This January marked not only the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, but also the third annual National Slavery & Human Trafficking Prevention Month. The presidential proclamation began in 2011 as a way for the administration and human rights groups to raise awareness of what President Obama has called "a crime that amounts to modern-day slavery."
There are more people living in bondage today than at any other time in human history. The market value of a trafficked human life has decreased from the equivalent of $40,000 in today's dollars in the mid-nineteenth century American South, to about $90 today. The number of human trafficking cases in the U.S. has more than doubled since 2007, according to the FBI.
Trafficking comes in many different forms and its victims are men or women, adults or children. Popular media's depictions of trafficking most frequently depict women in the sex trade, as in the films Taken and Taken 2, Russian strippers in the most recent season of Showtime's Dexter, and numerous cases featured in the 14 seasons of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.
But trafficking isn't always for sexual purposes, and noncitizens are more frequently victims of labor trafficking than citizens. Meanwhile, more U.S. citizens, both children and adults, are found in sex trafficking.
One of the first and most famous prosecutions of modern slavery occurred in 1990, in which 56 deaf or hearing-impaired Mexicans who had emigrated to the U.S. were forced to beg and sell trinkets in New York City. Luis CdeBaca, who now works at the State Department as the Ambassador-at-large in the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, prosecuted the New York City case.
Ambassador CdeBaca spoke Monday in New York at the launch of VSconfronts.org, a digital platform for anti-trafficking organizations and advocates to work together to combat trafficking. CdeBaca emphasized that trafficking happens everywhere:
"It is the maid who studies the Indonesian-English dictionary every night so she can write a note and throw it over the fence... It is the man who joins a fishing boat for the promise of work and decent wages, but is forced to work 20 hours a day, beaten, and raped so you can buy white fish and squid at Whole Foods... it is the young girl who is told by a man, 'I'll help you become a model' or even just, 'I love you.'"
As many as 17,500 people are trafficked into the U.S. each year, and some estimate that as many as 100,000 citizen children are victims of trafficking in the U.S. In spite of the large numbers and wide range of victims, there are only 519 safe beds availabe in the entire United States.
Safe houses contend with problems housing victims of different kinds of trafficking: For example, women who have been sexually exploited cannot be housed with men who are victims of forced labor. The same occurs when working with children in safe houses who need to be distanced from adults following abuse.
Each type of slavery also brings specific attendant health problems; forced laborers tend to have untreated physical injuries, while sex workers are much more likely to simultaneously be dealing with STDs and drug addiction.
VSconfronts.org is just one way to raise awareness and is working to offer a bottom-up approach to legislation and reforms, something congress took a step away from when it failed to reauthorize the Trafficking Victims Protection Reuathorization Act in 2012. While the law has remained on the books since it expired in September 2011, Congress is not compelled to fund any of TVPA's programs, resources, or task forces. Once again, our government has ignored the voices of those in bondage.