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Friday, November 25, 2011

21st Century Slavery: The scourge of human trafficking and how we can fight it

Elina Sarkisova, MPA


Human trafficking, although not a new phenomenon, has experienced exceptional growth in the last quarter of the 20th century, becoming one of the fastest growing criminal enterprises in the world. According to the State Department, an estimated 600,0000 to 800,000 men, women, and children are trafficked across international borders each year, the majority being women and children. When accounting for internal trafficking, the number of victims jumps to 12.3 million. Most states have taken steps, both on an individual and collective level, to try to reverse this trend; most noticeably in the form of international legal instruments and national laws aimed at migration controls, crime prevention, and victims’ assistance programs. However, these efforts have proved largely ineffective and are even to blame, in some circumstances, for making matters worse.

Why human trafficking is on the rise
The competing and often conflicting forces of globalization and national sovereignty help explain the increase in the overall volume of human trafficking. While globalization has brought about unprecedented opportunities for economic growth and prosperity, the results of economic liberalization (a key feature of globalization) have been mixed for developing countries. The swift spread of free markets has led to increased levels of inequality both within and between states and widespread economic instability, thus fostering strong “push” factors in migrants’ countries of origin. Meanwhile, increased demand for cheap labor in developed countries (characterized by a growing ratio of elderly to working-age people), declining birth rates, and high cost of labor, fosters strong “pull” factors.

On the other hand, governments have stepped up efforts to limit the movement of people across their borders, even when such policies are highly inconsistent with national labor market demands. This is usually the result of strong societal resistance to immigration and/or political pressures. Such restrictive immigration policies have the effect of increasing undocumented migration flows. However, trafficking flourishes where an additional factor is present: few opportunities to overcome barriers to illegal migration without the help of a third party. Most trafficking cases start out as voluntary transactions between a potential migrant and a smuggler – an exchange that is usually initiated by the migrant. However, the situation quickly deteriorates upon arrival at the destination country, where the victim often finds himself in a situation of forced labor.

National responses to human trafficking and why they haven’t worked
States tend to perceive human trafficking through the lens of national security, best addressed through migration controls, crime prevention and victims’ assistance programs. The United States, for instance, has increased border control enforcement along its 2,000-mile border with Mexico over the last two decades. However, strong migratory pressures render such efforts useless at best and counterproductive at worst, contributing to an increasing death toll in the border area and driving increasing numbers of economic migrants to seek the services of unscrupulous migration intermediaries intent on exploiting the gap between labor supply and demand. Law enforcement (e.g. police raids) has also become a key tool in countries’ toolbox for combating human trafficking. However, such efforts simply drive the trade further underground, where victims become more and more isolated and vulnerable to abuse, especially in the case of prostitution. Lastly, while some countries have initiated victims’ assistance programs, efforts have largely been limited to “rescue” operations that offer little in the way of long-term solutions and conditional assistance programs that overlook underlying incentives.

A way forward
The human security framework can offer a new, more useful way of conceptualizing an old problem – namely, from the standpoint of the driving forces behind the trade, the mechanisms that facilitate the trade, and the threat that such a trade poses to society. Broadly, policy response should focus on prevention (targeting underlying causes of supply and demand specific to each country), prosecution (law enforcement), and protection (victim assistance programs). Policy options should include, at a minimum:
  • Women, children, and minority empowerment programs: Past projects aimed at the economic empowerment of women have, for instance, tended to be components of broader economic development programs rather than anti-trafficking strategies. Efforts need to be streamlined and incorporated into a broader anti-trafficking strategy.
  • Immigration reforms: Destination countries should create temporary guest worker programs, perhaps in a more targeted way than some countries have already done, as part of a broader anti-trafficking agenda.
  • Anti-corruption programs among border patrol officials: Trafficking would not be as widespread were it not for the help of corrupt government officials, especially in border patrol areas, who are complicit in this trade.
In the end, improving the track record of international anti-trafficking programs will require both structural changes in the manner in which the issue is conceptualized by states and operational changes in the manner in which programs are implemented. Only then could we realistically attempt to end this scourge of the 21st century.

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