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 You are in: Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs > Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons > Releases and Remarks > Op-Eds and Articles

Slavery in 2004

John R. Miller, Director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons
The Washington Post
January 1, 2004

Do U.S. sanctions move other countries toward progress on human rights? Of one thing I am sure: On the emerging human rights issue of the 21st century -- modern-day slavery -- the threat of cutting U.S. aid has brought forth efforts that will free thousands from bondage.

That slavery exists as we enter 2004 may shock many. Nonetheless, slavery in many forms, particularly sex and forced labor, reaches into almost every country. Sex slavery affects thousands of women and children and has caused trafficking in human beings to become the third-largest source of money for organized crime, after the drug and arms trades. That grim reality motivated President Bush this fall to become the first world leader to raise the slavery issue at the U.N. General Assembly. He called for new international efforts to fight the slave trade and pledged to almost double U.S. resources devoted to this cause.

The U.S. government estimates that 800,000 to 900,000 men, women and children are trafficked across international borders every year, including 18,000 to 20,000 into the United States. Some estimate total worldwide slavery to be in the millions.

In September I visited a number of countries to meet with the human beings behind such numbers. If you talk with Sasha, a former sex slave in Amsterdam, or with Lord, a former factory slave in Bangkok, you quickly understand the toll this takes on individual bodies and spirits. The story that one victim, Maria, told Congress a few years ago is typical. Lured with the hope of a restaurant job from Vera Cruz, Mexico, and trafficked through Texas, Maria was finally delivered to a brothel in Florida. There she resisted but -- frightened, threatened, beaten and raped in a strange land -- she succumbed and "worked" to pay off the debts that traffickers claimed she owed them.

Cases such as hers and the urgings of faith-based and feminist organizations led Congress to pass legislation that not only strengthened U.S. prosecution of traffickers and assistance to victims but also mandated the State Department to report on slavery and the slave trade around the world.

And here we see how the threat of economic penalties has started to play a crucial role. For the first two years the law was in effect, there were zero consequences. But this year, Congress provided that countries rated by the State Department as having made no significant efforts be faced with the potential loss of U.S. military aid, educational and cultural assistance, and support from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

In the three months before the slavery report came out this past June, my office saw more progress in some countries than in the previous two years. Laws against trafficking in persons were passed in places from the Philippines to Haiti to Burkina Faso. Victims were rescued and massive arrests of traffickers were made in Cambodia and Serbia.

The U.S. law provided that for those countries poorly rated in this year's report, there would be a three-month period to make antislavery efforts. In 10 countries, including military allies of the United States, there was a flurry of activity.

Turkey set up and implemented new screening procedures that recognized 200 victims. Georgia appointed special officers with responsibility for trafficking and started broadcasting hotline numbers for victims on national television. The Dominican Republic launched a national educational billboard campaign and set up a national anti-trafficking police unit with special prosecutors. In these and other countries there were numerous arrests and prosecutions.

Of course not all these actions resulted from the threat of aid cuts. Many government officials, finally recognizing the enormity of the human crises, wanted to act. Some undoubtedly were embarrassed by the State Department's report. Strenuous efforts by diplomats in many U.S. embassies were crucial.

We continue, however, to face the problem that many countries' economies have links to slavery. Corrupt and complicit police pose a challenge in many nations. And there is the difficulty of trying to fight diseases such as HIV-AIDS at the same time we are fighting the sex trafficking that causes so much of that disease.

To meet these challenges we need support and action at home and antislavery allies abroad. But we also need the willingness to impose economic penalties that give antislavery laws and diplomacy meaning.

The writer is director of the State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.

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