Failing Fight Against Human Trafficking Requires Overhauled Strategies


It was a difficult summer in the battle against human trafficking, according to the State Department’s 2011 Trafficking in Persons report. Citing few countries’ success in adopting anti-trafficking laws, the report draws attention to 11 countries that dropped into Tier 3, the category for those which have made the least progress or even regressed in the adoption and enforcement of human trafficking prevention laws. Joining the ranks of Iran, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia, Tier 3 countries such as Lebanon, Libya, Yemen, and the Central African Republic reflect failed human trafficking prevention policies and require a more grassroots approach to eradicating human trafficking networks.

Cross-border sex trafficking, forced prostitution networks, and forced labor all fall under the umbrella of human trafficking. While exact figures are difficult to quantify, the International Labour Organization estimates that at least 2.45 million people — predominantly women and children — were trafficked between 1995 and 2004. The victims often grew up in societies facing crippling poverty, a lack of education and economic empowerment, post-conflict violence, and the lack of rule of law. They were approached by recruiters promising better lives, higher wages, and lavish jobs in industries such as hotel management. Oftentimes, parents cannot afford to care for their entire family, so they offer their children to recruiters, knowingly or unknowingly of the fate that awaits their child.

Once convinced to leave their homes, victims are sold like slaves to brothels or sweatshops and forced to work at the behest of their owners. Young females sold into sex slavery are drugged, beaten, starved, and deprived of a living wage. Addiction to methamphetamine is a common result of sex slavery, and many sex slaves will die of AIDS before they reach 25. If they manage to escape, few aids are at their disposal seeing as brothel owners (particularly in India and Cambodia) pay hefty bribes to police officers to remain open. This creates a cycle of corruption and abuse that continues as long as incentives to traffic women and children exist.

Anti-human-trafficking policies are some of the most difficult to implement because trafficking is often deeply embedded in societies where corruption is rampant and social imbalances are entrenched.

Top-down approaches rarely work, as the recent Trafficking in Persons report showed us. Even if multilateral agencies such as the ILO, UNDP, and UNICEF receive pledges from countries willing to adopt international standards against human trafficking, no mechanism is in place for signatory countries to actually enforce them, and the cycle continues.

Countries with severe trafficking problems must create localized programs that aim to serve different needs. Victims should be provided with job training, access to education, and health care, while local law enforcement officials must provide incentives, monetary or otherwise, to blow the whistle on known traffickers or brothel owners. When a police officer refuses a bribe from a brothel and pursues legal action, he or she is making the prostitution much costlier for the brothel owner. So costly and risky, in fact, that the owner is likely to close the brothel and enter a more lucrative industry. Markets shift frequently, and the sex-trafficking market is no exception.

Countries like Cambodia, the Central African Republic, and Lebanon must enact localized, grassroots anti-trafficking initiatives as a means of eradicating forced labor all together. Only when key actors like local law enforcement officials and recruiters are provided with an incentive to blow the whistle will the costs of running a brothel far outweigh the benefits. Human trafficking may seem far too entrenched to solve, particularly in war-torn and poverty-stricken countries; however, these countries have the most to gain by enacting rule of law initiatives and ending forced labor.

 Photo Credit: IraGelb