Human trafficking is one of the greatest human rights challenges of our time. Millions of people worldwide suffer in silence, in slave-like conditions of forced labour and sexual exploitation.
In the West, the trade in slaves was outlawed in the early 1800s. Yet the modern scourge of human trafficking is no less a form of slavery than the one endured by Africans and others, at the hands of wealthy merchants and landowners, two hundred years ago. Human trafficking not only represents a putrid stain on humanity’s moral record; it is also one of the fastest growing areas of international crime. Sadly, it is also one of the most lucrative. Worldwide, people traffickers will make between seven and nine billion dollars every year in profit, with very little outlay at all. In fact, some crime syndicates are now switching their cargo from drugs to human beings, because the latter offers much higher potential profits.
It’s difficult to be precise about the true scale of the problem, but the UN says that there may be as many as four million people trafficked every year. Seventy percent of them are female and 50 percent are children. Both of these groups are targeted mainly for pornography and prostitution. Meanwhile, teenage boys and men are sometimes victims too, being trafficked into forced labour.
Victims of people trafficking most often come from developing countries. This crime against humanity seems to flourish in societies that are going through, or have just emerged from, long periods of conflict. For example, during the Kosovo conflict, women and girls were often kidnapped by armed gangs, or enticed away from refugee camps. Today the former Yugoslavia has become a primary trafficking destination and an important transit point for European trafficking. Trafficking also increases when poor countries share borders with richer neighbours. Poor people look at opportunities over the border and are easily lured by false promises of a richer life on the other side.
Trafficking is also a growing problem for highly developed nations, including the US. According to the Justice Department, as many as 200,000 American children may be at risk of being trafficked into the sex industry within their own country. The Council of Europe has identified people trafficking as a major problem within Europe, too. Trafficking, which it describes as ‘a new form of slavery’, has it says hit ‘unprecedented levels’.
What can be done about this diabolical trade in human beings? Some people might argue that since slavery has long been a part of human history, there’s not much we can do about it. Yet we can’t afford to be passive, complacent or defeatist in our attitude. Either we will shape the future of our world, or someone else’s vision of that future will reshape us. Modern history is replete with examples of how popular activism, combined with political will and financial investment, can solve seemingly intractable problems.
In facing down the trafficking challenge, our first step should be to ensure that governments maintain humane and sensible immigration policies. Far-right political groups have tried to use the problem of trafficking as a pretext for closing national borders. However, human beings will always value freedom of movement and the opportunity to migrate, especially if better opportunities are on offer abroad. When it is properly controlled and monitored, immigration brings many benefits to a nation. Not the least of these is the opportunity to increase cultural and artistic diversity. New languages, foods, fashions and music all enrich urban life, as do different movies and other forms of entertainment. Denying people access to migration through safe, legal channels only makes the more vulnerable to the false promises of the traffickers.
We must also challenge governments to courageously tackle the related problem of prostitution. In 1999, the Swedish government made laws prohibiting the purchase of a sexual service, with the penalty of fines or imprisonment. Since then, there has been a significant drop in the number of women working as prostitutes in Sweden and a reduction in the number of men who try to buy their services. The fall in demand has also reduced the number of foreign women who are trafficked into Swedish prostitution.
Some governments also need to reassess how they treat people who’ve already been trafficked into their nations. It’s one thing to free a victim of trafficking; they will often then need to be re-educated and re-housed. In short, they will need an opportunity to build an entirely new life, without the burdens of discrimination, overbearing and confusing bureaucracy and legal hassles.
Sadly, trafficking is sometimes linked to official economic reform and development programmes. There have been cases where trafficked sex workers have been forced to ‘service’ foreign aid workers and international peacekeepers. More research needs to be done in this area, to find out how widespread the problem is. More study also needs to be done on the factors that fuel the demand for people trafficking – including the links between migration policies and the demand for cheap labour.
In short, governments the world over must do more to stamp out human trafficking and to create communities in which vulnerable people become less so. However, the problem is so huge that the actions of governments alone, on a national or global scale, will never be enough to eradicate it. Bringing down the traffickers will require a wider response, from individuals and groups throughout society. It will require citizen activism, of the type perhaps best exemplified by celebrated anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce. This eighteenth century British parliamentarian boldly defied vested economic and political interests to campaign for an end to corporate slave-trade throughout the British dominions. It took well over a generation for Wilberforce and his fellow activists to achieve their goal, but their persistence finally paid off. Their efforts also inspired abolitionists working in the Americas.
Ours is arguably a much more complex world than that of Wilberforce’s time. Highly organised crime syndicates form the dark underbelly of globalisation. They are well connected and widely mobile, using all the advantages of digital communications and cheap and fast airline travel. Yet at ground level in vulnerable areas, there are still things we can, as individuals, do to protect people from trafficking. For example, we can encourage our local clubs and associations to connect with anti-trafficking charities. Some of these groups work to educate children in vulnerable areas, teaching skills that will help them to avoid being trafficked. Other groups work to promote higher education among young people in deprived areas. They encourage kids to stay in school longer, while helping to create local jobs for when they leave school. A lack of local education and job opportunities is always a major drawcard for traffickers.
We can also use our individual and collective consumer power to support companies or projects that engage with the anti-trafficking cause, or that help to build safer communities in developing regions. Shopping at stores that offer Fair Trade goods is a good place to start. Fair Trade products are made in developing countries and are certified as being free of any association with human trafficking. Buying these products helps people to lift themselves out of poverty, making them less vulnerable to the lure of trafficking.
Some of us may also want to volunteer to work in one of the many projects that help people find their way out of prostitution. Others might choose to donate money in support of safe houses for trafficking victims. Writing about the issue to local MPs and national political leaders is also important; it keeps the problem front and centre in the halls of political power.
Without much effort, we can also raise public awareness of the issue through letters to local newspapers and media outlets. Social networking provides huge opportunities to spread both an awareness of the problem and ideas for overcoming it. The courageous life of William Wilberforce was described in an authoritative biography by John Pollock. With reference to his subject, Pollock wrote: ‘One man can change his times, but he cannot do it alone.’ Wilberforce was encouraged, supported and assisted in his cause by friends who shared his moral and social passions, including the now famous Clapham Sect in London. This group of highly motivated friends was responsible for many social improvements in Britain, in the early nineteenth century. Today social media, flash-mobbing, smartphone donation systems and an increasing societal taste for citizen activism, all provide us with unprecedented opportunities to work together in opposition to trafficking.
Surely we must, like Wilberforce and his fellow abolitionists, do whatever we can, in large ways or small, to end a vile trade in human misery.