Monday, July 13, 2009


By the time someone has been trafficked, we've already failed. Obviously efforts to help victims, empower survivors, and punish perpetrators are extremely vital. At the same time, ultimately we should be working towards a world where trafficking does not occur in the first place. Prevention efforts can be nebulous, though, and even with the best of intentions can do more harm than good. A few weeks ago I attended a panel on preventing human trafficking. Numerous experts who are working in the anti-trafficking movement in various capacities expressed some common themes about what needs to happen to address the roots of trafficking.

Denise Brennan, an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology at Georgetown University, is the author of What's Love Got to Do With It? Transnational Desires and Sex Tourism in Sosua, the Dominican Republic. She is currently working on a book about survivors of human trafficking entitled Starting Over: Life After Trafficking into Forced Labor in the United States. Brennan suggests that efforts to prevent human trafficking must begin with efforts to promote the rights of migrants. From her research she has found that migrants are extremely vulnerable to trafficking because even when they are not trafficked, their basic rights are often violated. Since they are treated as though they have no rights, they are also less likely to come forward to law enforcement when they are exploited. Brennan also argued that migrants rights groups must be a part of the anti-trafficking conversation. She also advocated for increased opportunities for human trafficking survivors to connect with one another and to shape the anti-trafficking movement.

Martina Vandenberg is a partner at Jenner and Block LLP, and she does pro bono representation of women trafficked to the US for forced labor, including civil litigation on behalf of survivors. She echoed many of Brennan's points about migrants rights, and highlighted several prevention efforts that have actually been harmful. First, she argued that efforts to discourage migration do not work and ultimately leave migrants more vulnerable when they do migrate.

Vandenberg also said that anti-prostitution efforts are counterproductive, making women more vulnerable to commercial sexual exploitation. As a corollary, she pointed out that prostitutes can become victims of human trafficking; the idea that if someone once consented to being a sex worker means that she can never be trafficked is both false and extremely harmful. Finally, she argued against efforts to buy people out of slavery, pointing out that such efforts actually increase the demand for slavery.

Vandenberg went on to discuss what should be being done to prevent human trafficking, focusing on the root causes. She emphasized that this work is not glamorous, but it is necessary if we are serious about preventing this human rights abuse.

First, we need to work to fight discrimination against women and girls. Statistically, women and girls still make up the majority of trafficking victims, and due to gender discrimination, they are especially vulnerable to trafficking. On a related note, Vandenberg argues that anti-trafficking efforts must go hand-in-hand with work to address domestic violence. She noted that sometimes money is diverted from domestic violence work to anti-trafficking work, which actually can make people more vulnerable to trafficking when they are desperate to leave a domestic situation and lack options.

In a slightly different direction, Vandenberg advocated for due diligence: we need to seriously look at where US' money is going, particularly in military contracts. She also addressed deterrence, including criminal prosecution and civil litigation on behalf of survivors. Finally, she also discussed the importance about educating migrants about their rights and enforcing labor laws.

Ben Skinner
, a fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, journalist, and author of A Crime So Monstrous: Face-to-Face with Modern-Day Slavery, focused his remarks on a call to action. He argued that slavery is the main human rights issue of our generation, and how we respond to this atrocity will be a sign of our commitment to a more just world. Preventing human trafficking, he suggested, must start with each of us and the daily choices that we make.

On a personal note, I have been thinking about prevention a lot lately. This summer I am interning with an agency doing casework with people who are homeless or at risk of being homeless. These people are extremely vulnerable to numerous forms of exploitation. The
Colorado Advisory Committee on Homeless Youth recently recommended that all agencies that work directly with people who are homeless should be trained on human trafficking, because traffickers target this population. Working daily with people who are homeless has again reinforced for me the importance of comprehensive efforts to address poverty, discrimination, and other factors that make people easy prey for traffickers.

Picture taken by Kay Chernush for the U.S. State Department.

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