What Is Human Trafficking?

Today, we have a guest blog post by international staff Emily Prey on human trafficking.

A lot of people have the wrong idea of what human trafficking actually is (thank you Liam Neeson and Taken *sigh*), so I thought I’d write a quick post to share what I’ve learned in the past year about this epidemic of modern-day slavery. According to the Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP Report), human trafficking is “the act of recruiting, harboring, transporting, providing, or obtaining a person for compelled labor or commercial sex acts through the use of force, fraud, or coercion.” Before I get too ahead of myself, let me lay down some facts first:

  • The International Labour Organization estimates that there are 20.9 million victims of human trafficking globally.
  • 3,287 people are sold or kidnapped and forced into slavery every day.
  • The average human is sold for less than $100.
  • At any given time, there are 2 million children being trafficked in the global sex trade.
  • 300,000 American children are at risk of child sexual exploitation and about 55% of the girls living on the streets are engaged in sexual slavery.

Due to its insidious, illegal nature, it is difficult to find accurate statistics on human trafficking, and most statistics (including those seen here) may represent an underestimation of human trafficking. It is one of the greatest crises in human history, and while world leaders, politicians, GOs, and NGOs understand the big picture, they lack the depth and data to effectively combat this industry.

A big myth about this multi-billion dollar criminal industry is that it can include, but does not require movement. “Although trafficking seems to imply people moving across continents, most exploitation takes place close to home. Data show intra-regional and domestic trafficking are the major forms of trafficking in persons”. Today, the idea of traffickers coming to physically kidnap victims against their will is based more on fiction than fact. Traffickers often lure their victims in with false promises of a high-income job, stability, education, or a loving connection.

For example, a trafficker can go to a village and tell a family that she/he (contrary to popular belief, many women are traffickers) has a great job for their daughter in Bangkok as a maid or in a restaurant that will make a lot of money, and the trafficker will even pay some money upfront to the family to prove this point. Families living in poverty with too many mouths to feed are not going to question this stroke of fortune. Whether they want one less mouth to feed or truly want their daughter to have a chance for a better future, the end result is the same. And with that short transaction, a girl will become a child bride or a sex slave, or an unpaid domestic worker. Let’s say she’s forced to be a sex worker. Upon arrival at the final destination, her papers (if she has any) are taken away and she is shown her new ‘home’. Employers will tell the girl she needs to work to pay back the money paid to her parents. While she is working (as a sex slave), her room rent, food, medical costs, condom costs, etc. are all deducted from her salary as well as the percentage of money that the employer will deduct from each month’s salary. With all of these deductions, it can take years (or forever) to pay back her “debt”. Also, keep in mind the daily degradations she most likely suffers. Many victims of sex trafficking are regularly beaten or tortured with electric shocks, not to mention the mental and emotional toll being a sex slave can take. It is incredibly difficult to escape once you’ve been trafficked. If you don’t have access to your papers, don’t have money, don’t know where you are, and/or are beaten into submission …imagine how hard it would be to get out.

Alternatively, I have a friend who is an ethnic minority (Karen) from Burma. He watched his siblings die, his village burns down, and his father taken away to be a porter in the Burmese army during the ongoing civil war. He fled to Thailand looking for safety, work, and a better life. He is stateless (no identification, no nation), so he was (and still is) at serious risk for human trafficking (more on vulnerable populations later). He ended up working on a farm for two years with no pay. Compared to his life before, this was a much better alternative. Though he was happy to be in Thailand with a job, safe for the time being from the Burmese military and junta, this is still human trafficking. His employer exploited him and his situation for free labor. After two years, he finally asked to be paid. This resulted in his employer calling the police and saying there was an illegal stateless man on his farm. He was arrested, jailed, and then deported back to Burma. Not all trafficking stories are the same. Oftentimes, people fleeing war, persecution, and abuse are happy to find what they view as safety, and a job (even if they are paid next to nothing, or not at all). They may not realize they have been trafficked because where they came from is so much worse than where they are now. This is why prevention and education are so important to combat human trafficking. And this is essentially the work I’ve been doing at Center for Girls – we implement sustainable, participatory projects in the area aimed at giving communities the skills they need to empower themselves and lift each other up. Education and raising awareness play a crucial part in all of our projects, and I have been fortunate enough to see firsthand what a difference education can make in a person’s life.

In Thailand, most trafficking occurs over social media. Modern technology has made the job of traffickers that much easier by taking out the middlemen. A trafficker can put an ad on Facebook for a job and just sit and wait for someone to respond and then travel voluntarily to their destination. After all, 76% of arrangements for sex with underage girls are managed via the internet.

Another common myth is that trafficking only occurs in third-world countries. In 2016, 7,572 cases were reported in the U.S., although it is estimated that between 14,500 and 17,500 people are trafficked into the U.S. each year. Furthermore, the average age a teen enters the sex trade in the U.S. is 12 to 14-year-old. Many victims are runaway girls who were sexually abused as children.

So what makes a person vulnerable to human trafficking? Well, “runaway and homeless youth, as well as victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, war or conflict, or social discrimination are frequently targeted by traffickers” . In northern Thailand, statelessness can play a large role as well. Basically, if you are stateless, you are literally without a state. You have no passport, no ID, and you are not recognized by any government or country. Essentially, you don’t exist, but because you obviously do, your very existence is illegal. If a stateless person is trafficked, there will be no record of that person because they didn’t exist in the first place. You see how this is a problem and how vulnerable this population is to trafficking? Women and children are targeted as well. I have heard many stories of families selling their daughters around age 12 to become child brides to older men in the south. Two of the girls at our partner’s shelter come from a village where this is a common occurrence and every time I think of it, I am so relieved they are safe at the shelter getting an education and planning for their futures. Ethnic minority groups, or “hill tribes”, are also at risk for human trafficking. Many hill tribe members are stateless, don’t speak Thai, or live too rurally to access proper education, healthcare, and government services. This creates a vicious cycle of poverty and ignorance that can manifest itself when someone is tricked or coerced into sex work, forced labor, or domestic servitude.

If you are interested in learning more, check out the TIP Report or message us with any questions. Alternatively, you could just ask Siri, she probably knows more than I do anyway. I really hope that whoever reads this encourages others to learn about human trafficking. Ignorance is perhaps the greatest evil, so let us not be woefully ignorant of the pivotal issues facing humankind today.


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