Marja Ruotanen, Gianluca Esposito, and Petya Nestorova
For years Anna could not find work in her hometown. A seemingly kind person offered her a job on a mushroom farm abroad. All Anna had to do was borrow some money, pay a few fees, and hand over her passport. He would take care of the rest. Anna left her family and friends, only to find herself working in terrible conditions on the farm. She was intimidated and physically abused. Her employer withheld her wages, saying she owed him money.
One day, the police raided the farm. They arrested all the workers and held them in detention for having false passports and no working permits. They realized Anna had been trafficked so they gave her a choice: press charges or go to jail. But the traffickers threatened to harm Anna’s family back home. She had no money for a lawyer, and the traffickers’ lawyers claimed she was lying and had violated the law. The judge could not find enough evidence to charge the traffickers. Anna was told she had to leave the country. Since she could not pay back the money she had borrowed to go abroad, she stayed illegally and found work as a domestic worker. Her new employer exploited her too, but she was afraid to go to the police. She was trapped …
This true story of Anna, from the website of La Strada International, a nongovernmental organization (NGO)—including what should have happened but didn’t—is, sadly, not unique. It is a story of threats and use of force, deception and exploitation, identification challenges and revictimization. This is human trafficking: a 21st century form of slavery. Anna is one of several million victims of human trafficking around the world—for sexual, labor, and other purposes. Data are not easy to gather in what is fundamentally an underground criminal activity, so the official figures on identified victims are probably only the tip of the iceberg.
The number of victims of trafficking is on the rise. In 2012, the International Labour Organization (ILO) estimated that 20.9 million people were victims of forced labor and sexual exploitation. More recently, the Walk Free Foundation, in its 2014 Global Slavery Index, published a new estimate of modern slavery, bringing the number to 35.8 million people.
Illegal proceeds from human trafficking are also increasing, making it one of the most lucrative criminal activities. The ILO estimates the illicit profits of forced labor to be $150 billion a year (2014 data). The profits are highest in Asia ($51.8 billion) and developed economies outside Asia ($46.9 billion).
Economics’ law of supply and demand drives traffickers. Although there is no established pattern, generally victims are sent to destinations where the demand for low- or no-cost labor or sexual exploitation is higher. Victims are usually lured into the trafficking ring through deception and the promise of a better life. So they often come from countries with weak economic conditions, including high unemployment.
Combating trafficking in human beings is both a moral imperative and an economic need. It is a moral imperative because traffickers treat human beings as disposable commodities and commit the worst forms of human rights violations. It is an economic need because the use of trafficked people to work around the clock for little or no pay inhibits fair competition. The large illegal proceeds generated by human trafficking are often laundered and integrated—with an aura of legality—in the legitimate economy, potentially threatening financial and economic stability.