Earlier this week, Cyntoia Brown was granted full clemency by the Governor of Tennessee and released after serving 15 years in prison for having shot and killed a man who bought her for sex in 2006. Cyntoia, now 30, was a child victim of sex trafficking which unfortunately is just one facet of a globalised multi-billion dollar industry: human trafficking, or the business of stealing people’s freedom for profit.
What is human trafficking?
Human trafficking is a gross violation of human rights and a grave crime. Contrary to common misconception, human trafficking is not related exclusively to sex. According to the UN Trafficking in Persons Protocol, human trafficking is “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs”.
It is impossible to reveal the magnitude of this problem as human trade victims are considered to be ‘hidden populations’. They most often do not report that they are being exploited – they stay hidden. There is no sound methodology of estimating how many people are involved in human trafficking, be it as traffickers, accomplices, or victims. When it comes to types, 79% of human trafficking is represented by sexual exploitation, followed by forced labour (18%). Yet even these percentages might be the result of statistical biases. This is a consequence of the fact that sexual exploitation is the one type of human trafficking most reported to the authorities so such victims are more ‘visible’ than victims of organ removal, servitude or forced marriage, forced or bonded labour. Furthermore, children traded for begging, sex, and warfare are probably the most ‘hidden’ of the trafficked victims because of their age and, thus, vulnerability.
Where is it happening?
Human trafficking affects all continents, but poverty and state of conflict can be seen as conditions favouring such crimes, with people from less developed countries being traded to more developed ones. This means that Western countries are usually destination countries, while the Americas and Asia are often the origin of human trade. However, almost all countries in the world are somewhat involved in human exploitation, be it as a country of origin, transit or destination, or a combination of all. At the same time, it is important to take into account that human trafficking does not need to be cross-border: victims can be trafficked within their country of origin for years without ever stepping outside their country.
Who are the victims?
Anyone – men, women, children – can fall victim to human trafficking. There is, however, a disproportionate number of women involved in this industry, acting either as victims or traffickers. It is common for victims to become traffickers as a consequence of the psychological impact this experience has had on them and as a way of fighting victimisation. According to most statistics, about 80% of the people trafficked worldwide (roughly 25 million people each year) are women and girls, while about 1 million of this total is represented by children.
According to studies, migrants, and especially forced migrants (asylum seekers and refugees), often fall victims to exploitation. One thing that makes this group particularly vulnerable is the lack of linguistic skills when arriving to the destination country, making it harder for them to learn about their rights or to turn for help to the authorities once they become part of this abusive system. Nonetheless, irrespective of their background or gender, victims have to deal with profound trauma for the rest of their lives, even if they succeed to escape this abusive system at some point.
Trafficking v. Smuggling
There is often confusion regarding the differences between human trafficking and smuggling of people, which leads to inadequate legislation or inappropriate punishments for the perpetrators of both these crimes. The main difference between the two is represented by consent. Many seem to believe that victims can be trafficked or smuggled consensually. That really is the case with smuggling, usually migrant smuggling, which consists of paying a person or a group of people to sneak you across the border illegally. However, human trafficking is per se non-consensual as it involves threats or use of force, coercion, abuse of power or the victim’s position of vulnerability, or deception. Even if the victim ‘consented’, this ‘consent’ becomes meaningless because of this trade’s coercive, deceptive and abusive nature. To put it differently, the victims who ‘consent’ are intentionally misinformed about what they are consenting to.
Another difference refers to the fact that smuggling is a limited crime, with the person being smuggled eventually arriving at her/his destination. Human trafficking, on the other hand, involves the ongoing exploitation of the victim. It can also be hard to distinguish between the two crimes as they often overlap. For instance, trafficking can start out as smuggling, and can even be presented as smuggling by the trafficker. This way, the victim is deceived into giving her/his consent for the crime, consent which again is rendered irrelevant because of the above mentioned reasons. Traffickers can also act as smugglers and the other way around, which makes the two crimes and perpetrators even harder to differentiate.
How to join the fight against human trafficking?
The extent of human trafficking is ever increasing, but there are ways of getting involved and helping to manage this problem, even at an individual level. One way is to stay informed and raise awareness about this issue in your community – most people are not aware of basic facts about the trafficking of persons so even they could fall victims to this abusive system. For those who want to get more involved, there is also the possibility of starting a support group for victims or of volunteering at an organisation fighting human trafficking. Finally, you can always lobby or demonstrate for harsher legislation regarding punishment of human traffickers or for the release of those practicing self-defense in such situations, such as Cyntoia Brown. In the words of Peter Marshall, “may we think of freedom not as the right to do as we please, but as the opportunity to do what is right.” And what can be more righteous than using our freedom to fight for those who lack it?