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Here’s how we’re winning the fight against human trafficking

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What do we have to show for the last 20 years of global efforts to combat human trafficking? I have fought human trafficking domestically and internationally, with NGOs and in government, as a prosecutor and as a diplomat. Here is where I think our collective, bi-partisan efforts have brought us and where we ought to go.

A massive shift in the legal landscape began in earnest with the efforts of members of Congress: Reps. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) and Sam Gejdeson (D-Conn., the late Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) and former Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) — to pass the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) in 2000. Shortly after the TVPA became law, the United Nations adopted its protocol against human trafficking. 

Since then, 175 parties have signed on to the protocol, making it one of the most widely adopted pieces of international law. An astonishing 150 governments now have comprehensive human trafficking laws that they are working to implement and enforce to deal with the way modern traffickers commit their crimes. 

Here in the United States, Congress continues to prioritize the issue having reauthorized the TVPA for the fifth time, thanks to the leadership of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, House Foreign Affairs Committee, and the House and Senate Judiciary Committees.

That is tremendous progress, and we should celebrate it and the advocates who have fought tirelessly to achieve it. When traffickers deny their victims the freedom to choose where they work or who touch their bodies, they attack the individuals’ inherent value. In 2014, faith leaders from every major world religion gathered at the Vatican and unanimously declared that their sacred texts do not condone human trafficking and affirmed the dignity of all people.

The last two decades of the anti-trafficking movement have been a pioneering phase, yielding many proven practices to combat trafficking. A three-pronged approach focused on prosecution, protection, and prevention, known as the “3Ps,” remains a robust framework. 

  • Specialized investigative and prosecution units are effective in prosecuting human trafficking cases.
  • Our understanding of trauma has influenced both the criminal justice system to implement a trauma-informed, victim-centered practice, and service providers who work to protect victims through individualized care plans better. 
  • Prevention efforts have expanded beyond awareness campaigns to include launching targeted education programs, implementing system reforms, and marshaling the massive buying power of governments and businesses to apply pressure on their supply chains to root out forced labor.
  • Survivors are now partners and leaders within the anti-trafficking movement. The United States even established a presidentially appointed advisory council comprised of survivors to provide insights to federal agencies.

In this fight for freedom, much has been accomplished, but the numbers tell us there is much more to do. Here are four areas to focus on as we look ahead to this next decade. We must:

Identify and care for victims

The best global estimate released by the UN in 2017 tells us there are at least 24.9 million victims in the world at any given time. However, according to the 2019 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, governments and other sources only reported identifying 85,613 victims of trafficking in 2018  — significantly less than the UN estimated. Based on these numbers, we are only identifying three-tenths of one percent (0.3 percent) of global victims. Governments can and must proactively identify more victims and provide them with comprehensive, trauma-informed care.

Hold traffickers accountable

Human trafficking is a high-reward, low-risk crime, and traffickers know it. According to the TIP Report, there has been a significant drop in global prosecutions since 2015. Deemphasizing criminal accountability only allows traffickers to operate with impunity. We must ensure that prosecuting traffickers remains a priority for governments around the world.

Focus on measurement and data

The early years of this movement were driven by anecdotes and emotion, which have been powerful tools. We must add to them professional rigor, scholarship, data, and metrics to measure impact.

Implement the law

We have the legal tools, which we know how to use, and proven practices that work. We now need to scale what works and realize the potential of the TVPA and the UN protocol to deliver the practical deeds that generate hope and make a tangible difference. Those countries that have yet to join this grand legal consensus should waste no time in doing so. 

This is hard work, and there are no easy fixes. It is time for us to prioritize freedom. The world does not need people to explain why things are hard; instead, the world is desperate for people to do hard things. Securing freedom for all is a hard thing, but it is worth doing. 

John Cotton Richmond serves as the ambassador-at-large in the U.S. Department of State’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.

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