Human Trafficking: Slavery of the Modern Era

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Although owning slaves has long been outlawed in the U.S., modern-day slavery, or human trafficking, still exists globally. The U.S. State Department estimates that thousands are exploited for sex and labor and trafficked into the states each year. Mark Lagon of the U.S. State Department explains.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Since the beginning of the year, we've been acknowledging the bicentennial of the end of the transatlantic slave trade. The U.S. ban went into effect on January 1st, 1808. Of course, slavery did not end on that day. And later, we're going to bring you a remarkable story of courage that you may never have heard before, that of a woman who took extraordinary steps to win her freedom and that of her children and lived to tell the tale herself. That's just in a few minutes.

But first, we want to take a look at the question of modern slave trading, or as it is more commonly called now, human trafficking. The U.S. State Department estimates that some 800,000 people, mostly women and children, are trafficked each across international borders to be exploited for sex and labor. Approximately 18,000 to 20,000 of those victims are trafficked into the United States.

Joining me to discuss human trafficking and U.S. efforts at home and abroad to fight it is Mark Lagon. He is the ambassador at large and director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, and he serves as senior adviser to the Secretary of State.

Welcome. Thanks for speaking with us.

Dr. MARK LAGON (Director, Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons): Great to be with you.

MARTIN: It seems that this issue resurfaces every generation. A generation ago, you know, the plight of the farm workers came to the fore. Why can't we stop this?

Dr. LAGON: Well, I think people came together in a wonderful coalition of left and right in the United States several years ago - feminists on the left, Christian conservatives on the right, many in between - to help create the office that I had, to see that there are people who are being enslaved today, whether it's sex trafficking or forced labor.

And when people are turned into commodities, completely robbed of their dignity and losing control of their lives - whether their domestic servants, women in prostitution, construction workers, agricultural workers - we have to stand up for them.

MARTIN: Well, I take your point that there is more vigilance on the one hand. And, for example, the State Department for the last seven years has issued a report on human trafficking worldwide. On the other hand, national borders are still fluid, and there are more means of transportation. So I wanted to ask you, ambassador, do you think that the problem is getting better or worse?

Dr. LAGON: I think that the movement is making progress. We're dealing with getting more than a hundred countries in the life of my office to either revise their laws or put in place comprehensive laws to fight human trafficking. We assist around the world many victim protection shelters and efforts, but still, I think the problem is massive, and in many places, growing.

MARTIN: Why is it growing?

Dr. LAGON: Well, I think some people believe that poverty is the main singular cause. But it's not so much the poverty alone, but those criminal elements, those sadistic people, and frankly, corrupt officials around the world - police and immigration officials who facilitate this.

MARTIN: The report details - the annual State Department report on human trafficking details a number of these instances around the world. Just to give a few: the Zambians girls trafficked to Ireland for commercial sexual exploitation, Filipina women trafficked to Cote d'Ivoire for commercial sexual exploitation, Vietnamese children trafficked to the U.K. for forced involvement in drug smuggling. Is there any through line here in how these cases are discovered and in how these situations can be addressed? Or does it really have to be country by country?

Dr. LAGON: Well, it's a difficult situation because victims of human trafficking are, generally speaking, afraid to come forward, afraid to be treated like criminals, afraid to be treated like dirty women in prostitution, treated like mere migrant workers or illegal aliens. To go after the bad guys and to help the victims, we have to identify them first.

I think we're doing better, just as we are in the United States, because if we are to tell other countries in our annual report how to improve, we've got to work at home. And we are successfully reaching out to partners in emergency rooms and churches and other places to have a net to go and look for these victims.

MARTIN: I want to talk about that. I mean, we can talk about the international situation, but the report suggests - a government figure suggests that some 18,000 to 20,000 people are trafficked into the U.S. every year. Who are they? How is this possible in the United States?

Dr. LAGON: Well, they come from a number of places. I think some people would imagine that they chiefly come from Mexico and Central America, but they come from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, and importantly, from East Asia. There have been a number of busts that have involved South Koreans brought in for commercial sexual exploitation - you know, massage parlors, which are, in fact, sadistic examples of sex trafficking. So there's a mix of it.

The fact is that we have been boosting the number of traffickers we've caught, but there's still, I think, many more thousands that we haven't found. And we need to try.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, as part of our series acknowledging the end of the transatlantic slave trade, we're talking about the modern slave trade with Ambassador Mark Lagon, ambassador to combat human trafficking.

Government reports say that the U.S. government is trying to make more aggressive effort to find and prosecute traffickers. But the figures cited in the latest report from your office says that in fiscal year 2006, the initiative to combat the exploitation of children for prostitution in the U.S., this initiative resulted in 103 investigations, 157 arrests, 76 indictments, only 43 convictions. And in another example, the average sentence for trafficking crimes in fiscal year 2005 was only 8.5 years. It just seems in contrast to the seriousness of the issue, those don't seem very significant results.

Dr. LAGON: In fact, over the last six years, the number of prosecutions have jumped by some 600 percent. I think the area of helping the most vulnerable minors - children who are sex trafficked - is pretty substantial. But I think we need to energize the effort to look at how women in prostitution are turned into commodities and are victims of sex trafficking all the more.

MARTIN: Some people would argue that by continuing to make prostitution illegal and covert, it just increases the value of the black market. It's the same argument that people have about legalizing or decriminalizing drug use, for example. They just said we just make it more expensive. The more expensive we make it, the more that that increases the value of these sort of covert activities. Do you buy that argument?

Dr. LAGON: It's a cosmopolitan view, but it happens to be wrong. You are creating a legitimizing front for sex traffickers by having legal prostitution.

MARTIN: But how do we know that? How do we know that. You're saying that, in fact, legalizing prostitution makes the problem worse.

Dr. LAGON: Well, I'll give you an example, so that I don't make this a U.S.-centric argument. Sweden decided in 1999 to hold pimps, brothel owners and the customers, the Johns, responsible. They made them the criminals without stigmatizing and criminalizing the women in prostitution. And a study done by the Division for Gender Equality in the government of Sweden found that after they instituted the policy, there was a 50 percent decrease in women in prostitution and a 75 percent decrease in men buying sex two years after the policy was in place.

We need to look at the way demand creates the sex trafficking problem and address it.

MARTIN: Do you have a sense that we just don't take this problem as seriously as we think we do? That, you know, for example, when we say human trafficking, people react in horror. But when you say prostitution, people go, oh, well, you know, that's a morality crime. It's not really my business, or…

Dr. LAGON: It's a matter of education and public discourse. I think people need to realize that prostitution is, by nature, degrading. It turns women into commodities, and it creates a danger of vulnerability that migrant women, and in fact, U.S. citizens are going to be enslaved.

Human trafficking is about people losing control over their lives and being bought and sold. And women and girls in prostitution fit that description.

MARTIN: And prostitution isn't the only way, of course, in which labor is exploited. As the report - as your work details, that people are trafficked across national borders to work in agriculture, also to work in factories. What steps is the U.S. taking to address those forms of human trafficking?

Dr. LAGON: Well, the first thing we do is we try and assess other government's efforts to fight human trafficking. And then I'm the lead envoy to talk to governments about improving their efforts to go after the exploiters and hold them fully to account. Look, I went to Thailand, and outside of Bangkok, I met some Burmese migrants who had been wooed to jobs in Thailand because, of course, Burma has horrible political repression and economic circumstances. And they were virtually enslaved in a forced-labor camp, working in a shrimp processing business. We urge governments like Thailand to help.

MARTIN: Could the U.S. do more, though, in monitoring American businesses who employ factories overseas as contractors and as subcontractors? Could we be doing more to monitor the kinds of employees they use and how they get those employees and the conditions that they provide?

Dr. LAGON: We need to do that. We need to hold contractors to account. I think the Department of Defense is taking good steps forward in trying to make sure that it's - that contractors abroad do not abet human trafficking. But there's something else we need to do. We need to make sure that importing companies have clean supply chains. If we are to worry about whether we want to buy a can of tuna because it might have been harmful to dolphins, we also should worry about those products that we're buying that might be produced on the backs of forced labor.

MARTIN: How can Americans do that? How can they express their concern and see that those concerns are carried out?

Dr. LAGON: They need to insist that those who would bring the, you know, steel into the United States that may be supplied by pig iron made by forced labor in Brazil or shrimp that comes into the United States is clean of forced labor. Our Department of Labor is required by Congress to produce a list of those imports of the United States that might be tainted. We need to keep that list, and then consumers should vote with their feet.

MARTIN: As I mentioned, we're marking the 200th anniversary of the end of the importation of enslaved people to the United States. And now, you're working to abolish human trafficking around the globe. Do you think that there will be a point of time where we won't be talking about this anymore?

Dr. LAGON: Absolutely. But it takes time. Of course, as you said, 1808 was not when slavery ended. And, of course, there were legacies that followed slavery, of segregation and discrimination. But let's be clear. Our goal is not to mitigate or regulate human trafficking. We have to make our goal abolition, and that includes public awareness about the seriousness of the problem and then legal action to try and stamp it out.

MARTIN: Mark Lagon is ambassador at large. He's the ambassador to combat human trafficking. He joined us from his office at the State Department.

Thank you so much for speaking with us, ambassador.

Dr. LAGON: Thank you for putting focus on this issue.

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