Friday, October 05, 2007

Call & Response

A recent article from the Washington Post questions the magnitude of the trafficking problem in the United States. In particular the writer suggests that trafficking has been over exaggerated and, because so few victims are found, the funds alloted by the government to combat the issue may have been wasted.

Excerpt from the Washington Post:

Outrage was mounting at the 1999 hearing in the Rayburn House Office Building, where congressmen were learning about human trafficking.

A woman from Nepal testified that September that she had been drugged, abducted and forced to work at a brothel in Bombay. A Christian activist recounted tales of women overseas being beaten with electrical cords and raped. A State Department official said Congress must act -- 50,000 slaves were pouring into the United States every year, she said. Furious about the "tidal wave" of victims, Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.) vowed to crack down on so-called modern-day slavery.

The next year, Congress passed a law, triggering a little-noticed worldwide war on human trafficking that began at the end of the Clinton administration and is now a top Bush administration priority. As part of the fight, President Bush has blanketed the nation with 42 Justice Department task forces and spent more than $150 million -- all to find and help the estimated hundreds of thousands of victims of forced prostitution or labor in the United States.

But the government couldn't find them. Not in this country.

Read the full article here

Donna M. Hughes a Professor at the University of Rhode Island responds:

The first question of importance is, how many victims of human trafficking are in the U.S.? There have been two government estimates of the number of foreign victims of trafficking in the U.S. (There is no government estimate on the number of U.S. citizen or domestic victims.) In 1999, the estimate was 45,000 to 50,000; in 2004 the estimate was lowered to 14,500 to 17,500. Those estimates vary widely and should raise concerns about the validity of the estimates and the methods used to calculate them. As the Washington Post correctly points out, there have been relatively few victims of trafficking identified. Victims who cannot yet be identified cannot be counted.

Researchers can employ fancy sampling methods, but they still have to rely on people who know a victim of trafficking when they see one. I predict that the funded study will be a waste of money. The study that could have given us a baseline on the scope of illegal sex industry, which recruits and exploits victims of trafficking, sadly still waits to be done. And consequently, anyone who wants to attack the anti-trafficking movement on the basis of the widely varying estimates of the number of victims still has plenty of ammunition.

Washington Post article says that only 1,362 foreign victims of human trafficking have been identified since 2000. The Post reporter slants the article to imply that relatively few victims have been found because few victims exist. This number represents the number of foreign victims certified as victims of trafficking. There are many more known victims than those who have applied for and been granted certification. First of all, certification requires that the victim be willing to cooperate with a police investigation. Following a police raid, some victims just want to go home, some victims don’t want to cooperate with police and are deported, and some victims are afraid to testify against vicious traffickers. The application for certification requires support from law enforcement. If the victim is not seen as useful for a case, or if they police don’t want to pursue a case, she has no support to stay in the U.S. and be counted as a victim of trafficking.

Read the full article here

My thoughts:

Knowing the scope of trafficking is key to combating the issue. Resources and manpower can be more appropriately distributed. At the same time assisting and supporting current victims is critical. Simply because they have yet to be found does not mean that they do not exist.

The fact that relatively few trafficking victims have been found in the U.S. implies two possibilities: 1) the problem may not be as serious as initially presumed or 2) the problem exists but law enforcement and non-governmental organizations have largely been unable to find victims. Take domestic slavery for example; it is an industry that often has no contracts and is ripe for exploitation. Its perpetrators are generally private citizens. If domestic slavery exists in the U.S. it would be extremely difficult to quantify. Only the victims who are able to escape and, on top of that, are willing to go to the authorities would be counted. Using domestic slavery as an example, it then becomes dangerous to assume that trafficking has been overstated simply because we have yet to find many victims in the U.S.

The current numbers that define the scope of trafficking are estimates. Of course the ideal is to take action based on solid empirical evidence, but while we take the time to calculate these figures, victims of trafficking may be neglected and not receive the services and support they deserve. Hopefully we can work off of better information in the near future, but the time to act is now, not later even if imperfect information is being used.

In the Philippines, the scope of trafficking is similarly hard to define, however, that has not prevented non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from taking the initiative to rescue, rehabilitate, and reintegrate victims. The numbers may be murky, but the victims rescued by NGOs who were previously enslaved in brothels, locked in condos, or forced to work in factories are not. For example, the Visayan Forum Foundation based in Manila, Philippines has assisted over 10,000 victims of trafficking since 2001. This is but one NGO working with limited resources and staff. This is but a tip of the trafficking problem in the Philippines.

The issue of human trafficking demands our attention. It requires manpower and resources to end this form of modern day slavery. It may be convenient to think that slavery is no longer an issue, and if it is than at least not in our country, not within our borders, but this notion ignores the clandestine nature of trafficking, the physical and psychological damage inflicted on its victims and their resulting unwillingness to seek assistance, and the limited means of measuring trafficking that have been employed thus far.

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