Trafficking in Persons Today

Editorial note: Last Friday, CNEWA’s special assistant to the president, Atonement Father Elias Mallon, looked at the nature of human trafficking and slavery and its presence since the dawn of human history. Below, in the second of his two-part piece, he looks at the contemporary situation, especially as the Catholic Church engages in combatting the crime of trafficking and other forms of slavery.

Finally, a note on the author’s primary sources: A report issued in 2022 by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reveals a significant decline in trafficking of persons for the sex and prostitution industry since the release of a study commissioned by the International Labour Office in Geneva in 2017. As the 2022 report was published during the coronavirus pandemic, it is unknown whether this decline is permanent or merely a reflection of the pandemic.  

In the first part of this series, we noted that slavery, that is, slaveholding, was outlawed in the “Christian world” with its abolition in Brazil in 1888, while its global legality ceased with the abolition of slavery in Mauritania in 1981. While these are events of tremendous historical significance, sobering data remains.

On any given day in 2016, according to an estimate published in Geneva in 2017 by the International Labor Office, 40 million people were victims of modern slavery. Of these, the Global Estimates report notes that women accounted for 71 percent of those trafficked and children accounted for a quarter. The study noted, too, a 24 percent decrease in sexual exploitation.

Trafficking takes many forms. Many people equate it with prostitution and the sex industry. The Human Trafficking Institute reports that sexual exploitation accounts for 38.7 percent of trafficking cases, but forced labor actually accounts for slightly more at 38.8 percent. Other forms of trafficking include harvesting organs (0.2 percent), illegal adoption (0.3 percent), exploitive begging (0.7 percent), forced marriage (0.9 percent), forced criminal activity (10.2 percent) and mixed purposes about 10.2 percent.

The same study estimates that some 25 million people were employed against their will; 15.4 million were forcibly married; and one in four victims was a child.

According to a report issued in 2022 by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, cases of forced labor increased as did the number of adult and child males exploited by traffickers. In some cases, the “labor” involved is forced military service. Child soldiers are not at all uncommon in Africa. The role that economic circumstances play in this is significant. The reports speak of debt bondage. While many victims are kidnapped or otherwise forced into bondage against their will, the 2017 report states that, in 2016, 51 percent of the 16 million were in some form of debt bondage in the private economy.

The role that economics plays in trafficking is both powerful and diverse. In addition to the greed and inhumanity of traffickers and endemic poverty in some parts of the world, there are other drivers of trafficking that must be understood if trafficking is to be overcome.

While one cannot always speak of a direct causality, poverty, debt, war and environmental degradation are important drivers of trafficking. War produces large numbers of refugees and internally and externally displaced persons. Without a home, family or income, refugees are vulnerable to all kinds of predation by traffickers. And although technically different, ecological degradation such as drought and inundations as well as famine have virtually the same impact on many populations as war.

Different forms of modern slavery are not evenly spread across the globe. The Global Estimates study in 2017 reports that forced labor is highest in the Asia/Pacific region (4 per 1,000 people), and child marriage highest in Africa (4.8 per 1,000 people).

There is no part of the globe free of any form of modern slavery. Although Global Estimates notes that 62 percent of those enslaved are in Asia and the Pacific, 9 percent of trafficked victims are in Europe and Central Asia, while 5 percent live in the Americas. Before any self-congratulations begin, it is important to recall that 5 percent of the Global Estimates number of 40 million victims of modern slavery is 2 million people, or more than the population of Philadelphia and more than twice the population of San Francisco.

Although the intensity of trafficking in persons and modern forms of slavery differs from one region to another, the trafficking of human beings is a global problem affecting everyone on the planet. Faith-based groups, such as CNEWA, continue to play an essential role in eliminating the trafficking in persons. Programs such as safe houses, support programs to people vulnerable to trafficking, such as the homeless, refugees, the mentally ill, young girls and boys together with the all-important presence “on the ground,” situate these organizations on the front lines against all forms of trafficking in persons.

Most importantly, such organizations are not only dealing with victims of trafficking, but even more importantly they are attempting to eliminate the drivers of trafficking, that is, those things rendering people susceptible to exploitation, all of which make trafficking in persons not only possible, but lucrative and profitable.

Father Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D., is special assistant to the president of CNEWA-Pontifical Mission.

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