The faces of human trafficking are as diverse as they are abundant. Women coerced into selling their bodies in the red light districts of popular tourist destinations. Young children conscripted into combat in war-torn countries. Entire families forced to toil in slave-like conditions to pay off debt. Modern-day slavery manifests itself in many forms, constantly evolving as traffickers find new and more efficient methods to exploit their victims.
Although the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that there are more than 20 million victims of human trafficking worldwide, many experts say the actual number is significantly higher.
“The statistics of human trafficking are staggering — numbers most people would not be able to imagine as being tied to actual human beings,” says Annalisa Enrile, a professor with the USC School of Social Work’s online MSW program. “Experts can debate the nuances of what is considered trafficking and modern-day slavery, but there is a much greater imperative to raise awareness that this problem exists and compel people to make a change.”
Enrile notes that there is no blanket methodology or prescriptive plan of action that can successfully address every case of human trafficking. Advocates must be flexible in how they combat this global epidemic, focusing first on understanding why trafficking thrives where it does. The reasons differ from country to country and even village to village.
“Human trafficking lives in an ecosystem,” says Enrile. “We have to comprehend the entire ecosystem and understand how families, communities and institutions are affected to find solutions that will work.”
For example, Enrile notes that poverty plays a significant role in creating an environment that leaves many poorer communities vulnerable to trafficking. Victims who lack basic necessities such as housing or food often seek out available opportunities to improve their economic conditions. Traffickers exploit this vulnerability by coercing victims into forced labor, either domestically or abroad. The victims earn hardly any money while traffickers profit. In fact, the ILO estimates that traffickers earn $150 billion per year in illegal profits.
Addressing poverty, providing job opportunities, and ensuring that people can afford to feed their families removes some of that vulnerability. But again, poverty is just one factor that contributes to trafficking. The MSW@USC created the Guide to Understanding Human Trafficking to highlight other factors that increase vulnerability. These factors include social exclusion and persecution, crises and natural disasters, and basic demographics that leave specific communities at risk.
Countries, of course, have an important role to play in policing the issue. However, Enrile notes that there are limitations with international policing.
“Even if we create strong nation by nation laws, we really need to have much stronger international policy and agreement around trafficking because of its transnational character,” says Enrile. “For example, if a country writes a strong anti-trafficking law, but it’s only being enforced by the receiving country and not the sending country, then it will not have the necessary impact.”
She adds that it is the responsibility of every individual to be vigilant when it comes to spotting and stopping trafficking. The sheer volume of victims around the world makes it likely that exploitation could be occurring in communities and businesses where people least expect it. This is why transparency is important to the process.
The Transparency in Supply Chain Act in California is an example of legislation that provides the public with information on where businesses may be vulnerable to human trafficking in their supply chain.
“Consumers can help by understanding where what they buy is coming from,” says Enrile. “Is it coming from companies that engage in ethical practices?”
She also encourages everyone to learn how to spot the signs of human trafficking. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has created a comprehensive list of human trafficking indicators which may suggest that somebody is a victim. Advocates or concerned citizens who believe that they have spotted a victim are also encouraged to contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline: 1-888-373-7888.
“Sometimes, it’s simply raising awareness and understanding that trafficking could be happening right in front of your face that makes all the difference,” says Enrile.
Photo credit: MSW at USC, the online MSW from the University of Southern California
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