Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Future of Anti-trafficking Efforts | Bernish Communications, LLC

Source:  Bernish Communications, LLC

A week after returning from a national conference on human trafficking hosted by the Denver-based Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking (LCHT), I’ve finally had time to gather my thoughts about what I saw and heard, and to speculate a bit on the future of this vexing human rights issue.
I had been largely absent from the anti=trafficking battle for the last two years and in that time, I learned, there’s been a surge of committed and effective advocates in this cause.  Many attended the conference; what struck me was the variety of efforts underway by these people — some working virtually alone, others as part of state and national NGOs, plus a number of people representing government and the law and justice system. The conference attendees, in fact, were impressive for their breadth of knowledge of the issue, and their passion.
The main point of the conference was LCHT’s unveiling of a long and detailed research project on trafficking at the state (Colorado) and national levels.  The project’s goal is to create a replicable model of data-driven research to enable states and communities to fix a baseline of promising anti-trafficking practices and to understand what works — and doesn’t  – in the areas of prevention, protection, prosecution and partnerships — the “4Ps” that have become a common reference point for the cause.  A summary of the project’s findings is due later in the Spring. Whatever else it uncovers, LCHT is to be saluted for attempting to use data from interviews and available records to define the issue more clearly and reliably.
Still, I left Denver feeling somewhat unsettled, and it’s taken me some time to sort out what prompted my unease. These are one person’s opinion, open to challenge, but at least heartfelt:
1.  The anti-trafficking cause is still sorting out basic and essential definitions.  What, precisely, does “trafficking” mean?  Is it a modern form of chattel slavery, as many (including me) have argued? I’m not so sure on this point as I once was, and it was clear from the conference discussion that agreed-upon definitions of words like trafficking, victims, survivors and slavery (in the 21st Century context) remain elusive. If those deeply involved in this battle can’t define what they are fighting, it’s difficult to see how the general public will ever come to grips with the issue.
2.  Sex trafficking is a huge tragedy, yet it’s not the only or dominant human rights tragedy. Many more people — men, women and children — are being daily abused as slaves in horrible working and living conditions the world over. These are the “disposable people,” in Kevin Bales’ memorable phrase.  Estimates of their number range as high as 27,000,000, with sex trafficking accounting for roughly 20% of the total.  The fact is no one knows for sure; what is happening is that sex trafficking is becoming the dominant face or image of the issue in the United States, and while that serves a noble cause, it may drown out the plight of millions of downtrodden, miserable laborers and families who will never know freedom.
3. Trafficking remains a hidden crime.  Unlike AIDS, breast cancer, clergy (and coach) pedophilia, human trafficking is not a well known issue for the general public in this country, although it receives more media and public attention overseas in Europe, Southeast Asia and South America.  A lot of money has been raised and contributed to anti-trafficking organizations to help them battle against trafficking; it is difficult to say with certainty that it’s made much of a difference in raising the issue’s profile with legislators, the media and the public at large.  All 50 states now have anti-trafficking laws on the books, but they vary widely in scope and effectiveness, while the national law, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) remains a work in progress and always subject to government funding cutbacks. Police and prosecutor awareness training is increasing, but even the most optimistic advocates concede that justice for victims and punishment for perpetrators are goals, and not yet realities.
Yet I see a promising path to move antitrafficking efforts forward. When all is said and done, trafficking in humans is a market driven phenomenon. Traffickers in women, small boys, and destitute laborers enjoy little risk and big profits. This explains in part why drug traffickers have diversified into human trafficking; it’s another profit center, and much less vulnerable to undercover stings and multi-agency enforcement task forces.
Trafficking in humans has many causes, but ultimately, what matters is that it is a crime.  The nations of the world need to go after it as a crime, in the same way organized crime and hate groups like the Klan were  infiltrated, disrupted and eventually weakened to impotence by a concerted law enforcement efforts. That means even tougher laws, and the means to combat the bad guys. Right now in the United States, those means are lacking. Prosecutors, for example, have so far not been able to obtain court permission under existing anti-crime statutes to wire teenage sex workers as a way to listen in on and nail pimps. If law enforcement and prosecutors are to attack the business model underlying trafficking, the bad people will get out of the business.  Yes, there will still be trafficking; it’s unlikely ever to be completely abolished as long as economic disparities exist and continue to widen. But as dedicated people advocate for survivor rights and rehabilitation, I argue that we also should be bolstering efforts to raise the risks to traffickers (and their customers) for profiting on the backs of vulnerable — disposable — people .
Survivors, after all, represent the sorrowful consequences of a crime. It is time to aggressively step up the destruction of the crime itself.

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