgia Macedonia Sweden
Canada Germany Madagascar Switzerland
Colombia Hong Kong Netherlands United Kingdom
Croatia Hungary New Zealand
Czech Republic Italy Norway
Denmark Korea, Rep. Of Poland
Tier 2 (Not in full compliance but are making efforts to comply)
Afghanistan Ghana Malta Sierra Leone
Angola Greece Mauritania Singapore
Bangladesh Honduras Mauritius Slovak Republic
Belarus Indonesia Mexico Suriname
Belize Israel Mongolia Tanzania
Benin Ireland Morocco Taiwan
Bolivia Jamaica Nepal Thailand
Bosnia & Herzegovina Japan Nicaragua Timor-Leste
Brazil Kazakhstan Nigeria Togo
Bulgaria Kenya Pakistan Turkey
Burkina Faso Kyrgyz Republic Paraguay Uganda
Cambodia Laos Peru Ukraine
Chile Latvia Philippines United Arab Emirates
Djibouti Lebanon Portugal Uruguay
Ecuador Liberia Romania Vietnam
El Salvador Macau Rwanda Yemen
Estonia Malawi Senegal
Ethiopia Mali Serbia
Tier 2 Watch List (Number of victims and severe forms of trafficking is very significant)
Argentina Congo, Rep. Of Guinea-Bissau South Africa
Armenia Costa Rica Guyana Sri Lanka
Azerbaijan Cyprus India Tajikistan
Albania Cote d’Ivoire Jordan Tanzania
Bahrain Dominican Republic Libya Venezuela
Burundi Egypt Malaysia Uzbekistan
Cameroon Equatorial Guinea Montenegro Zambia
Central African Republic Gabon Mozambique Zimbabwe
Chad The Gambia Niger
China (PRC) Guatemala Panama
Congo (DRC) Guinea Russia
Tier 3 (Complete failure to comply with minimum standards and are not taking steps toward compliance)
Algeria Iran Oman Sudan
Burma Kuwait Papua New Guinea Syria
Cuba Moldova Qatar
Fiji North Korea Saudi Arabia

In summary, the U.S. government has enacted a variety of domestic anti-trafficking policies in recent years. A number of government agencies have also supported initiatives abroad that aim to prevent trafficking, protect victims, and improve law enforcement. The government’s approach to date has been rather comprehensive and multifaceted. Domestic and international NGOs with extensive experience in this issue have helped formulate some of these policies and have also been instrumental in their implementation. However, an evaluation of the effectiveness of these reforms would be premature. Whether they will successfully deter trafficking and meet the needs of victims remains to be seen.

Concluding Thoughts

At first glance, the struggle against trafficking appears to be a cause whose time has come. Thanks to the efforts of a plethora of activists, NGO leaders, victims who are willing to speak out, government officials, and members of United Nations agencies and other international organizations, the problem is now squarely on the global agenda. Within numerous countries, legal, institutional, and policy reforms have resulted from the increased awareness of trafficking and a growing willingness to combat it. As more states ratify the Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, together with the Trafficking Protocol, one can expect policy innovations to follow at the domestic level.

On the other hand, significant obstacles—indifference, limited resources, competing priorities—may hinder such initiatives. Given the sheer complexity of the trafficking problem and its causes, what is the likelihood that it will actually be diminished or eliminated? Will traffickers and their accomplices simply devise more sophisticated ways to commodify and exploit people? Is fighting a commercial enterprise that generates such immense profits an exercise in futility?

Further research is needed to address these questions and to evaluate the effectiveness of existing anti-trafficking policies. Reliable estimates of the number of trafficked individuals are urgently needed so that scholars, advocates, and policy makers can assess whether anti-trafficking measures are in fact reducing rates of victimization. Additionally, future studies should continue to investigate the factors that fuel trafficking. Comparative analysis of multiple countries and regions can elucidate the most significant causes. It is worth noting that several of the factors that encourage sex trafficking also contribute to trafficking for the purpose of labor exploitation. Similarly, there is some overlap between the causes of trafficking and the causes of voluntary migration. Thus, a nuanced examination of what drives each of these processes would be welcome.

Although it is impossible to know the exact number of individuals who fall prey to trafficking schemes each year, the magnitude of the problem is undeniable. Only by considering the human rights implications of trafficking and involuntary servitude can we begin to understand the gravity of the present situation. The struggle against trafficking is a struggle for human dignity.