Saturday, April 25, 2009

The "Human" Part of Trafficking

Human trafficking is a growing issue in the United States and daily more people are learning about the reality of modern-day slavery. Americans are becoming more aware through newspaper, television shows, movies, conferences, and word of mouth. It is, in many ways, becoming the "issue-of-the-day". There is a building momentum of information telling us that slavery still exists in our world and that there is much to be done to end it. Organizations across the country have made an entire living just telling people that there is a problem. As a result, there is a growing trend of mass marketing to the public to become 'abolitionists', which is great. But, what does that mean?

If we look at the history of the first abolitionist movement, we see a growing awareness of the public, with key people stepping out in dynamic ways to 'free the slaves'. Public outrage, political action, and a long, bloody war resulted in the beginning of freedom for slaves in America. People risked their lives and their reputations to stand up for what was right. It took time, patience, and vigilance to accomplish the abolishment of human slavery in the United States.

In the 1830's, it was William Lloyd Garrison, who demanded "immediate emancipation, gradually achieved". In other word, the spirit of the law came before the actual application. We could morally demand freedom; though the reality of lives set free would take time. But, I also think that there was something greater at stake.  What would happen when hundreds of thousands of people were handed their liberty. When the Emancipation Proclaimation finally came about in 1863, the slaves in America were finally set  'free'.

But, history tells us a very different story - what actually happened to the slaves? What happened to the people decimated by years of exploitation and abuse? Where did they go? What futures were provided for them?

Certainly, we have stories of slaves that were given land, money, or some other form of subsistance that went on to achieve great things. But, the vast majority of slaves in the South remained in their stations as slaves. They knew nothing else, but a live of captivity. So, we just called it something else - servitude or 'paid help'. In the end abolitionists asked the imperitive question of freedom. But, it failed to ask what the cost to those enslaved would be.

Ultimately, slavery never went away. It went underground. By 1910, just about 50 years after the Emancipation Proclaimation, American writers such as Emma Goldman and Reginald Wright Kaufman were talking about trafficking of white womenin America for commercial sex. But, that
 is another story.

Today, we are looking at an enormous number of human being enslaved around the world - somewhere in the millions - 12 - 27 million to make our best estimates. In the United States alone, we are talking about 300,000 American children at risk of trafficking every year. If we look at that as raw data, that means that there are 6,000 children in every state of the US that are enslaved. So, if the abolitionist movement that is emerging today were successful tomorrow and every slave were 'set free', what would happen to these people?

One of the core principles that our organization lives by is that "freedom without a future is simply another form of slavery". We have an imperative to remember the human side of human trafficking. Its not about statistics, buying 'slave free' goods, watching gut wrenching movies about trafficking, or wearing clothes made in the US. It is about the people - the men, women, and children that have had their lives crushed and futures stolen from them. How do we provide these lives with 'true freedom'?

In my life of working with survivors of sex trafficking, I am constantly reminded that all the efforts and strides we make in the anti-trafficking world are about the girls that we serve. I keep pictures up at my desk that ask me to keep my focus on the lives that need rebuilding and opportunities provided for. These are girls that by most standards have been rescued from their captors, but they have not been freed from the hell that lives inside of them. They have not been emancipated into the possibility of a new future. So, instead of asking what slaves are being freed 'from', maybe we should ask ourselves what they are being freed 'to'?


  1. This is such an insightful observation. I have been thinking about this quite a bit over the last few weeks, what I think we don't realize is that although they have been freed, they have not been given the tools to access knowledge, to access a network, for support and to build the life they always envisioned for themselves. Now, the battle is in giving them access to the tools we have access to: people, information, happiness.

  2. Are you kidding me???

    "But, it failed to ask what the cost to those enslaved would be."

    "We have an imperative to remember the human side of human trafficking."

    "but they have not been freed from the hell that lives inside of them."

    "maybe we should ask ourselves what they are being freed 'to'?"

    This is amazing!! Seriously, this blog blew me away... Thanks James... Have fun in Denver but don't stay to long. :-)