Are Governments Really Interested In Combatting Sex Trafficking?

After drugs and weapons, humans are the third largest illegal trading commodity in the world. Governments may sound like they're tough on the industry, but the reality is a different story.
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After drugs and weapons, humans are the third largest illegal trading commodity in the world. Governments may sound like they're tough on the industry, but the reality is a different story.

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Nothing like a sobering reality to take the joy out of the day.

Taking captives and trading them in the underground sex world sounds like the stuff out of Taken. It’s not just the stuff of bad dreams however. It’s a real and persistent epidemic. After drugs and weapons, humans are the third largest illegal trading commodity in the world, part of a nasty online sex industry.

According to the UN, there are 2.5 million victims of sex trafficking at any given time worldwide, 21 million annually, and only one percent is ever rescued. This is a far reaching problem that affects people of all nationalities, income levels, ages and gender. While men are sometimes sold into sex slavery, 80 percent of victims are women and 50 percent are children.

Moreover, a revelation put to light in a United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime report, shows that while the world’s prisons are predominantly male and most crimes are committed by males, human trafficking is one area where women play a prominent role as perpetrators. Much like how victims and witnesses of domestic violence end up becoming perpetrators later in life, many trafficking victims also turn out to become criminals within the industry.

Nameless, Faceless, Numberless

Part of the problem with sex trafficking is due to an extreme difficulty in tracking victims or quantifying data to be able to make correlations and provide snapshots that give focus to attacking the problem. The millions of victims worldwide each year is just based on reported data. Sex trafficking, despite celebrity and media attention from people like Nicholas Kristof, remains a very under-reported and under-studied issue.

Different countries have different laws, different values, different conceptions of sex trade, and different levels of compliance with international endeavors. Individual national initiative was a major finding of the UN report.

Laws worldwide have focused on criminalizing prostitution and other trafficking victims, but rarely on the perpetrators. New approaches, such as End Demand and “real men don’t buy girls” chanted by Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher, have focused on stopping the johns who purchase prostitutes, albeit to much criticism about how effective and how genuine such movements can be. Worldwide, bits and pieces of laws and regulations trickled in throughout the 20th century but by and large did nothing to combat a growing issue.

How do you stop a problem when just about every strata of society is complicit? Just the other day, Indian Country reported on the booming sex trade industry asserting that aid workers and government officials are often complicit in the sex trade, and noted that misconduct charges for police in the U.S. surrounding sexual abuse are second only to excessive violence. There is even a recent accusation of UK diplomats enslaving victims of human trafficking as domestic workers.

The Palermo Protocol and a Billion Dollar Industry

In 2000, the United Nations held the Palermo Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime conference, from which spawned international regulations in arms trafficking, migrant smuggling, and trafficking in persons (TiP).

Since then, over 140 countries have passed various laws against human trafficking. While that sounds good, the fact that it took until 2000 is almost as disgusting as sex trafficking itself. One would hope that basic human rights had been embedded into constitutions and punishable under multitudes of laws in any country long before 2000.

In addition to the many stark and haunting statistics, sex trafficking sentencing patterns in the U.S. show an ambivalence on the part of the judicial system by handing down light sentences, for what are misdemeanors in most states. The U.S. by no means has been a leader in fights against injustice. In the first half of the 20th century, the U.S. was more interested in things like banning interracial marriages than going after sex criminals.

Harvard professor Siddartha Kara, specifically blamed the problem on western capitalism, rural poverty, and “the net extraction of wealth and resources from poor countries into richer ones and the broad-based erosion of real human freedoms across the developing world.” If true, there may be a long, tough road ahead. Certainly the UN report seems to follow economic stereotypes to such an end. There are a lack of laws and convictions across Northern Africa and the Middle East, while Europe is the leading purchaser, per capita, of services of the industry.

Poverty may or may not be a direct factor leading to sex slavery. A good number of women who travel and have relative economic freedom become victims. However, poorer situations, such as growing up in a foster home or being a runaway youth, are heavily correlated with people being sold into slavery. And once a victim of trafficking, it is nearly impossible to escape. Coercive and abusive situations are difficult and dangerous to escape. There is also little incentive to escape once a person has an STI, PTSD, drug addiction and the certainty of a very short lifespan.

The bottom line is that when demand is high and price is low, crime runs rampant. Sex trafficking is a $3 billion industry annually in the U.S. and $30 plus billion worldwide. There are a good number of African nations that don’t even have a GDP of $30 billion, so it really should come as no surprise that the trade is not stopping, but continuing to grow.

A Power Game

Considering the economic aspect of the industry, here are a few noteworthy cases in recent memory:

In 2014, Boko Haram kidnapped over 200 girls from a Nigerian school providing an extreme example of a group trying to gain money and power through human trafficking. The leader specifically stated, “I will sell your girls in the market” and only gave a promise of releasing girls that had converted to Islam in exchange for captive Boko Haram prisoners. Worldwide outrage over the incident started the promising NGO Bring Back Our Girls, which has been effective in getting many Boko Haram captives released. Yet at the same time, Boko Haram has kidnapped hundreds more girls since then and remains a powerful force despite interventions.

In 2011, a body was found on the lawn of the Queen’s estate in Norfolk. The body was that of a Latvian named Alisa Dmitrijeva. That she was Latvian is noteworthy in that Latvia has the worst human trafficking problem in Europe. Potential connections to the Baltic mafia quickly surfaced. Cause of death was never ascertained and the question of why her body lay decomposing for several months at the Queen’s estate was also never answered. Much like with Jack the Ripper, a rumored sex and violence connection to the royal family is fueled by the unsolvability of the crime.

In a more clear case of crime rings moving girls from poor Eastern European countries to wealthier nations, just this month 11 Hungarians were sentenced on charges of sending hundreds of girls to 50 brothels in London and Peterborough. It was an amazing sting operation originating from a daring, escaped captive. However, with an average sentence of only 5 years, the punishments were not serious.

Are governments getting tough on organized crime? The message sounds tough, but the reality doesn’t speak so loudly. Do governments care about stopping modern slavery, or are they just as complicit as the rest of society? The only thing that remains certain is that greed, lust, fear, deceit and violence are apparently strong values into the 21st century and the problem of sex trafficking is as bad as it’s ever been without much hope on the horizon.