Congress should stand united against human trafficking

Congress should stand united against human trafficking

In the aftermath of the U.S. presidential election and an inauguration weekend marked with protests, we’ve heard much talk of a politically divided nation. There is, however, one issue on which lawmakers and their constituents across the political spectrum can agree: the need to end human trafficking. 

Modern slavery ensnares an estimated 20.9 million people today, about double the number enslaved during the transAtlantic slave trade, which many of us thought had ended about 150 years ago. Traffickers target a broad swath of vulnerable people: women and children forced into prostitution; boys forced to fight wars and commit acts of terrorism; and workers toiling in a range of industries from which we all benefit: fishing, apparel, hospitality and caregiving, to name a few. 

Because forced prostitution and labor are hidden, the laws against these practices are rarely enforced. The United States government has, to its credit, demonstrated increasing concern about the problem over the years, developing programs and expertise in various agencies to address it. Much more needs to be done, however. Our new president is well-positioned to do it.

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There were only 6,609 convictions for the crime in 2015 worldwide. In the United States, there were only 297. When compared to the estimated 20.9 million victims enslaved, it’s clear that most traffickers operate with impunity.

Government agencies, such as the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Labor and Department of Justice, are working hard to combat this crime but need to better coordinate their efforts and to work closely with local police, who may initially encounter these crimes. Employees at all these agencies need better training on identifying human trafficking and responding to it. And that response must always be centered first on the victims’ needs for protection, support and treatment.

Survivors of human trafficking need to be encouraged to report the crime with assurances of care and support from government officials. If they consent, their testimony will then be used to prosecute the perpetrators. 

Of course, the problem isn’t only here at home. Much of human trafficking takes place abroad, yet it nonetheless taints American products and undermines American workers. Traffickers make huge profits — some $150 billion annually — while shortchanging responsible businesses. Many U.S. companies are unknowingly implicated when they outsource parts of their supply chains abroad. 

For the fight against slavery to have a real impact, it must be a priority at the highest levels of the administration and an important factor in all bilateral and multilateral relationships. President Trump should appoint a White House senior adviser who will coordinate a national strategy to guide his administration’s response to human trafficking, both here and abroad, and ensure efforts across the government are streamlined and targeted for maximum impact.

A senior adviser on human trafficking should be at the table for diplomatic strategy meetings to ensure the United States is using every opportunity to leverage its influence and relationships — such as potential trade deals — to persuade other countries to significantly boost their efforts to combat trafficking. The senior adviser would also be responsible for promoting an international discussion of best practices for eliminating trafficking around the world and encourage effective information-sharing and collaboration with other countries to most effectively address the problem. 

The American private sector also has a crucial role to play. The engagement, commitment and expertise of the private sector is necessary to determine and implement practices to effectively eliminate the risk of slavery in the supply chains or U.S. businesses. Successfully doing so will help create a level playing field for responsible companies that are already addressing this issue in their own production lines. The new administration will be in a strong position to encourage more large corporations with global supply chains to become part of the slavery solution.

Ultimately, we cannot have the strong American economy built on fair wages and decency for American workers promised by our new president without taking major steps to eliminate human trafficking, both domestically and abroad.

The fight against human trafficking has strong supporters on both sides of the aisle in Congress. Now is the time to take on this problem with full force, demonstrating U.S. leadership in its commitment to a fair shake for all workers, understanding of the needs of the most vulnerable and willingness to use and enforce the rule of law to hold perpetrators of this atrocious crime accountable.

Gen. Charles C. Krulak (USMC, ret.) was commandant of the Marine Corps from 1995 to 1999. Lungren served in the House from 1979 to 1989 and from 2005 to 2013. They are currently working with Human Rights First to dismantle the business of human trafficking.