Millennium Post

Breaking the gridlock of human trafficking

Slightly more than two centuries after Parliament of the United Kingdom prohibited slave trade in 1807 – which essentially marked the onset of global efforts at eliminating that scourge – the world is still confronting its offshoot in the form of human trafficking. One cannot but agree that it is ‘the crime that shames us all today,’ as Antonio Maria Costa, former Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), put it in a foreword to UNODC’s two reports on human trafficking, released in 2006 and 2009, respectively.

Human trafficking has an elaborate internationally agreed definition that is contained in the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children – also known as the Human Trafficking Protocol – that supplements the 2000 UN Convention against Transnational Organised Crime. The very complexity of the definition would indicate that the international community knows much about human trafficking. This, however, is not the case. This section will explore what we really know about the issue.

Human trafficking is believed to affect all countries in the world, though in different ways. Countries are generally divided into three categories: origin, transit, and destination. Affluent countries generally stand as the destination for the trafficking of individuals that originated in poorer countries. However, both poor and affluent countries may serve as transit states. At the same time, trafficking in persons is also known to take place in within the borders of a country.

Various studies by international organisations and individual states furnish statistics on numbers of trafficking victims that significantly differ from each other. For example, the 2012 Global Estimate of Forced Labour by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) put the total number victims at 20.9 million. The US Department of State’s 2012 Trafficking in Persons Report cites 27 million victims. Human trafficking is regarded as a problem that overwhelmingly targets women and girls, which together account for more than 80 per cent of all victims. As far as children victims of trafficking are concerned, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates that figure to be around 1.2 million children annually.

Breaking down human trafficking by purpose reveals that public’s primary concern has traditionally been with the trafficking for sexual exploitation. This form was estimated to account for the lion’s share of total trafficking figures – up to 80 per cent or more. However, recent years have seen increasing realisation that the trafficking for the purposes of labour exploitation might be far higher in magnitude than previously thought. In particular, the ILO makes this point clear in its own studies. Hence, in its 2012 Global Estimate of Forced Labour, the ILO estimates that of the total figure of 20.9 million victims, 14.2 million are victims of forced labour exploitation – 68 percent – whereas 4.5 million – 22 per cent – are victims of sexual exploitation. The remaining 2.2 million – 10 percent – are victims of other forms of trafficking-related exploitation. Since labour exploitation is higher than sexual exploitation, the ILO gives the figures in terms of gender breakdown that challenge the previous perceptions of human trafficking targeting women almost exclusively. According to the ILO, women constitute 55 per cent of all forced labor victims.

In geographical context, the 2006 UNODC report identified the following global patterns; Western Europe and North America were the main destinations for trafficked persons, with Asia also featuring to some extent as a destination. The regions of Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa, and Asia were the countries of origin for victims. With that, Asia is estimated to generally account for more than half of all human trafficking cases – origin and destination.

When it comes to profits, trafficking in persons is widely viewed as the world’s third largest illegal activity after the illegal trafficking of arms and of drugs. Incomes from human trafficking, by some estimates, vary from $7 billion to $32 billion a year. Human trafficking is underpinned by economic and social causes. In economic terms, it is a by-product of globalization that is driven by its own supply and demand logic. The later involves the demand for sexual and labor services, which is the largest in affluent countries. The supply, in turn, stems from poor countries, where some people are keen to attain better life in more prosperous states. Yet, setting out in search of happiness abroad, future victims of trafficking do not foresee that they may fall victim to exploitation in order to satisfy the above demand.

As for the social causes, human trafficking, on the one hand, is certainly made possible by gender biases, still prevalent in many supply-related countries. These serve to force women and girls to look for income abroad, thereby making them easy prey to criminals. On the other hand, trafficking in persons would not be possible in the demand countries, if their societies did have a degree of tolerance to human exploitation.

Nonetheless, for all that we know by now about human trafficking, it seems that we do not know enough. In fact, the UNODC 2009 Global Report on Trafficking in Persons admits as much. The lack of credible and sufficient data on human trafficking can be attributed to several factors. First and foremost, we should realise that it is a very clandestine activity, and the traffickers go to great lengths to keep it that way. Thus, it is hardly surprising that we do not know everything about this crime. Moreover, not all countries have enacted appropriate human trafficking legislation that allows for effective action and proper reporting. Indicative of this is UNODC’s finding that two out of five countries surveyed in its 2009 report – 155 countries were surveyed – failed to report at least a single conviction related to human trafficking.

What is most worrisome is that levels of human trafficking appear to be persistently rising. Judging by the ILO’s recent study, the number of victims of forced labor has increased from 12.3 million in 2005 to 20.9 million in 2012.

The author has served as the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Belarus since August 2012
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