AC360° Editorial Producer
A new United Nations report says that modern-day slavery is on the rise. I have reported on trafficking in the past, and I was stunned to hear that the numbers are going up, despite increasing awareness of the problem. Worse, this is not a problem confined to the developing world. Slaves can be found everywhere, including small towns and big cities across the U.S. I spoke with a victims’ advocate and a journalist, who covers slavery and they introduced me to one young Ukrainian woman, who escaped enslavement in the Midwest.
As a teenager living in Ukraine, Katya had seen plenty of ads and movies promoting awareness about sex trafficking. Still, she never thought she would end up enslaved in an exotic nightclub in the Midwest, held by Russian traffickers who routinely beat and sexually abused her. She was forced to dance twelve hours a day, six days a week for no pay until she escaped a year later.
Katya, who did not give her real name or home city for fear of being tracked down by the mafia ring that enslaved her, says that her desire to seek work and opportunity in the United States is what led her to the traffickers. They promised her a waitressing job, but later took her passport and told her she had to work off a debt of $40,000. “My mom told me not to go because she was afraid something was going to happen to me,” she told me over the phone. “These traffickers brainwashed me. They put me in a hotel, and took my passport and told me I owed them tens of thousands of dollars. We would wake up at 1pm, they would drop us at the Club Cheetah and we would stay there for 12 hours. Six days a week. We were told not to talk to anyone. But then we started to speak to clients and some of them were lawyers and doctors, and then we never saw them again. They were afraid [to help us], because this was the Russian mafia.”
Katya finally escaped her enslavement with the help of one concerned customer. She then went on to be one of the few victims to help prosecute her traffickers. But while her story has a relatively happy ending, hundreds of thousands of others worldwide remain trapped. Human trafficking is now the second largest criminal industry after drug trafficking. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) surveyed 155 countries for its report on modern-day slavery, and says that the numbers are rising because many governments are not fighting the problem. The report didn't give any numbers for how many people are enslaved worldwide, but estimates range from 800,000 new victims each year, according to the U.S. State Department, to 2.5 million, according to the International Labor Organization.
"Many governments are still in denial. There is even neglect when it comes to either reporting on, or prosecuting cases of human trafficking,” according to Antonio Maria Costa, the Executive Director of UNODC. He said that while the number of convictions for human trafficking is increasing, 40 percent of the countries covered by the UNODC report had not recorded a single conviction.
“I didn’t have money in my country,” Katya said. “But we cannot blame only the country. Now, I am blaming the people who buy these services, because if there is no buyer there would be no one being sold.”
The most common form of human trafficking is sexual exploitation, according to the report, with the victims being predominantly women and girls. The second most common form of human trafficking is forced labor, although this may be a misrepresentation because forced labor is less frequently detected and reported than trafficking for sexual exploitation.
“Two hundred years after the birth of Abraham Lincoln, there are now more slaves than there were at any point in human history,” says E. Benjamin Skinner, author of “A Crime So Monstrous.” Skinner, who spent years tracking slavery rings worldwide, says the UN must force its member states to deal actively with the problem. “I frankly haven’t seen the action on the ground that a crime against humanity would engender,” he said. “What good is the UN if it doesn’t live up to its charter and defend the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? What good is the UN if it can’t engender a robust response from its member states on a crime against humanity? I commend the UN for putting out this report, but it should in no way be considered action.”
According to Skinner, action means breaking the backs of traffickers by having a robust, aggressive approach to identifying, arresting and successfully prosecuting traffickers so that they don’t go back into the field. He says that in his reporting he often met traffickers who had already been incarcerated for limited terms and turned back to the slave trade as soon as they were released. At the same time, Skinner says that there needs to be more development opportunities in impoverished communities so people will not turn to informal lenders, who often wind up compelling people into slavery to work off a loan.
With the global economic crisis, the numbers of those enslaved are only set to increase unless more development options are funded, Skinner said.
One of the greatest barriers to forcing countries to fight slavery is the lack of awareness of the problem. Bridgette Carr, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan Law School, says ignorance is bliss for traffickers. “With the economy and desperation increasing, we will see slavery increasing,” she said “This problem has been with us for a long time. We need to open our eyes to it. Once you learn about this issue, you start to see the world differently.”
Worldwide, almost 20 percent of all trafficking victims are children. But in some parts of the world, children are the majority of the enslaved. “I wish I could say that that number shocks and surprises me, but it doesn’t,” Carr said. “Part of the reason is that I see first-hand how many children are enslaved in the U.S. out in the open. They are working in restaurants and hair-braiding salons. So if it is happening out in the open in the U.S., a country that is trying to fight the issue, you can easily see how the numbers would be much higher elsewhere.”
Carr believes that in addition to countries taking action against modern-day slavery, communities need to get more involved, asking questions about the underage hairbraider in their salon or the young girl walking the streets late at night.
For Katya, the nightmares still haven’t ended, but she believes that she must speak about her experience to draw more attention to those still enslaved in the U.S. and around the world. “Psychologically, I am still suffering,” she said, adding that she now works in a factory and goes to school part-time to study law enforcement. “I have nightmares. Sometimes it’s hard for me to close my eyes, because I am afraid that I will end up back there in that club. But everyday it’s getting better. Two years ago, I was afraid. Now I want people to know what happened so that it won’t happen to others.”