Why is Fighting Slavery So Difficult?

Everyone opposes slavery, right?

Okay, those who are enslaving over 21 million people worldwide don’t oppose it, but assuming the vast majority of people do oppose human trafficking and modern slavery, you might think that fighting slavery would be fairly straight forward. But it isn’t. In fact, it can be quite difficult and frustrating. The United States Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) 15 years ago, making profound changes in how human trafficking is viewed and defined; how victims of trafficking are perceived, served, and assisted as they adapt from being victims of slavery to survivors; and how law enforcement agencies should respond to trafficking. Yet, those who have been involved in the fight against trafficking for years, and those new to the fight, experience frustration that so little seems to have improved since 2000. So why is fighting slavery do difficult?

First, modern slavery isn’t the slavery of old. It does not fit the traditional American view of slavery that was black and white – both in the literal sense, and in the moral sense where slavery was either accepted or reviled. The 13th Amendment may have outlawed slavery in the United States, but it did not abolish enslavement either domestically nor globally. In the modern slavery, victim and enslaver (or trafficker) more typically look alike, sound alike, and share Geo-cultural backgrounds. In addition, the slavery of old is understood by most Americans as either field labor or domestic service – images cast in school books and movies. The exploitation of today is limited only by the imagination and coercive skill of the trafficker: Once a trafficker determines how to profit from another person’s labor, they need only determine how best to make their victim perform that labor  through the use of force, fraud, or coercion. (In the commercial sex trade, engaging in sex is the labor.) In short, the whys and hows of modern slavery are far more complex than in the past.

Second, in this new paradigm of slavery, most slaves do not view themselves as slaves! (In a decade of anti-trafficking work I recall only one case in which a man walked into a police department and said, “I need help. I’m a victim of human trafficking.”) Victims engaged in forced commercial sex often do so because their “boyfriend,” who “loves them,” doesn’t have a job and the only way to eat and have a roof over their heads is by her engaging in sex several times a day.

Globally, 68% of human trafficking victims are exploited through forced labor or services, not the sex trade. Many are, more accurately, victims of debt-bondage, paying off a debt owed to their enslaver – often with unpayable interest rates – and either unable to leave for lack of better job opportunities, or afraid to leave due to threats of violence to the victim or their family. Foreign nationals trafficked within the United States often believe deportation awaits them if they come forward but, in fact, the TVPA offers protection to foreign national trafficking victims. Victims, lacking this understanding, are afraid to report their victimization for fear of law enforcement viewing them as criminals. Also, cultural norms often dictate a debt must be repaid no matter the conditions of repayment; another tool of coercion traffickers utilize. Not surprisingly, few victims of trafficking self-identify, adding another element of complexity.

The complexities of the new slavery, and how victims often perceive themselves, exponentially increase the complexity of responding to human trafficking. No single agency or professional sector (e.g., law enforcement, victim services providers, community organizations) can respond to trafficking alone and be effective in mitigating modern slavery. The “4 P Paradigm” is a model recommended for the comprehensive response to slavery and consists of Prevention, Protection, Prosecution, and Partnership. The first three Ps bring their own challenges, but the fourth is most daunting of them all. Collaboration among various agencies and organizations, each involved in different Ps, requires patience and humility on the part of the individuals involved, and long-term commitment from the leadership of the various organizations involved. Effective Partnership requires both institutional commitment, as well as specific skills and traits on the part of the individuals doing the collaborative work. Often, the person chosen to engage in this collaborative work doesn’t yet possess basic knowledge on aspects of trafficking and the response critical for their success, so training is a never-ending process. And, unfortunately, institutional leadership often sees the fight against slavery as merely the latest topic of community interest to be leveraged for political gain.

The struggles of fighting slavery go beyond these three, and each of the topics addressed could merit their own book! But while it may appear to some that little has changed since passage of the TVPA, the truth is far more encouraging. A decade ago friends asked, “What’s human trafficking?” when they learned of my work with a human trafficking task force. Today,  a more likely response is, “Tell me more,” as people are familiar with the term – if not the complexities. Today, more law enforcement officers have been trained; more prosecutions occur; more victims have more agencies and shelters ready to serve them; more communities cry out to help victims within their home towns. Colleges and universities offer courses addressing human trafficking and other social justice issues. Much good work has been done!

But the work continues, and part of the work in fighting slavery includes continuing to learn how to best do the work of fighting slavery. Understanding – and embracing – the complexity is the first step, and the second, and the third… Right now, 21 million people are enslaved worldwide. And they are awaiting our response.

(Interested in learning more about Human Trafficking?   View the Kickstarter campaign supporting The Essential Abolitionist book. Also, visit The Essential Abolitionist Facebook Page.

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