We can’t stop now: Fight for human rights and renew trafficking protection law
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Human trafficking is a gross violation of human rights. Traffickers victimize immigrants and U.S. citizens across every race, gender, religion and culture. Men, women and children of all ages are exploited. And many of these violations occur right here in the United States.

With the proposed reauthorization of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), we have an opportunity to set a new standard that strengthens critical programs and protections for survivors.

Originally introduced in 2000, the TVPA established the U.S. as a world leader in the fight against human trafficking through emphasis on what we call the “3 Ps” — prosecution, protection and prevention. This approach introduced measures to ensure survivors are identified and supported, traffickers are punished and that root causes are addressed to reduce vulnerabilities for both victims and communities.

The law defines human trafficking, provides funding and programs for survivors, establishes criminal sentences for traffickers and outlines the responsibilities of the federal government. It also authorizes funding for law enforcement investigations, social and legal services for survivors, prosecution and training.

To date, the TVPA has been reauthorized four times — each with revised parameters to further strengthen prevention strategies, increase victim protections and expand investigative measures to address human trafficking.

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But despite this progress, we have seen setbacks. For example, the number of labor prosecutions in the U.S. has steadily declined from 60 percent of trafficking cases in 2010 to 27 percent in 2014. Victims are often arrested for the crimes they are forced to commit. More is needed to hold traffickers accountable and to protect victims and survivors.

 

With TVPA reauthorization once again on the horizon, we are at a key turning point, and we must move the needle. 

The legislation proposes multiple new measures. It adds important direction to federal agencies to broaden training efforts that will expand recognition of human trafficking by law enforcement and support a victim-centered response. Current law enforcement techniques — such as interviewing victims at the scene, requiring multiple interviews, and refusing referrals to services without victims’ cooperation — often lead to victim re-traumatization and refusal to cooperate with further investigations.

The legislation focuses on a victim-centered approach that addresses these issues, and includes new requirements for law enforcement to screen for victimization in populations likely to be victims of trafficking.

In addition, it directs law enforcement to avoid arresting and prosecuting victims for crimes they were forced to commit. Local and state law enforcement continue to arrest labor trafficking victims who are forced to commit crimes such as transporting drugs and panhandling, as well as sex workers on ‘prostitution’ grounds, including minors who are eligible for victim services under federal law.

These legislative improvements are worthy of support. But our work must go further to prevent these heinous crimes. Namely, we must address the underlying issues that make people vulnerable to trafficking — poverty, violence, discrimination, weak worker protections, insufficient child welfare protections and lack of affordable housing.

At Freedom Network USA, our members believe that empowering survivors with choices and support will lead to transformative, meaningful change. We believe that anti-trafficking efforts must be comprehensive in their scope, addressing labor and sex trafficking of all workers regardless of their nationality, gender, age or sexual orientation.

We agree that sex workers are often trapped by a lack of options, but arresting buyers of consensual commercial sex does nothing to help workers pay rent, feed their children, clear their criminal records, find better jobs or get an education. Instead, it diverts law enforcement efforts from investigating those who work to exploit vulnerable individuals in a broad spectrum of labor including domestic, agricultural, and factory workers, as well as those forced to engage in sex work.

To this end, we must support swift reauthorization of the TVPA to protect funding and promote best practices across service provision, investigation and prosecution. Victims and survivors must be respected and supported by law enforcement, service providers and prosecutors alike. Only then will survivors be free to make their own choices and move on from their victimization.

We have made great progress in the 17 years since the passage of the original TVPA, but we cannot stop now.

Jean Bruggeman is the executive director of Freedom Network USA (@FreedomNetUSA), a national alliance of advocates working with human trafficking survivors to ensure access to justice, safety and opportunity.


 

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