In a special report, BBC News presented a World Debate from the Luxor Temple in Egypt, 17 December 2010, on human trafficking.
Human trafficking exists in almost every country on earth. As many as 27 million people are estimated to live in modern slavery. Can this problem be stopped?
The panel consisted of:
- Laura Agustin, Author, ‘Sex at the Margins’
- Sophie Flak, Executive Vice-President, Accor
- Rani Hong, Trafficking Survivor
- Siddharth Kara, Author, ‘Sex Trafficking’
- Ronald Noble, Secretary General, Interpol
Mira Sorvino, a renowned actress and Goodwill Ambassador to the United Nations, as well as Ashton Kutcher were among the audience and made remarks in turn throughout the debate when prompted. Mira Sorvino, as a side note, starred alongside Donald Sutherland in a made for television movie entitled “Human Trafficking” released in 2005.
As I believe in providing as much primary source information as possible, the following is a transcript of the debate preceded by a brief introduction. The moniker “M” has been substituted throughout the transcript for the moderator. I used abbreviations in some cases for brevity, please pardon that it is not a word for word transcript. The message remains.
There is a cliff-notes sort of summary at the end.
Zeinab Badawi moderated the event. Her opening remarks included that it is hard to measure the scale of the human trafficking problem. The sources are mostly anecdotal and the figures that exists vary widely. The estimated number of people being exploited varies from 2.5 Million to 27 Million people (Source: International Labor Union (ILO), Free the Slaves).
Globally, it is estimated that human trafficking draws 32 Billion dollars in annual revenue (Source: ILO).
Prosecutions are low in relation to the high figures. For example, according to the U.S. State Department, about 4,166 people were successfully prosecuted in 2009 for human trafficking.
How do we combat human trafficking?
M: Ron Noble, what is human trafficking (HT)?
Ron: Movements of people from one location to another for purpsoes of involuntary servitude, forced prostitution, and forced labor – classic definition. Modern day slavery, irregardless of movement.
M: Do you all agree with this definition?
Siddharth: There is confusion about the def of HT – is it acquisitons and movement of people (formerly i.e. slave trading) or exploitation or both? Confusion hampers efforts to combat HT. Be more precie in definitions and terms to advance collective efforts.
M: I challenge you to be a bit more precise.
Siddharth: I would dis-aggregate these two elements.
M: Laura, how would you define HT?
Laura: Worked in Caribbean amongst people who were going to be undocumented migrants and they paid to be smuggled for jobs. This is smuggling, I’m not willing to call this trafficking. People want to do this and I oppose the idea that this should all be called slavery and that it’s all about prostitution.
M: Does HT exist in your view?
Laura: Very bad practices exist that I would call HT.
Sophie: We don’t have a precise definition. We are about fighting malpractice, we work against any abuse of people.
M: Rani, I want to know whether there is any doubt in your mind about what HT constitutes?
Rani: I was born in India, at age 7 I was kidnapped from my family and forced into slavery, to do things against my will. That’s one definition of HT. My broker/owner had ownership of me. Labor – long hours, 12-13 hour days with no food or water. As my body and mind started to shut down, I was considered destitute and dying so my owner got one more profit off me and sold me for international adoption. There are several elements of HT – basically it’s for exploitation.
Siddharth: Hasn’t exploitatoin been going on for a long time? What’s new? Here’s the big difference and what’s caused HT to ascend in the modern context: In “Old World” slavery – you could purchase a slave for 10 – 12,000 dollars and return 15% profit annualy, mostly in agriculture work.
In modern day you can purchase a slave for 100 – 200 dollars or less (maybe a few thousand) and the return can exceed 200, 300, or 400% annually per slave.
Shift in economic logic in HT – caused phenomenon to explode in the past 20 years, especially after the fall of the Berlin wall, and got our attention finally.
Laura: Why are we talking about slavery suddenly? We’re talking about the definition of trafficking and we’ve already slid into slavery. This is what’s wrong. Are you saying it’s exactly the same? Just trying to change the words?
Siddharth: Trafficking is the process of acquiring and transporting individuals for the purpsoes of forced labor or slave-like exploitations. Intricately linked with the phenomenon. There are 2.5 bill people living in poverty in the world, maybe female or minority ethnicity so they may be disenfranchised in their local community, they may be vulnerable. The promis of a dream opportunity for income is how they’re acquired and transported somewhere else where they’re exploited.
Laura: Not all the time, I don’t agree with that.
M: Explain why?
Laura: I have been research migration for about 15 years now, many people who end up in bad situations opted to leave their country, decided, not completely duped and people being hijacked and kidnapped. The fact that their working conditions are not exactly like those in the formal sector has to do w/ not having proper papers and i.d. and it being informal sector labor. We can’t make everything be the same thing.
M: Isn’t that a fair point-
Ron: With all due respect are you tleling me someone who reads and advertisement to be an artist and get a great job goes to a different country where she is suddenly forced into sex, somehow made a bad choice?
Laura: It’s very few people who know nothing about what they were going to do. You are appaled that somebody is going to end up selling sex, not everybody is appalled at that.
Ron: I’m appalled at the fact that someone is forced to do something they don’t want to do whether it’s sex or forced labor against their will. You’re in a country, often times, speaking a language different from the people there, you don’t have your papers, you’re afraid of being arrested or deported or harmed, your family is threatened… How can you just say that it’s just someone who decided to do something and now they to live with that?
Laura: I’m saying there is great diversity among the people who get into these situations, it is not helpful to reduce everything to one model, a totally duped person who is enslaved and knows nothing
M: It’s a valid point, isn’t it, not everybody falls under the coerced…
Ron: I agree that every individual has individual circumstances, what I object to is heaping responsiblity onto people who are deceived into moving from one place to another and then forced to do things agains their will.
M: But you didn’t say that, did you Laura?
Laura: No, the problem is when you go to find the true victims it is difficult to determine 100% victimhood because so many were complicit with some aspect of it, of course they don’t want to have terrible lives, no.
Siddharth: Knowledge and consent don’t negate the possibility of being trafficked and enslaved. You may know you’re going to go to a place, it may be a little risky, it might not turn out the way you want it, you might have no choice because of poverty or population displacement due to war… once you get there, if you’re captured within the confines of forced labor, coerced to perform work/services you can’t walk away and your nominally not compinsated then you’ve been trafficked.
M: You don’t know that. What about refugees who go willingly, in your view are they victims?
Siddharth: Good question, once there if they get caught up in HT, they’re a victim. Another point – what is choice? If you’re facing a lack of opportunity, starvation, destitution, if this is your alternative, are you making a choice?
M: Yes, some migrants are actually better off to go to a different country to work.
Siddharth: If they go on their own and live as they choose, then they’re not trafficked.
M: Sophie, how would see the distinction between forced labor and migrant labor? Essentially what Laura has brought up is the issue of a migrant worker.
Sophie: A person working o ftheit free will for decent pay and appropriate times, in decent conditions, even if they’re coming from another country, as long as it is legal, we are proud to having a diverse staff. Ofc ourse is the person is working out of free will and is facing adversity… this is what we would maybe call forced labor.
M: Rani, in your view is there any confusion about whether a paerons, even if they’ve gone of their own volition to another county and meet difficult circumstances
Rani: Every circumstance is different, sometimes there are some who may migrate but in the process they may be trafficked. … Many of the victims of HT are under the age of 18, they can’t consent to sex, so that’s another circumstance
M: A lot of the victims in HT are involved in the sex trade. The vast majority end up working in the sex industry. Ron does that present difficulties in advising governments what to do about this?
Ron: I get back to the point, is this person allowed to leave whenever he or she wants? Regardless of the job, can the person leave? Will they be threatened with violence, coercian, etc? If you say the person can leave, even if I don’t like the job and wouldn’t want it for a family member, then I can understand that.
M: Do you accept that sex workers have a right to work?
M: They don’t?
Ron: It’s hard to get from country A to Z without using illegal means.
M: If they work as sex workers within their own countries, then that’s alright? Is that what you’re saying, but if they go to other countries?
Ron: It’s not about the sex trade
M: It’s not about the sex trade
Ron: Countries decide what’s legal/illegal in their country. What I’m concerned about is people moved from A to Z against their will for exploitation. That’s what I’m concerned about as Interpol secretary.
Laura: It is not true that the vast majority of people who are trafficked are selling sex.
M: That’s what the UN says
Laura: No, this is not known. Can’t know the quantities of things in a completely clandestine migrants and people who work in the informal sector. Between the complete slavery and someone who has found a migrant job in a nice hotel there are vast majorities of undocumented migrants who have paid somoene to help them get where theyre going, they don’t have papers when they get there, they might have been smuggled or they might have been pushed around, but they get there and work in the underground sector
M: The UN goes by 2.5 million, you go by close to 30, what about these diferent numbers?
Siddharth: This gets back to definitional confusion. The 30 mill is agregational slaves, the trafficking component of that is around 2 million. It’s a difficult thing to quantify and it’s difficult. Depending on how it’s defined the numbers can fluctuate. It’s hard for the
Yury Fedotov: Victims are not always able or willing to disclose themselves to authorities as they often become involved in illegal activities. We need to decriminalize the victims and go after the real criminals.
M: Lady in red?
Moushira Khattab: I think we have a problem here. You said that trafficking is asking someone to do things they don’t want to do, parents ask children to do things that they don’t want to do… I think we have conventions that we need to study and apply. We have the convention on the rights of migrant workers and their families and all of these conventions put minimum standards, we just need to study them and apply them case by case.
M: Ashton Kutcher?
Ashton Kutcher (DNA foundation): I think debating the definition of trafficking is moot, I think the word trafficking is used b/c it’s governable internationally. The transport of a person from one country to another or state to state is governable by a nation or a multinational organization whereas I think the actual exploitation of humans is the topic that deserves media coverage and the attention of people globally. The average age of entry into the sex industry is 13 years old, I don’t believe that there’s a thirteen year old child in the world that would choose to be raped for profit, I don’t believe that that exists. So to argue the word trafficking is spending time we can utilize to inform people on the industry of buying and selling human beings or coercing them into exploitation. Siddharth has done studies on the commercial sex industry showing it’s an elastic industry where as the demand goes down the price rises, as the price rises the demand goes down. I was hopign Siddarth could share some info abou tthat because as an industyr if we can affect that industry and bottom out that industry we could actually make some changes.
M: Typically who are most likely to be victims of HT?
Siddharth: Theoretically anyone can be a victim. It certainly dispraportionally happens to people in poverty, who are female or minority ehtnicity, in countries where there may be a lot of corruption or lawlessness, war torn areas, refugee camps, vulnerable people. Vulnerable people are the most likely to be exploited in any number of ways, but it can theoretically happen to anyone.
M: Who are most likely to be the traffickers, Ron?
Ron: From Interpol’s perspective, we know the tools the traffickers require, they need passports and the abilitiy to alter them, they need traffic routes and people they can bribe, they need destination points… They tend to be involved in more than just one criminal trade.
Laura: A lot of these are three people, with mobile phones one of whom is the friend/family of the migrant who wants to go someplace and you have someone on the other side. This is a small network, it is melodramatic to call this organized crime.
Ron: I want to make a distinction. You’ve made the point two or three times that there are people who want to migrate to another country to better themselves. I’m talking about the people who might even want to do that but they get to a location and once they get there tthey’re held against their will and they are forced into labor, etc. You’re right, small groups, they do move across countries and sometimes they get their passports altered by prganized crime. I’m not saying that there’s one huge organized criminal network controlling the world. I want to say that the network provides tools that are affective for people to move form one country to another and there they’re often exploited and if that exploitation reaches a level of forced labor, I believe that is a crime.
M: Why are prosecutions involving HT so low in relation to the figures that Siddarth has? 4,000 prosecutions in 2009?
Ron: Often foreign victims may fear criminal recourse, they might have a distrust of local law enforcement, they may be afraid of being harmed.
Laura: There also often afriad of being deported which is often the response under the idea that we’re rescuing them and sending them back to their home country where they’ll feel like a failure for not bringing home any money. So not wanting to cooperate with the police is often because they don’t want to be deported.
Siddharth: There’s one more reason, we haven’t done a sufficintly good job globally taking care of the survivors. If you’re trying to prosecute traffickers and your key witnesses are vulnerable and possibly back out getting re-trafficked, you can’t convict. We need better global standards of caring for survivors.
Rani: There’s all kinds of corruption in the systems that are in place and at the end of the day people are getting paid off under the table and the victim gets abused. … I know we need to focus on the survivors, how do we care for them because they are scared.
M: In terms of the prosecutions and why they’r so low do you agree with what Ron said about them being scared?
Rani: Absolutely, with working with survivors, it’s absolutely scary. We need to give them personal attention and have someone to go with them to the court. They’re scared to face their traffickers. In the trafficking industry the victims are brainwashed, they don’t have the power to stand up for themselves.
Laura: I don’t see why we have to do this weird psychologizing thing. I think these enormous generalizing statements are unneccesary. For some migrants who may be in a tight spot and choose to sell sex for a while to earn money. We don’t need a neo-colonialist I know best for you and you’ve been brainwashed. It’s going too far. If you have an actual person that’s there and you can prove that that’s going on, okay fine. But I don’t know why we get into these kinds of terms so quickly.
Mira Sorvino (UN Goodwill Ambassador): I feel that your contributions are just to throw doubt and confusion into a discussion that should be about finding solutions rather than arguing. You have a real trafficking victim here who is telling you her experience. She is not a migrant who is trying to find her way and may or may not have made an unfortunate choice. In trafficking situations it does not matter why they got there, it doesn’t matter if they chose to make a deal with the devil, it’s what happens once they’re in the clutches of the person who is profiting off their back, their labor, abusing them and threatening them and their families, not allowing them to keep money or have access to healthcare. Every trafficking victim I have interviewed has been in mortal fear of their traffickers and they were afraid of the police because they were told that they would arrest them. Whether they were brainwashed or not we understand what you mean by brainwash, we’re not talking about a clinical definition here. We’re talking about a state of being in which testifying against your trafficker is a very difficult thing. I just don’t see the positivity or the constructiveness of the debate right now and I would like to see it move forward into a way that we’re really learning things instead of arguing
M: Just for the sake of arguing
Laura: I would say that the British tradition of debate is dissent and I was invited because I have a different point of view.
M: Laura is not necesarly disagreeing she’s just warning against generalizations.
Laura: There are the worse kind of victims, yes, but I cannot generalize this to the worse case. The law and order frame is being used here to abuse the rights of many people who do not fit this frame.
Mira: This is about the trafficking victims who have been abused in the worse way and changing the balance of th equation where people can be discovered. …
M: How much awareness is there in the hotel and leisure industry in this problem, Sophie?
Sophie: HT conciousness in large corporations today is high and many have zero tolerance policies, but you can’t always control the ground level chain, and there are a lot suppliers to the hotel industry that complicates this, so we do a lot of audits and field work, this needs to be done by professionals and it costs money but we believe it’s money worth investing
M: Are people sure that the people working in the hotels are not trafficked victims?
Sophie: The hospitality business is very fragmented, but the people in the large corporations are very much aware and not practicing of that
M: Siddarth, there have been clear examples of exploitation in certain supply chains…
Siddharth: Corruption exists at local level of supply chains in many factories in India, Malaysia, Indonesia, etc.
Siddharth: It’s not okay to pay minimum wages…
M: Many of the current child labor laws have been flouted
M: Ron, in your view, what is the best way of tackling HT?
Ron: there are transnational crime netwroks that move people and goods illegally and those networks have to break down
M: Rani, your view?
Rani: As a survivor, I believe we need to support the victims more. That will give empowerment to the survivors. One side is education but the other is addressing poverty, it’s economic. We need to come up with solutions for survivors. Until you get the midnset of the public to change the way they view slavery, to understand this issue and take action against it.
Laura: And I’m the only who wants to talk about actual solutions. To me this deals with informal sector labor. Many of the places in question are off the government radar where all bets are off, we need more legitimate companies to be brought into the retail sector
Dan Henkle (Senior VP Gap): Companies need to be aware of the complexiites of these issues, supply chains are incredibly complex. We need standards in place and inspections. We also need broad collaboration. We all need to be in it together, NGOs, etc. we all have to come together.
Naguid Sawiris: We need a huge budget to
Steve Chalke: We don’t need billions of dollars, we need intolerance of HT
Susan Bissel (Chief Child Protection UNICEF): Basic family structure is crucial. Also some of what we’re talking about has become a norm in their communities, it’s accepted. Communities aren’t outraged.
Edward McKensie (young boy): Why is it when traffickers who sell human beings get a maximum of 7 years in jail while drug smugglers may get a lifetime in jail?
M: Ron maybe you can address this?
Ron: Yes that is a problem, punishment needs to be increased.
M: Each of you, just a sentence, how can we combat HT? Rani?
Rani: Collaboration and partnership b/c we all have to work together to find solution
Ron: Pursue, prosecute, and punish the traffickers
Sophie: Employees reporting to police and taking care of victims
Siddharth: Attack the demand for the exploitation of slave labor by making it too costly and risky to do so.
M: and Laura?
Laura: Consider the neo-colonialist possibilities in a rescue industry that thinks that it’s going to run in with policemen and rescue people and have nothing to offer them afterwards except homes and sewing machines.
M: That is the end of our debate
Over all, I found this debate (er, argument?) highly interesting. I understand that Laura Agustin was featured to provide another perspective on the issue, but I felt that much of her discussion was spent arguing the definition of human trafficking and, almost more, what is is not. I was pleased by the input from the audience, especially from Sorvino and Kutcher; their remarks to redirect the debate were well placed and both provided very insightful information.
A few concluding summary points:
- There does not seem to be a consensus on the definition of human trafficking (at least according to this source)
- Two (in my opinion) valuable working definitions include:
“Movements of people from one location to another for purpsoes of involuntary servitude, forced prostitution, and forced labor – classic definition. Modern day slavery, irregardless of movement” (Ron Noble).
“Trafficking is the process of acquiring and transporting individuals for the purpsoes of forced labor or slave-like exploitations. Intricately linked with the phenomenon. There are 2.5 bill people living in poverty in the world, maybe female or minority ethnicity so they may be disenfranchised in their local community, they may be vulnerable. The promis of a dream opportunity for income is how they’re acquired and transported somewhere else where they’re exploited” (Siddharth Kara).
- The concept of “Old World Slavery” has evolved in the modern context. Where slaves were once considered an investment (though no one is arguing they were well treated by any human standards), in today’s global human trafficking industry, humans are essentially disposable. They can be purchased for a couple hundred dollars (sometimes even less), exploited, disposed of when they no longer hold value to their “owners,” and replaced; the vicious cycle continues on and on.
This presents a shift in economic logic, it is argued that this has caused the HT phenomenon to explode in the past 20 years (Siddharth).
- Anyone can be a victim. Those who are impoverished, female, minority ethnicity, who live in countries where there is a lot of lawlessness, those in war torn areas and refugee camps tend to be more at risk. Vulnerable people are those who are most likely to be exploited. The bottom line, however, is it can still happen to anyone (Siddharth).
- Traffickers require certain tools, including passports and the ability to alter them, travel routes and people they can bribe, and destination points. Traffickers tend to be involved in more than just one criminal trade. HT is a multi-network system (Ron).
- Prosecutions in HT are astoundingly low. This can be attributed to foreign victims’ fear of criminal recourse, distrust of local law enforcement, and a general inability to understand the language of the country they’re enslaved in (Ron). There is also a concern that international victims could be deported back to their countries of origin, presenting a myriad of problems including the possibility of them going right back into the hands of the people who trafficked them in the first place (Laura Agustin). Another issue is lack of sufficient care for HT survivors. If you’re trying to prosecute traffickers and your key witnesses are vulnerable and possibly back out getting re-trafficked, you can’t convict. We need better global standards of caring for survivors (Siddharth).
- There is dire need for attention to the survivors of HT, how to care for them and protect them.