Human Trafficking is Our Personal Shame

by Wayne McCormack

On January 10, 2014, the Center for Global Justice at the S.J. Quinney College of Law hosted a workshop on human trafficking. In teaching this subject for the past few years, I have been deeply moved by some 25-year-old male law students near tears after seeing portrayals in class related to child sex slavery in the world today. Although it is impossible to get precise numbers on the phenomena, it is clear that there are many thousands if not millions of people in various forms of forced labor today. The major components are sex marketing, domestic servants, and agricultural workers, but other components of manual labor may also involve some degree of coercion. Organ trafficking has also become a part of the phenomenon in recent years.

There are no reliable estimates of numbers of persons or dollars involved in the sex or forced labor trades.

For example, in 2001, the FBI estimated 700,000 women and children were trafficked worldwide, UNICEF estimated 1.75 million, and the International Organization on Migration (IOM) merely 400,000. In 2001, the UN drastically changed its own estimate of trafficked people in 2000 – from 4,000,000 to 1,000,000. The most cited statistics on trafficking come from the U.S. State Department’s annual reports on trafficking in persons. According to the 2005 report, 600,000 to 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders each year, with 14,500 to 17,500 trafficked into the U.S.

Frontline: Sex Slaves, Estimating the Numbers, [data page no longer online]

It is telling that the U.S. Department of State no longer even publishes estimated numbers [the last effort is at page 7 of the 2008 Report:]. Assume half-million persons per year are trapped in the modern slave trade. Over the course of 10 years, that’s 5 million people per decade. The slave trade in the 18th Century brought somewhere over 10 million persons from Africa to the West, although the numbers worldwide were even higher.

The horrific circumstances of children engaged in commercial sex began to catch the world’s attention in the 1990’s following the demise of the Soviet Union and the shifting economic arrangements of “globalization.” Cambodia and Thailand in particular became destinations for sex tourists, many of whom were interested in younger and younger targets of opportunity. The economics of those countries and their neighbors made it possible for purveyors to “purchase” children from their families for nominal amounts and then employ those children in providing services to sex tourists. The International Labor Organization led the way in developing Standards of Good Practice for tour companies. Then international organizations moved to find other ways of combating the practice.

The U.S. Criminal Code contains a number of provisions that can be brought to bear on the commercial sex trade. There are provisions on forced labor (18 U.S.C. §§ 1581-1596), “sexual abuse” criminalizing nonconsensual sex within federal territories or the extraterritorial jurisdiction of the U.S. (18 U.S.C. §§ 2241-2248), and “sexual exploitation and other abuse of children” (18 U.S.C. §§ 2251-2260A) (which applies even to U.S. patrons of establishments in countries where underage sex is legal.

The dominant international convention on forced labor is Protocol I of the Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, commonly known as the Palermo Protocol. The Protocol obligates each signatory nation to criminalize trafficking (including all forms of coerced labor or organ donation, as well as any sexual exploitation of a person under the age of 18) and to provide assistance to victims of trafficking.

But in truth what is the world really doing about the phenomenon? Massive attention and political energy are poured into the tragedy that is Syria, but the number of people suffering in forced labor, particularly kids in prostitution, dwarfs the scale of violence in that beleaguered country. Where is the outrage? Where is the political will to do something?

Part of the answer is simple: this trade is clandestine, and it is profitable. Profitable not just to the traffickers but to the countries that allow it. In several countries, the police are explicitly “on the take” to protect the traffickers. In others, they either turn a blind eye or their time and resources are directed to what the public thinks are bigger threats.

At another level, the answer can be complex: the victims themselves may defy detection. They may be from desperately impoverished circumstances, not want to be deported, afraid for their families, or any of a variety of other motivations for remaining hidden.

It is understandable that significant resources need to be directed to law enforcement involving murder and mayhem. Traffic controls and drunk driving enforcement improve the lives and safety of all of us. But why does the U.S. spend approximately $15 billion per year on interdiction of drugs with the net effect of driving up the price of the drugs and increasing the violence associated with the trade? And the U.S. political system is mired in an utterly dysfunctional debate over health care that has virtually no connection to factual bases of the phenomenon.

Trafficking in humans will continue to some degree no matter what we do about it. Like other forms of crime, some will always be with us. But a little moral outrage could go a long way in prompting politicians to take the problem a bit more seriously.

Wayne McCormack is a Professor of Law at the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law, where he teaches Constitutional Law, Counter-Terrorism, International Criminal Law, Torts, and Civil Procedure. From 1997-2002 he coordinated the University of Utah’s involvement with the 2002 Olympic Winter Games, and that experience led to security planning for major events and interest in international legal issues, including the law related to terrorism.