To fight human trafficking, follow the money

Combating human trafficking is an issue that transcends partisanship and ideology – and one that calls on our common humanity.

Each year, more than 500,000 people are trafficked across international borders. Worldwide, nearly 25 million people are victims of human trafficking—more than the combined populations of our home states, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Trafficking is also lucrative: the International Labor Organization estimates that forced labor generates more than $150 billion in illegal profit annually.

This isn’t just a faraway crime. It’s an epidemic that impacts communities—from Southeast Wisconsin to the suburbs of Philadelphia—across the United States.

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That’s why we’ve teamed up to combat human trafficking. As members of the Financial Services Committee, we examine ways our country can bolster partnerships between government, law enforcement, and financial institutions to curtail this horrific crime.

In particular, we see how human traffickers and other criminals abuse the financial system to further their illegal activities—including organized crime and terrorism.

For this reason, American financial institutions play an important role in curbing human trafficking. The United States requires these institutions to partner with regulators and law enforcement by reporting suspicious activity.

Countries that receive U.S. foreign aid must be held to similarly high standards. No country should be permitted to turn a blind eye to human trafficking.

That’s especially true today, as technological advancements provide traffickers with greater access to financial services and other resources to hide their crimes and fund criminal activity.

Thankfully, we are fighting back. Just last month, the U.S. State Department released its annual Trafficking In Persons (TIP) report – the world’s most comprehensive tool for holding foreign governments accountable when it comes to fighting human trafficking. 

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The TIP report places countries into one of three tiers based on governments’ efforts to comply with the “minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.” The United States then uses countries’ respective tier designations to condition foreign aid. 

Unfortunately, the TIP report does not cover governments’ efforts to investigate, prosecute, or penalize the financing of human trafficking crimes. Failing to do so has consequences: in some countries, governments ignore these crimes because trafficking-related money laundering supports the local economy.

This is where our bill comes into play. We’ve introduced the Exposing the Financing of Human Trafficking Act (H.R. 2149) to require the State Department to track, evaluate, and report on countries’ efforts to disrupt illicit financial activities associated with human trafficking. Forty of our colleagues—Republicans and Democrats—have already signed on.

Shining a light on countries’ efforts to combat illicit finance—or their failure to stop it—strengthens the global fight against human trafficking. It also gives the United States leverage to encourage better behavior from foreign countries.

Our bill is just one piece of the puzzle, but a critical piece. Ultimately, addressing human trafficking requires a multifaceted approach from local, state, federal and international partners.

The United States cannot end the human trafficking epidemic alone. We need help from our allies. We need the commitment of all 187 countries who participate in the TIP report. And we need to follow the money.

Steil represents the 1st District of Wisconsin and Dean represents the 4th District of Pennsylvania. Both are members of the House Financial Services Committee.