For thousands of years people have been buying and selling human beings. From the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt, the ancient Babylonians, Grecian and Roman empires, slavery has been practiced in most nations of the world. In the 16th to the late 18th century, slavery was an accepted part of the economic life of western nations. In the New World, the plantation owners in Virginia and other states used slaves brought from Africa to work their fields. William Wilberforce moved for its abolition in England and the empire in 1833.
However, whilst it stopped as a legal practice, it did not stop. What is the situation regarding human trafficking today, and what are the causes of its existence?
The definition of the UN on human trafficking is detailed, but it mainly falls into 3 groups. Humans are trafficked for use as labor, sexual exploitation with harvesting of organs being another smaller group. It involves recruiting, kidnapping, transfer and sale of such persons. Exploitation must include sexual exploitation forced labor or removal of organs.
According to US state department Laura Lederer, human trafficking is the third largest criminal activity worldwide. It is only exceeded by illegal drug and arms trafficking. It has become a criminal industry worth $32 billion a year.
The traffickers are criminals; however, because of the nature of the industry most do not fit the stereotypes. At the top are the criminal bosses. However, down the line it might be a person who gives a young girl accommodation, or drives her to a destination. What they have in common is they make money from doing these things, which are essential to get the victim to the point of sale. Then come the direct criminals, who knowingly buy and exploit the victims.
The victims can be anyone. Much of it starts with fraud, or in civil war situations. For example, a girl in Thailand is recruited as an au pair in South Africa. On arrival her passport is removed, she is locked in a house and forced to work in a brothel, either by threat or violence.
Young women in civil war areas like the Baltic region of Europe are kidnapped and forced into sex work. These sex workers are put in brothels, on the streets, in rich men or women’s mansions, and kept as sex slaves. Their owners exploit them sexually, and keep any money earned from prostitution.
Others are offered passage to another country, and guaranteed work. They gladly accept however when they arrive they find they are slaves. Most are smuggled into the country, do not know the language, kept locked up and used to do labor, from farming, sewing, house cleaning. They get no pay and work at the will of their owner(s) who keep the money they should have earned. The only thing they have in common is they usually are vulnerable members of society. They are often runaways, have unstable abusive homes, and no employment.
The United Nations opened a bureau dedicated to combating this problem. Most responsible governments are recognizing the problem and legislating it into criminal law. However, the problem is complex and huge. The International Labor Organization suggests 20.9 million victims are in forced labor, and other statistics estimate millions are involved in sexual exploitation.
Lack of awareness is a major stumbling block. If a woman working on the streets approached a police officer saying she was forced into drug addiction and prostitution, she is as likely to be arrested rather than rescued.
What is clear is that slavery whilst abolished has not stopped.
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