Human Trafficking: U.S. Applies Global Pressure Alongside EU’s Own Drive     Print Email

For the first time, the U.S. will publicly scrutinize its record in combating human trafficking on a basis allowing international comparisons and applying the same standards that Washington has been using for 10 years to assess other countries.

This U.S. metric -- the annual Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP) – has proved an effective tool in implementing the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) passed by Congress in 2000. An official U.S. foreign policy-indicator, the report has served as a “roadmap” for multilateral efforts to tackle the globalized problem of human trafficking. And of course it has “shame value” in stigmatizing countries with egregious records in this matter. Until this year’s report, Washington excluded itself from the list of countries’ whose performances are reviewed.

The full dimensions of the problem have emerged starkly in recent years as better data has emerged. The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates at least 12.3 million adults and children around the world are victims of “bonded” (meaning indentured or semi-slave) or forced labor, often involving commercial sexual servitude.

In U.S. eyes, the TVPA has had an impact on the problem both domestically and internationally. The U.S. legislation and the TIP have influenced other countries as they “implemented legislation, trained law enforcement, raised public awareness and implemented protective mechanisms for victims,” according to Luis CdeBaca, Ambassador-at-Large for the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. He was speaking at a recent panel discussion on the subject at the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based think tank.

Much of the discussion involved Europe, including some EU member states. Romania and Bulgaria (EU members since 2007) have been rebuked by the European Commission and other international organizations for failing to root out human trafficking. (There have been complaints that neither country had made sufficient progress on this chapter before they gained EU accession.) Last year’s TIP placed both countries in “Tier 2” – a category which indicates that neither government is fully complying with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; but is making significant efforts to do so.

Other EU member states ranked in this category include Greece, Malta and Portugal. But there is a major difference in the reasons for their inclusion. These three member states are cited for “transit” and “destination” activities whereas Bulgaria and Romania are major “source” countries for human trafficking in Europe. According to the 2009 report, Romanian and Bulgarian men, women and children were trafficked to a number of EU states – including the UK, Spain, Italy, Germany, Austria, Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Poland -- for commercial sexual exploitation and forced labor in the agriculture, construction, and service sectors.

In trying to curb this abuse, this mechanism for “naming and shaming” (partly via the U.S. law) has played a major role, according to Holly Burkhalter of the International Justice Mission. Some states have been essentially “embarrassed” into cracking down. And there is a more tangible driver in the TVPA: it authorizes decisions to withhold non-humanitarian or non-trade-related foreign assistance in some cases. This “reality-based” process is why Burkhalter describes the TVPA as “perhaps the world’s most successful piece of human rights legislation in an international context.”

Until now, however, the U.S. has been criticized for not assessing itself as it assesses others, despite figures which estimate up to 18,000 people are trafficked into North America each year.

That now seems to have changed. “Human trafficking is not an issue in which we can implement policies of American exceptionalism,” says CdeBaca, “so this year we will rank and analyze the United States based on the same minimum standards that we do other countries; it will not only help us at home, but leverage what we feel is a key source of American power – the power to lead by example.”

According to CdeBaca, there is a particular problem with guest-worker programs in the U.S. because trafficking in these cases operates within legal channels. When migrants are coerced into taking on debts, they often become trapped in a web of debt bondage by unscrupulous recruiters, labor brokers, and employers. The complicating aspect of this situation is that these debts are legal and often are dealt with by U.S. authorities as only administrative violations.

Indeed, U.S. law enforcement has problems sometimes dealing with organized trafficking because in America most policing is localized.

Contrast that with Italy (which was placed in “Tier 1” in the 2009 TIP because it complies with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking). To reduce the demand for commercial sex, officials in several municipalities began fining clients of prostitution after the issuance of a national decree in May 2008 authorizing mayors to prohibit street prostitution.

NEW DEVELOPMENT: The United States' first-ever ranking placed it in Tier 1, joined by Ireland which was upgraded from Tier 2 for its efforts to tackle human trafficking - Trafficking in Persons Report 2010

Sarah Geraghty