In 1973 Chinese leader Mao Zedong
offered US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger 10 million Chinese women in what
Kissinger called a "novel proposition." "You know, China is a very poor
country," said Mao, according to a recently released document by the State
Department's historian office. "We don't have much. What we have in excess is
Thirty-five years and a rapidly globalizing world later, China is one of the largest source and destination countries for human trafficking; in the United States, an estimated 17,500 people are believed to be trafficked each year. The overwhelming majority of trafficking victims are women and children.
There are few issues that are as global in nature as that of human trafficking, which, according to the 2006 United Nations Office on Drug and Crime report, involves at least 127 countries of origin, 98 transit countries, and 137 destination countries. The scope of the issue is enormous, encompassing such varied issues as prostitution, forced labor, migration, organized crime, government corruption, poverty, public health, and even the legitimate economy. Without multidisciplinary, international, cross-border, and cross-organizational cooperation, including government bodies and NGOs, trade in human beings is only expected to grow.
Globalization increasingly allows organized crime groups to cooperate transnationally and new forms of trafficking are beginning to be recognized. International agencies won't stand a chance against such organized crime unless they learn to coordinate efforts as well.
Last year's creation of the Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking (UN.GIFT) and February's first ever UN-organized Vienna Forum to Fight Human Trafficking reflect the increased international cooperation with which the world's second largest criminal industry is finally being addressed. A standardized legal definition clarifying who qualifies as a "trafficked person" is perhaps the most important first step global leaders can take to combat the complex issue.
This is especially true in the case of forced labor, which is often over looked in favor of more sensationalized stories of sexual exploitation. In many Middle Eastern countries, labor laws favor employers, often giving them complete control over foreign laborers. In addition to increasing the rights of migrant workers, source countries should obtain guarantees of their citizens' rights while working abroad, and destination countries should make efforts to inform foreign workers of their rights while there.
Each year, the United States State Department produces the Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, the most comprehensive worldwide report on government efforts to combat human trafficking. The report ranks countries in Tiers 1 through 3 and includes an additional Tier 2 "Watch List" - and advises on policy improvements, with potential penalties (including US sanctions) for Tier 3 ranked countries. Although these penalties theoretically involve US opposition to assistance from the IMF and World Bank, sanctions are not applied evenly, and may be waived if the United States' national interest would be negatively impacted. Thus, Tier 3 countries such as Saudi Arabia, who do not comply with minimum standards and make little if any effort to do so, get away sanction free, while countries such as North Korea and Cuba, who are already subject to other sanctions, are some of the few on whom TVPA (Trafficking Victims Protection Act) sanctions are applied. Placing sanctions on Tier 3 countries is therefore an ineffective method unless and until the US and other countries make human rights a higher priority.
Collectively, the US and EU could be doing much more against trafficking - joint initiatives have thus far been limited to educational campaigns. Further, although EU candidate states are supposed to meet certain criteria regarding human trafficking to join, such requirements are not always met before a state joins the Union, as was proven by Bulgaria last year. Due to its efforts to eliminate trafficking, Bulgaria was ranked Tier 2 in the 2007 TIP Report, but it remains one of the top ten source countries in the world and does not even meet minimum TVPA standards.
It is absolutely vital that states begin to work more cooperatively on this issue, beginning with the adoption of standardized definitions and ratification of UN protocols, and continuing with local enforcement of preventative and protective measures as well as prosecution of offenders at every level and the provision of rehabilitative resources for victims. Though human trafficking affects nearly every country in the world, many countries continue to deny the existence of the problem within their own borders, and despite individual efforts made by many states to combat the issue, the problem will not end until systematic action is taken worldwide.
Samantha Ferrell was until recently an editorial intern with the Atlantic Community and currently works for the American Academy in Berlin.