Human trafficking is a scourge of our times, How Many Slaves Around the World?

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Chairman, Global Politics and Security, Georgetown University Foreign Service School; Senior Adviser, Blue Star Strategies; and Co-Director, Transatlantic Renewal Project

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Several years ago, a female journalist I knew was kidnapped on the way to work in Baghdad. After two harrowing weeks, 28-year-old Bahar (not her real name) was released by her hostage takers. She left for Europe and steadfastly refused to return home. It was not just her kidnappers whom Bahar feared. Back in Iraq, the male relatives on her father’s side were threatening Bahar with an honour killing because they were convinced she had been sexually abused in captivity. In Europe the tragedy for this gifted and promising young woman only deepened; she became trapped in a human trafficking network.

You try to combat this evil by saving one soul, and winning one case at a time.

Just days ago, in a landmark case, a wealthy businessman who had held five under-age Mozambican girls captive as sex-slaves for three years, was sentenced in Cape Town to eight life-terms for human trafficking and rape.This was the most severe sentence ever handed down for human trafficking in South Africa.

Human trafficking is a scourge of our times, and whether in sex trade or forced labour, women and girls tend to be especially vulnerable. According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), more than half of all victims world-wide are female. In fact, the U.S. State Department estimates that, among the 600,000 to 800,000 people trafficked across international borders every year, nearly 70% female. Half are children.

“The term ‘trafficking’ doesn’t help us to understand the problem,” according to Mark Lagon, incoming President of Freedom House and former U.S. ambassador-at-large, directing American efforts to monitor and combat the problem. “Trafficking,” continues Lagon, “suggests movement across borders and for some, perhaps, minor criminality and rough edges of globalisation.” But “it’s fundamentally about the most extreme forms of exploitation,” he tells me. The numbers are staggering. According to Guy Ryder, the Director-General of the ILO, as many as 28 million people today may be victims in this modern day slave trade. According to the U.N., human trafficking is a 99 billion-dollar-a-year industry.

How can this be?

Traffickers prey on the weak, naive and vulnerable. In one common scenario, an individual is promised by a fraudulent employment agency a better job and life somewhere abroad. Upon arriving in the new country, said individual’s passport is confiscated. Victims are in instances threatened, drugged, physically and sexually abused. If you’re a poor, uneducated domestic worker caught up in such circumstances — let’s say in Dubai or Saudi Arabia where you have no family or friends, nor knowledge of the local language — where do you turn for help?

Traffickers depend on corrupt governments, weak rule of law, and misogynistic culture. That’s why most of the Middle East has a particularly dreadful record in human trafficking.

Traffickers also rely on our ignorance and collusion. As the case of Iraqi journalist Bahar suggests, trafficking is a problem in developed democracies as well. It can be difficult to uncover, and not just for law enforcement. Apparently nail salons — they spring up like mushrooms in cities like New York, Los Angeles and London — rely, not infrequently, on forced labour. You as a customer would never know.

In other circumstances, you should be able to guess there’s a problem.

A decade ago in Germany, a prominent commentator and talk show host became embroiled in a scandal, having been caught with prostitutes and cocaine in a well known Berlin hotel. A year later, I invited the gentleman in question to participate in a program of the Aspen Institute Germany, the organisation I led at the time. One of my board members protested vigorously.

I replied that the man had apologised and asked publicly for forgiveness from his wife, his colleagues, and his audience. He was an influential and articulate pundit. Was it ours to shun him? But then my board member pointed out something that had gone missing from the entire debate and ensuing apology. Young Ukrainian women in Berlin, my trustee noted, are almost surely not in Germany engaged in prostitution on a voluntary basis.

No one had spoken about this. He had a completely valid point.