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Policy Podcast: Trafficking in Persons

Mark P. Lagon, Ambassador-At-Large and Director of the Office To Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (TIP) and Senior Advisor to the Secretary of State

Sean McCormack, Department Spokesman

MR. MCCORMACK: Ambassador Mark Lagon, thanks for joining us.

AMBASSADOR LAGON: Great to be with you.

MR. MCCORMACK: I’d like to talk a little bit about your portfolio. You are the ambassador that deals with the issue of trafficking in persons.

Let me start off by just asking you for a definition of the scope of what we're talking about. Trafficking in persons sound like a very general term, but specifically, what are we talking about here?

AMBASSADOR LAGON: Trafficking in persons really consists of two things: sex trafficking and forced labor, often forced labor for migrants. It's kind of a jargon term, human trafficking, trafficking in persons is -- makes you think that it's the crossing of a border, that's the key thing.


AMBASSADOR LAGON: It's the coercion. It's the control. It's slavery.

MR. MCCORMACK: Let me -- before I get into what it is that we are doing about this, doing -- by trafficking in persons, let me dig a little bit deeper into, you know, the two separate categories that you've talked about. Is this -- is this a organized worldwide set of underground institutions, criminal activities that deal in this? I mean -- or is this just sort of random, smaller, you know, efforts to exploit human beings (inaudible)?

AMBASSADOR LAGON: There are some larger criminal organizations --


AMBASSADOR LAGON: -- and they tend to work in concert with some corrupt officials and governments, like police or immigration officials who are on the take. That's a very important part of fighting the problem. Sometimes they're smaller organizations, sometimes larger, and some things have to do with legacies of the past, like people thinking that child labor is a good thing, and sometimes it takes a very exploitative form.

MR. MCCORMACK: Let me ask you a little bit about what the United States is doing to fight this plague, if you will, that is still ongoing.

AMBASSADOR LAGON: Well, Congress had a really good idea in passing a law in the year 2000 to create the office I had, because it allows the United States to call attention to the issue with an annual report we put out assessing the situation in countries around the world. This upcoming report will come out in June. It will cover 170 countries, for instance. We use that report to encourage other governments to cooperate more with us and to raise awareness around the world. That's a major role of our work.

We also have been moving money into international organizations and nongovernment organizations to help the victims of human trafficking and to training police. So over the last seven years, we've -- the U.S. Government has spent about $530 million on various programs like that. So taken together, that's been a pretty good effort in which we've been raising the concern that slavery exists today.

MR. MCCORMACK: Are there any particular regions of the world or any particular countries that we're working with to stamp this out?

AMBASSADOR LAGON: Yeah. We -- there are problems of human trafficking around the world, including in the United States itself.


AMBASSADOR LAGON: But there are some special places that I've been interested in. I've worked very closely with the Mexican authorities next door, and they've been making real progress.

MR. MCCORMACK: Is that because they serve as a pipeline coming into the United States?

AMBASSADOR LAGON: There are many people who start in other parts of Latin America and come into the United States. But there are people who are victimized in Mexico.


AMBASSADOR LAGON: And I've met twice in Mexico City with the attorney general and they're taking some steps forward. Some other regions that are of particular concern: East Asia has a lot of both kinds of human trafficking.


AMBASSADOR LAGON: Sex trafficking and forced labor of migrants.


AMBASSADOR LAGON: In terms of sheer numbers, South Asia and notably India because of people who are still in bonded labor from the vestiges of the caste system. That's a big area of incidence and numbers (inaudible).

MR. MCCORMACK: And so when you're talking about this forced labor, you're just talking about people being sold into working in sweatshops around the globe and basically they can't earn their way out of it? Is that essentially what you're talking about?

AMBASSADOR LAGON: No. The key factors are force, fraud, and coercion that are used to control someone. I don't want anybody to accuse us of mission creep and saying that we're --


AMBASSADOR LAGON: -- only talking about cheap labor or petty exploitation.


AMBASSADOR LAGON: Those are problems, but we're not talking about wage and hour abuses.

MR. MCCORMACK: Right, right, right, right.

AMBASSADOR LAGON: We're talking about a situation where someone is either manipulated or physically controlled. Sometimes it's their passport being taken away, sometimes they've been offered a chance to move to another country to work by a shark, a labor recruiter. And the fee that they pay the recruiter becomes debt bondage, becomes the leverage that --

MR. MCCORMACK: Right. So they have to pay that off and there's no way --


MR. MCCORMACK: -- because of – because they're not earning enough wages or --

AMBASSADOR LAGON: And sometimes that person is caught in forced prostitution.


AMBASSADOR LAGON: Sometimes that person is a construction worker or a (inaudible).

MR. MCCORMACK: Right. Is there a profile for the victims that are targeted in this? Is there -- can you see a pattern over time? Is it young people? Is it older people? Is it women and children? What sort of patterns do you see?

AMBASSADOR LAGON: Oftentimes, people say that economic desperation and poverty are the key, but the -- and that is the profile, some people who are -- have a hope for a better life, then, that they get fooled or trapped into the situation of human trafficking. But it's not enough to say that poverty is the main problem. It takes a criminal, it takes a sadistic person, it takes a corrupt official to make it happen as the catalyst.

You asked about women and children. We have an estimate that about 800,000 people are cross-border trafficking victims each year. About 80 percent of those are women, and up to half of them are children, minors. So there are a lot of women and children who are victimized.

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, we talked a little bit about what we're doing with various countries that we're working with, the kind of programs we have. What sort of success are we having in fighting this? Are we bringing others along with us? I know that you take some pride in being a trailblazer on this particular issue. So what are some of the successes?

AMBASSADOR LAGON: I think we are bringing countries along. First of all, we have raised consciousness about the issue over the last seven or eight years. Just in February, I led a U.S. delegation to a major UN conference in Vienna on human trafficking. And so now, multilateral institutions are working in a more concerted fashion, the UNICEFs, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, the International Labor Organization, to fight this issue. And I think, honestly, they’re following our lead. I was surprised to hear the number of people at the UN conference I met who felt that our annual report is kind of the source of record on the problem.

MR. MCCORMACK: Right. I want to wrap up here, but I want to get to a couple other questions. First of all, you mentioned the United States. You said that this is a problem in the United States. What – you know, in what regard, you know, and how is it that people can participate in fighting trafficking in persons? What can your average person do?

AMBASSADOR LAGON: It’s a good question. This is a problem here in the United States and I don’t see this as principally a question of border security. This is a question of people who are victimized. And we have a very important policy that was created by the same law that created my office, which is, if we find someone who is a foreign national, who is a victim of human trafficking, they can stay in the United States under what’s called a T visa, a trafficking victims visa, that helps them to be a witness in a prosecution.


AMBASSADOR LAGON: But it’s a victim-centered approach. When we find someone who’s been so traumatized that a --


AMBASSADOR LAGON: Sex trafficking or as a migrant laborer, they've been victimized, they should be helped. And so over the last several years, about a thousand people have been given visas as trafficking victims and another 900 people and their immediate families have been given visas to reunite them with their families.

MR. MCCORMACK: And what – what can the average person who may be listening to this do to participate in the fight against trafficking in persons?

AMBASSADOR LAGON: Our colleagues at the Department of Health and Human Services have been working on local campaigns that bring local law enforcement together with social service providers, churches, emergency room personnel to look out for victims. If people – you know, you see look like they’re sleeping in their workplace, if they look like they cannot move around without someone in their workplace trailing them, if they seem to not know where they are —


AMBASSADOR LAGON: -- these can be signs. The Department of Health and Human Services runs a wonderful national resource center with a hotline. And one can call. In a sign of how the United States does this, the U.S. Government works with the leading NGO in fighting human trafficking. The Polaris Project, which was started a few years ago by some young Brown students --


AMBASSADOR LAGON: -- and they run the resource center, 24 hours, have people there who can help, if you see signs or if someone’s a victim themselves and they want to call.

MR. MCCORMACK: Ambassador Lagon, thanks very much for talking with us about this really very important issue.

AMBASSADOR LAGON: Sean, delighted to be with you. Thanks.

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