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'The Selling of Innocents'

A still "The Selling of Innocents" (1996) Film by Ruchira Gupta

A still "The Selling of Innocents" (1996) Film by Ruchira Gupta

Keynote Address by Nancy Ely-Raphel
Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons
US Department of State

I'm grateful for the opportunity to speak to you today about the problem of trafficking in persons. Unfortunately this issue has escaped the notice of far too many people, not out of neglect or indifference but because of an insufficient awareness and understanding of the nature of the problem. I want to describe for you what trafficking in persons means, define in general terms the law or legal definition, and broadly outline the dimensions of the problem in the United States and in Asia. Finally I want to set forth what can be done about it, including what the US government is now doing and what we can all do by working together. 'Trafficking in Persons,' as it is called, is something of a euphemism. Like many catchall phrases in popular currency that minimize or conceal complex problems, the term itself falls short of self-definition. This helps account for public unawareness or bewilderment as to what it means. Some of you may have asked yourselves that question. In essence 'Trafficking in Persons' is the modern day form of slavery. It is the commerce in human beings, a commerce in which individual lives have no value except as a commodity to be exchanged in the marketplace, like soybeans, livestock or oil futures for the purpose of realizing the best market price. Such commerce violates every moral principal that governs our society. It is not only a violation of fundamental human rights but a federal crime. Nevertheless the trade in human lives persists.

Slavery and involuntary servitude have been outlawed in the United States since the Civil War. Statutes enacted since then have outlawed peonage and other forms of forced labor or other involuntary services. Congress recently acted to expand these laws under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000. The international community has also responded. A Protocol on trafficking in persons supplements the UN Transnational Crime Convention.

Trafficking in persons is the use of force or deception to exploit men, women, and children to the profit of the traffickers and those who use their indentured labor. More specifically it is any act that recruits, abducts, transports, transfers, or sells individuals within national or across international borders through the use of force, fraud or deception. Their criminal intent is to exploit their victim through various forms of bondage. It has many guises. In the United States trafficking victims can be found in a variety of places and positions, some highly visible but most not conspicuous at all. Victims have been coerced into begging on the streets of New York to exploit their physical handicap. They have been forced into performing in strip clubs, in peep and touch shows, in promiscuous massage parlors that offer a variety of sexual services, and, of course, into prostitution. They also work in the obscurity of the underclass, as menial workers for pitiful wages in bondage for a debt that can never be repaid. In short, they work in sweatshops, in brothels, at construction projects, at the lowest paid jobs in the poultry, fish and meatpacking industries, and as migrant labor in our fields and orchards. Whether you live in the suburbs or the city, they may even work just around the corner from you in silent and submissive domestic servitude.

What is the scope of the trafficking problem to the United States? We estimate that approximately 45,000-50,000 women and children are trafficked to the United States each year. The practice is prevalent in all regions. There have been reports of trafficking in at least 20 different states, with most cases occurring in New York, California, Florida. Evidence suggests that state and local law enforcement have only scratched the surface of the problem. As an underground industry, trafficking is extremely difficult to uncover or expose. Illegal immigrants are particularly vulnerable to threats and intimidation. Ignorant of our laws, the victims are isolated further by language and cultural barriers.

In the past victims have traditionally come from Southeast Asia and Latin America. Increasingly, however, they are now arriving as well from Eurasia and Central and Eastern Europe. At present the primary source countries for the United States include Thailand, Vietnam, China, Mexico, Russia, Ukraine, the Philippines, and Korea.

Political instability, civil war, natural disasters, poverty, lack of educational or job opportunities, and discriminatory social or cultural practices, all contribute to the trafficking in persons.