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Human trafficking is one of the biggest crises of our time. How do we fight It? 

Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during the 2022 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report launch ceremony at the State Department, Tuesday, July 19, 2022, in Washington.
(AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, Pool)
Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during the 2022 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report launch ceremony at the State Department, Tuesday, July 19, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, Pool)

Here’s a startling statistic from the U.S. State Department: right now, nearly 25-million individuals around the world are being forced into labor or the sex trade against their will.   

Pause for a moment on that number: 25 million.  

It’s a staggering sum—too large to visualize except in the abstract, and heartbreaking when considered for what it actually represents: tens of millions of real-life mothers, daughters, fathers, and sons. All told, it is more than the populations of New Zealand, Singapore, Kuwait, Uruguay, and Congo, combined. Yet trafficking victims aren’t restricted to particular nations or regions. They can be found in every country and every city across the globe. As U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken recently noted, “the scale of the problem is vast.”  

It’s also deeply alarming, particularly because signs indicate the crisis is worsening.   

In December, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) concluded that the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War alone has put 17.7 million people in dire straits financially, with 5.6 million individuals displaced internally. Out of Ukraine’s pre-war population of 44 million, more than 8 million have fled the country since the outbreak of the conflict. Tens of thousands of these are unaccompanied or separated children.  

Then there is climate change—a threat multiplier for modern slavery due to its disruptive impact on economies and communities. In India, prolonged droughts and flooding linked to melting Himalayan glaciers are forcing minority groups and women to seek income in cities, where they fall prey to trafficking intermediaries and agents who sell them to placement agencies. Analogous trends can be readily found in nations around the world.  

Other factors, including the Covid-19 pandemic and our increasing reliance on the digital world, are also driving the crisis, and offer no clear alternatives to our current course.   

So what are we to do?  

Mapping money flows 

When global leaders recommended in 2018 that the United Nations launch a consultation on how banks and other institutions could help fight human trafficking, the role that financial intelligence could play was not yet fully understood. A year later, the commission tasked with conducting the consultation released its findings: A Blueprint for Mobilizing Finance Against Slavery and Trafficking.  

Alongside similar calls by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the Blueprint may prove to be a watershed in the fight against modern slavery. Both the FAST Initiative, an organization created to advise on the implementation of the Blueprint, and FATF, which sets international standards for fighting illicit finance, suggest that our best path forward is to identify, map, and ultimately dismantle the money flows linked to trafficking groups. Make trafficking riskier and less lucrative for criminals and they will look elsewhere to generate illicit profits, in other words.  

But such efforts must be multipronged if they are to be truly effective. The anti-financial crime (AFC) sector will need to develop tools that can analyze an array of transactional activity related to modern slavery, from money laundering by international sex-trafficking rings operating in large economies to localized debt-bondage and domestic-servitude schemes in developing nations, according to the Blueprint.   

More than that, financial institutions and governmental officials will need to step up their efforts to learn from trafficking survivors and engage in public-private partnerships with key stakeholders, including advocacy groups. Such partnerships can drive collaboration on specific investigations or establish lines of communication to address trafficking over the long term. 

All of this will need to be accomplished without exacerbating so-called “de-risking”—the phenomenon of financial institutions dropping services for entire groups of clients due to their perceived compliance risks. Regulators and institutions must learn to fight modern slavery without unduly forcing vulnerable populations out of the formal financial sector and into the arms of traffickers posing as their would-be saviors.  

The path outlined by the Blueprint is promising. So why haven’t we taken it?  

Setting priorities  

For the last 13 years, the United States has acknowledged the severity of this growing crisis with the observance of National Human Trafficking Prevention Month every January. Unfortunately, it’s not enough. For trafficking victims, modern slavery isn’t something to discuss in January and forget in February. It’s the living nightmare that they sleep and wake to each day of the year.  

To effectuate real change, we will need to come together in lasting and impactful ways. Law enforcement, regulators, financial institutions, tech firms, crypto companies, and NGOs—each holds a piece of the puzzle. Each brings unique views and capabilities to the table. Each has a part to play.  

Because this is a crisis that calls into question our priorities. If we accept the argument that it was necessary to overhaul the financial sector to fight terrorist financing and money laundering, what does it say about us if we don’t use the tools and expertise that we’ve consequently developed to save the millions who are enslaved today around the world?  

25 million people.  

It’s up to us. 

Scott Liles is CEO of the Association of Certified Anti-Money Laundering Specialists (ACAMS). 

Tags human trafficking

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