The U.S. State Department estimates that more than 27 million people are victims of human trafficking, and the trade in human beings is a $32 billion black market industry, second only to drug trafficking as an organized crime.
Conservative estimates suggest that more than 15,000 people are trafficked into the United States annually, in addition to thousands of American citizens lured into trafficking situations every year.
Trafficking is, at heart, simply modern day slavery. There are many different forms of slavery but they all share some essential characteristics: an adult or child in slavery has no freedom to leave a situation of exploitation and abuse. They are essentially “owned,” and are, accordingly, almost invariably subjected to physical abuse, sexual assault, and degradation.
Labor trafficking, in the form of forced labor, involuntary servitude and debt bondage, thrives in many types of workplaces and economic sectors. It is rampant in domestic work and small businesses like nail salons and restaurants. It is found at construction sites and farms, as well as throughout the global supply chains of multinational corporations.
Sex trafficking of adults and children occurs in various venues including street prostitution, online escort services, brothels and massage parlors.
The Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act has been on Congress’ agenda for the past two years. The bill is very modest, in comparison with the 13th Amendment, but its passage would have fine-tuned our nation’s anti-trafficking tools, offering increased protection for victims at home and foreign aid innovations for victims abroad.
For a while, it looked like a reauthorization was in sight: the Senate Judiciary Committee passed an excellent bill, S.1301, out of Committee in October 2011. S.1301 was taken to the Senate floor in the last days of the session just before Christmas under “Unanimous Consent” rules. But it died when three Senators placed a hold on the bill; one of them was Senator Tom Coburn; the other two are not known.
The American public did its part, and so did dozens of anti-slavery organizations, including the ATEST Coalition. By organizing ordinary Americans around the country, we helped secure 57 Senate cosponsors for the bill. We had hundreds of meeting in Congress and generated tens of thousands of postcards, phone calls, and emails in support of the bill. At the end of the day, it wasn’t enough.
But it’s not too late. The 113th Congress can pick up where the 112th failed. I’m hoping that passing the TVPRA – responding to the voice of the American people and the needs of the most vulnerable at home and abroad – will be its first order of business.
Burkhalter is vice president of Government Relations and Advocacy at International Justice Mission (IJM).