Human Trafficking in the 21st Century

The International Labour Organisation estimates that around 20.9 million people are trapped in forced labour or human trafficking circumstances with the resulting profit amounting to 150 billion USD annually.

Autor*in RESET , 08.22.12

The trading of human beings is thousands of years old and runs like a red thread through human history. At its core lie intentions of exploitation, coercion, enforcement and deception. On a global dimension, people are often sold from developing regions to developed ones, as well as within a country’s borders.

The most common causes that lead to people being trafficked are poverty, lack of prospects and the belief in a better future while from the traffickers’ side, the most common purposes of trafficking include exploitation, forced labour, sexual exploitation, slavery and more. There are further reasons that lead to this state of dependence, such as discrimination, political persecution, corruption or insufficient implementation of laws. It must also be considered that some people are simply kidnapped before being sold. While episodes of high migration may lead to more frequent occurrences of human trafficking, there are distinct differences between people being smuggled and people being trafficked, namely consent and movement (people smuggling almost always occurs across international borders while people are trafficked both internationally as well as domestically). Open Democracy has a good breakdown of the difference between people smuggling and human trafficking.

As an example, a typical European pattern of human trafficking concerns the transfer of people from Eastern Europe to the West. This includes entry into forced prostitution (mostly females, but also males), low paid employment at building sites (males) as well as employment within the hotel and catering industry (both genders).

Loss of Human Rights

Human rights have been expressed in various forms during the course of time by many states and alliances. In December 1948, they were validated by the United Nations under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and include the ideal of a worldwide society devoid of slavery.

Human rights are no matter of opinion. Although they might be interpreted in different ways depending on different cultures, it is generally held that there is a higher set of disturbances that every human being, regardless of cultural background, considers as inappropriate, uncomfortable and as an invasion of privacy.

Human trafficking is an infringement of human rights in the purest form. It trespasses on a person’s right to life, freedom, equality, dignity, safety, non-discrimination, health as well as all rights concerning employment protection.

Forms of Slavery

According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), today more than 18.7 million people work as slaves within the private economy (by individuals or enterprises) while 2.2 million people are involved in state-imposed forced labour. Two thirds of the profits derived from human trafficking flow directly from commercial sexual exploitation while the remaining thrid is derived from activities such as agriculture and private household duties.

More than a half of all trafficked human beings end up in forced sexual exploitation. Agents promise women from very poor families to arrange marriages to wealthy husbands or well-paid jobs as housekeepers in urban centres. What actually happens is these women are sold into the sex industry.

As Verité, a NGO that fights for fair labour worldwide, stresses, labour brokers are involved in all cases. These are middlemen who very often create the so-called “hiring trap”, providing (among other things) false information about the expected work itself. For proespective migrants this creates a dangerous situation, arising from various factors such as financial debts, a work visa that ties them to one certain employer and a job that is much different in salary and conditions than promised by the labour broker. In Indonesia, for example, workers are asked to pay a fee between 600 – 1200 USD to “secure” their employment, which encumbers people with debts and see them get caught in the hiring trap.

Remarkably, within the sex industry, females are not only regarded as victims but also as offenders of forced prostitution. As Antonio Maria Costa from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has pointed out, in several regions, such as Eastern Europe and Central Asia, women trafficking women is the norm. This is linked to psychological, financial and coercive reasons which often induce former victims to become traffickers themselves.

Males are also affected by prostitution. The stigma around male prostitution is even higher than it is for women. Young boys are especially less likely to report all forms of sexual abuse, including trafficking, than girls because of the added stigma.

South East Asia – Pivotal Region for International Human Trafficking

The Asia-Pacific region accounts for just over half (11.7 million) of all forced labourers worldwide. No other region is so affected by human trafficking with Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam the countries that are the most hit. Here, most victims are sold regionally as well as worldwide within the sex industry. 22 percent of human trafficking victims from Cambodia are trafficked for commercial sexual exploitation.

In India, human traffickers mostly turn to India’s poor and insurgency-wracked North-eastern states in search for young girls. Activists estimate that thousands of North-eastern girls disappear every year and most cases are not reported by families due to the stigma associated with being part of the sex trade.

The Philippines are a source of male sex workers for almost all parts of the world. According to a report by Verité, males particularly end up in the Middle East, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, North America, and Europe. Like their female counterparts, many of these males are promised jobs that often entail exploitation, violence, poor working conditions, and little hope for improvement.

It must be stressed that, beyond Asia, human trafficking is a worldwide phenomenon that appears in various forms and shows different faces. Many Europeans are indirectly involved due to participation in sex tourism or by simply buying products made by industrial companies that employ trafficked workers.

Slavery in Industrial Companies – What’s behind the things we buy?

There are more than a few items that we buy which are directly linked with slavery and trafficked human beings. It mostly concerns everyday products within the fields of agriculture, clothing and cosmetics that are sold below price. UK NGO Anti-Slavery has a useful map detailing such items and where they come from.

As consumers, we can take responsibility by buying products that stand for ethical reliability – Fair Trade and Clean Clothes are just two of those initiatives. A good tip is the media campaign “Buy Responsibly” that gives detailed answers to the question “What’s behind the things we buy?”.

Authors: Gabriele Mante and Anna Rees/ RESET editorial. Last update: October 2015.

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