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Human Trafficking 101 part 1


Trafficking is the new slavery. It is “faceless, temporary, highly profitable, legally concealed, and completely ruthless”. (Kevin Bales)

As I’ve been traveling around speaking with people about human trafficking and what I’m doing through Global Health Promise to address this issue, people are asking a lot of basic questions about it. Here I’ll start a series of blog posts that begin to educate you on trafficking, what it is and what it is not, and what we can really do about it. Most of you have heard about it, but don’t really understand it. There is also quite a bit of surprise about how prevalent it is right here in America. I will be writing about human trafficking in general, but I will also provide some personal perspective from my own experiences. There will also be postings of recommended reading including websites, books and articles. A lot of information I’m giving here can be found at the Department of Health and Human Services Rescue and Restore website.

I welcome your thoughts, comments and questions here. If there is something that needs clarification, or if you have a specific question not addressed here, please ask as everyone will benefit from both the question and the answer!

Human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery. Victims of human trafficking are young children, teenagers, men and women. Approximately 600,000 to 800,000 victims annually are trafficked across international borders world wide. However, trafficked persons DO NOT have to be transported across ANY border to be trafficked. One can be trafficked in one’s home town.

For example, a teen runaway may start selling sex for survival. She is vulnerable and then falls into the grips of a pimp and is then selling sex for him. When she is no longer in control of her comings and goings and earnings, and loses her basic autonomy, she is a trafficked person. Victims of human trafficking are subjected to force, fraud, or coercion, for the purpose of sexual exploitation or forced labor.

Many victims of human trafficking are forced to work in prostitution or the sex entertainment industry. But trafficking also occurs in forms of labor exploitation, such as domestic servitude, restaurant work, janitorial work, sweatshop factory work and migrant agricultural work.

Traffickers use various techniques to instill fear in victims and to keep them enslaved. Some traffickers keep their victims under lock and key. However, the more frequent practice is to use less obvious techniques including:

  • Debt bondage – financial obligations, honor-bound to satisfy debt
  • Isolation from the public – limiting contact with outsiders and making sure that any contact is monitored or superficial in nature
  • Isolation from family members and members of their ethnic and religious community
  • Confiscation of passports, visas and/or identification documents
  • Use or threat of violence toward victims and/or families of victims
  • The threat of shaming victims by exposing circumstances to family
  • Telling victims they will be imprisoned or deported for immigration violations if they contact authorities
  • Control of the victims’ money, e.g., holding their money for “safe-keeping”

After drug dealing, trafficking of humans is tied with arms dealing as the second largest criminal industry in the world, and is the fastest growing. There is an official definition of trafficking in persons as declared in the “Palermo Protocol” established by the United Nations in 2000. This is a very technical definition, but have included it here for the sake of being complete.

Trafficking is NOT smuggling. Smuggling is the procurement or transport of a person for illegal entry into a country and includes the consent of the person being smuggled. Trafficking may involve smuggling, but a smuggled person is not necessarily trafficked. A smuggled person, however, is often vulnerable to being taken advantage of by a trafficker.

America is a major destination country for traffickers of all kind of exploitation. Something you would be surprised to learn is that the best data estimates that over 100,000 American children are being commercially sexually exploited right here in the USA.

A lot of the work that I do involves prostituted women as well as trafficked women. In the areas where I’ve done most of my field work, prostitution and trafficking have blurred definitions and it can look very much the same. These women do not understand the definition of trafficking, they are not up on the latest laws passed, and are usually not aware of their own rights. The circumstances that differentiate a prostututed woman “just” a prostitute as opposed to being trafficked prostituted woman are often not that clear when you consider organized crime, police compliance in the crime, and other cultural and legal factors in different countries. Therefore, I do not make a firm distinction in my work – I just help everyone in that situation becuase that situation for them is Hell on Earth.

First basic lesson. Any questions?

Homework: What did you learn? What questions came up for you about what you see, what you don’t see? If you are having trouble getting your head and heart around it, join the club.

More to come. soon. this is only the start.


4 thoughts on “Human Trafficking 101 part 1

  1. Katherine,
    I appreciated your post on trafficking. Especially after Jan and I watched the movie ‘Trade’ this past week. It is an eye opening depiction of what the ‘industry’ and trafficked ‘life’ is like. It can shock some, but then that is what evil usually does to us.

  2. Katherine,
    Your blog is essential information that everybody should read. More people need to be aware of the horrendous transgression of human trafficking. Your conviction to this cause is praiseworthy.

  3. Hi Katherine,

    Thanks for a great posting. I understand how coming to grips with the size of modern slavery can leave people feeling overwhelmed. But there’s an interesting paradox about the 27 million slaves in the world – yes, it is a huge number, the largest ever in human history, but it is also the smallest fraction of the human population to ever be in slavery. Likewise, the amount of money slaves pump into the world economy is big, around $50 billion a year, but it is also the smallest fraction of the global economy to ever be represented by slave labor.

    The truth is that slavery has been pushed to the edge of its own extinction and working together we can tip it over the brink. I hope you’ll visit and share our website – http://www.freetheslaves.net, and maybe look at my book on how we can bring slavery to an end in 25 years, it is called: Ending Slavery: How We Free Today’s Slaves.

    I’d love to chat offline (maybe email?) about prison-factories in China, we have a hard time getting a first-hand voice on these.

    And just to note – the team that made “China’s Stolen Children” are dear dear friends, we made “Slavery: A Global Investigation” together, and they also made that amazing film about orphanages “The Dying Rooms.” We often meet to talk over ideas for new films, just in case you have any thoughts that way.

    All best wishes,
    Kevin Bales

  4. Dear Kevin,

    Thanks so much for taking the time to comment on my blog – and I’m impressed that you found it! I have read your books “Disposable People” and “Ending Slavery…” and have found them quite helpful. This is only the start of a series of blog posts on this topic and you can be sure that your books and website and organization will be noted.

    I look forward to engaging in conversation with you and will send you an email separately. I’m still Stateside until (probably) the end of the year.



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