January, unbeknownst to most, is Human Trafficking Prevention and Awareness Month. Most people have a vague understanding of modern-day slavery as a miserable but abstract social issue supposedly limited to third world countries. Therefore, the primary difficulty in addressing this global problem is that people fail to comprehend its extent.
According to the Insitute of Human Labour, 40.3 million people have been victims of human trafficking. In fact, more than 20 million people are trafficked at any given time. That number is more than 50 times higher than the number of yearly homicides. Homeless youth (who are disproportionately queer), those with mental health issues, and recent migrants are particularly at risk.
The most often discussed form of human trafficking — though far from the only or the most prevalent — is sexual exploitation, predominantly of women and young girls. Despite common stereotypes of violent kidnappings by strange men, most of these women – who comprise an estimated five million yearly cases of human trafficking – are sold into slavery by intimate partners or even family. In 30% of the countries whose estimates differentiate the gender of traffickers, the highest proportion of trafficking is women selling fellow women into slavery.
The disgusting conditions and extreme abuse that women suffer as they are exploited for commercial sex is unfathomable and revolting. The U.S. Department of Justice identifies a list of common health issues victims of human trafficking experience. The issues include sexually transmitted diseases; infections and mutilations by dangerous and unsanitary medical procedures; malnourishment; addictions from coerced drug uses; extreme psychological trauma; and signs of physical abuse, especially in the lower back, where victims are beaten to avoid damaging their outward appearance. Victims also have significant vision impairment from being kept and raped in dark, unsanitary conditions. Even those who survive and escape human trafficking will often suffer for the rest of their lives because of their external and internal wounds.
Victims face the immense pressure of physical and emotional abuse yet are conditioned to distrust the authorities and anyone other than their traffickers. The trauma and danger of these situations make human trafficking prosecution notoriously difficult. Despite the under-reporting, the 2019 U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline dealt with a staggering 22,326 individual trafficking victims and survivors. These survivors are from diverse demographics and ethnic backgrounds and represent “only a fraction of the actual problem,” according to the Polaris Project, a non-governmental organization that uses data to illuminate the ramifications of human trafficking.
Though 20% of worldwide victims are children, in select regions of Western Africa and the Mekong Delta, that number is as high as nearly 100%. Traffickers use a variety of manipulative tactics to coerce vulnerable children into their control. Often, traffickers will use offers of food, clothes, attention, friendship, or love to gain trust and thus control. Another common tactic is to isolate victims from their friends and families. Important to note is that it is not just vulnerable children who suffer from exploitation. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, “No child is immune to becoming a victim of child sex trafficking, regardless of the child’s race, age, socioeconomic status, or location, and every child involved in this form of commercial sexual exploitation is a victim.”
Sexual slavery is not the sole form of human trafficking. According to the International Labour Organization, maritime human trafficking, coupled with forced labor on land, affects almost 21 million people. Exact estimates are hard to pinpoint, however, due to the difficulty in reporting and tracking down forced labor. Ian Urbina, the Pulitzer-winning investigative journalist and author of the groundbreaking The Outlaw Ocean, is an expert on forced labor on the seas. According to Urbina, “Nowhere is the problem more pronounced than… in the South China Sea, especially in the Thai fishing fleet, which faces an annual shortage of about 50,000 mariners, based on United Nations estimates.” Every year, traffickers fill those empty slots by luring migrants, mostly from Cambodia and Myanmar, across the border, “only [for them] to become so-called sea slaves in floating labor camps.”
Life on the boats is brutal. In a 2009 survey of 50 Cambodian men and boys sold to Thai fishing boats, 29 said they witnessed their captain or other officers kill a worker. “Often they are beaten for the smallest transgressions,” writes Urbina, before emphasizing that because these victims are essentially “ghosts” to the Thai government – with no documentation, ability to speak the language, or even ability to swim – tracking down the problem is next to impossible. The overall effect of this is that government intervention is rare.
The misinformation surrounding trafficking impedes the progress human rights activists and lawyers initiate. In the summer of 2020, #SaveTheChildren on Facebook received a deluge of posts quoting misleading and false statistics and information about child trafficking in America. Facebook eventually removed the posts, which were co-opted by QAnon groups exploiting natural desires to safeguard children. This misinformation has drawn millions to false conspiracy theories like the one that led an armed man to invade a Washington DC pizza shop, looking for what the internet told him was a child-sex-trafficking ring run by Hilary Clinton. The proliferation of QAnon into the mainstream through the exploitation of child trafficking has made good-faith actors into inadvertent conspiracy theorists. Moreover, human trafficking professionals have had to spend resources combating thousands of calls plagued by misinformation, such as stories about Wayfair selling children as cabinets.It may feel uncomfortable to confront the sheer horror that some people live day-to-day in 2021 and cope with the fact that people of your age are subjected to treatment that strips human dignity. Yet, it’s our duty to the world to help confront this issue. Reading this article is nowhere near enough – 1000 words could never encapsulate the suffering of tens of millions. I implore you to pick up The Outlaw Ocean or even The Dead Eye and the Deep Blue Sea, a graphic memoir of modern slavery, to educate yourself further on human trafficking’s pervasive effects.
By Theo Baker