The Great Debate: Is law enforcement alone enough to reduce human trafficking?

Tuesday, December 4th, 2012

To mark the launch of the Fall/Winter 2012 issue of the Journal of International Affairs on Transnational Organized Crime, the Journal collaborated with The Morningside Post for a special edition of the TMP series "The Great Debate." The tenth post in “The Great Debate” series asks the question, "Is law enforcement alone enough to reduce human trafficking?"

To mark the launch of the Fall/Winter 2012 issue of the Journal of International Affairs on Transnational Organized Crime, the Journal collaborated with The Morningside Post for a special edition of the TMP series "The Great Debate." The tenth post in “The Great Debate” series asks the question, "Is law enforcement alone enough to reduce human trafficking?"

On election night, California voters passed Proposition 35, which increases penalties for those convicted of human trafficking. California is among the top four destinations for human trafficking in the United States. According to a recent study by California’s Attorney General, 1,277 people have been identified as victims of human trafficking and forced labor in the last two years in California.

Globally, the $32 billion-per-year human trafficking industry is estimated to affect 2.4 million people. This April, the Director of the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime asked for further action from the global community, calling for “progressive and proactive law enforcement” and “activities to combat the market forces driving human trafficking.”

Yasmine Ergas, Institute for the Study of Human Rights, Columbia University

How can law enforcement alone ever be enough? We can’t simply prosecute our way to social justice. Of course people who exploit people should be punished. But definitions of trafficking often cast a wide net, encompassing all sex workers.  If Californians want to prosecute the brokers more harshly that’s one thing but not all sex work is coerced. Several victims of trafficking backed Prop 35; they believe it will provide a much-needed deterrent and make a statement about the values that the state endorses. But even if Prop 35 makes it costlier for middle-men to do their job and acknowledges the suffering of their victims, that is not enough to solve the problem of people who are forced to provide services they don’t want to give and to toil in illegality.  Will their lives improve?

When the penalties are harsher the exploitation often becomes harsher too: sex workers are forced (even further) underground; they may become more, not less, susceptible to abuse and less, not more, likely to seek help. Prop 35 protects sex workers found to be victims of trafficking from criminal prosecution. That seems helpful, even though it does not cover all sex workers. But real improvement requires more than partial decriminalization.

Prop 35 also assigns 70% of the proceeds from fines to victim services. Housing, counseling, medical care are essential. But this is not sufficient for a progressive policy. The reasons why people are trafficked begin well before they are coerced into sex work and are not only related to the demand for their services. We need to concentrate on the conditions that produce the market and that lead it to be the dangerous place that it is today. Ultimately, that’s where we should concentrate our political energies, policy research, and creativity.

Yasmine Ergas is the Associate Director of the Institute for the Study of Human Rights and Adjunct Professor of International and Public Affairs at the School of International and Public Affairs of Columbia University

Alina Alcántara, Columbia University

This $32 billion-per-year “industry” is driven by the basic market laws of demand and supply and will not stop so long as the risk of being caught is low, and the profits remain high. More elements should be brought into the picture than just law enforcement. Certainly, punishing perpetrators and seeking justice for victims needs to be part of the response to human trafficking, but more emphasis needs to be placed on strengthening prevention measures.

There are difficulties in trying to accurately estimate the number of victims that suffer from human trafficking. The sordid business often involves sophisticated networks, even transnational networks, and cover-ups by authorities that make it difficult to keep track of every case. Identifying at-risk groups is less difficult. Allocating resources to raise awareness among vulnerable groups, and reducing their exposure, should be a greater priority rather than attempting to repair the damage after the fact, with law enforcement efforts that usually amount to too little too late.

Preventive actions must create, or strengthen, safety nets in which vulnerable groups develop. Prevention includes coordination and collaboration from the immediate community that surrounds them all the way up to the international sphere; it includes spreading information and fighting myths; it includes a 24/7 surveillance and creating incentives and the infrastructure to report any crime. Law enforcement best serves to attack the demand side and the illegal supply of human trafficking. Prevention will help to reduce the pool of possible victims that fuel the supply.

Reducing human trafficking is a sum of law enforcement and prevention actions and not a choice between both.

Alina Alcántara is a second-year Master of Public Administration student at SIPA, concentrating in International Security Policy.

Sonia Stefanizzi, University of Milano-Bicocca

In the context of the West, migration is a result of globalization processes, and the weakening of the exercise of nation states’ sovereignty (for instance, the dependence of economic and political choices on international factors, such as stock-exchange movements and processes of economic displacement). This weakening leads to the attempt to impose tighter and authoritarian controls on the movement of persons, and creates the normative conditions that favor the operation of criminal organizations.

In cases like this, the attention should be focused on the systemic context and the conditions that encourage criminal organizations. This tendency is exemplified in the relations between America and Mexico, where economic collaboration has been soured by measures against immigration (for example strict border controls). This has brought human costs and the rise of a significant trafficking in humans by criminal organizations.

In contrast to economic liberalization, controls on migration have been tightened, as political goals have overwritten the natural human right to personal mobility. For those wanting to migrate, the “easiest” expedient is to resort to criminal networks.

We can see the example of many young women, in particular Nigerians, who obtained their passport with the help of criminal organizations, directly from the local police who prepare and sell it. The most numerous groups of Nigerians arrived, for instance, in Rome with collective transit and entry permits “for pilgrimage to various sacred Italian sites”.

The situation of Albanian prostitution seems somewhat different. Here the passports are acquired by Albanian criminals, in cooperation with the local police and organized Italian crime networks, who accept the presence of Albanian prostitutes in their joint interests.

Sonia Stefanizzi is an Associate Professor of sociology at the University of Milano-Bicocca. She co-edited “Measuring Human Trafficking: complexities and Pitfalls” with Ernesto U. Savona.

Ted Janis, Columbia University

While law enforcement has the biggest role to play, the quest to end modern slavery must have other champions.  Forced labor and sex trafficking is the second most profitable criminal enterprise, and the fastest growing.  Yet the level of awareness within the United States is not commensurate.  To truly confront this most egregious of crimes, civil society must be a lead proponent.  Organizations already exist that help in a variety of ways, such as providing training to those who could identify victims.  These NGOs will be key allies in this endeavor.

Yet to gain popular support and to fundraise, journalists must bring this issue to the forefront.  If the American citizenry is made aware of the increase in human trafficking within our borders, it can better recognize and report illegal activities.  This awareness can also help combat the increase in recruitment of victims online and through social media, as this tactic preys on ignorance of the prevalence of the crime.

Human trafficking is not only an affront to our national dignity, but also to our security.  The criminal networks that profit from this lucrative business are but one part of a nebulous web of illegal activities.  These organizations have a common interest in outsmarting our border controls and evading our enforcers, as do terrorists who wish our nation harm.  It is imperative that all stakeholders assist in preventing this horrific industry, and the networks that allow it to prosper.

Ted Janis is a second-year Master of International Affairs student at SIPA, concentrating in International Security Policy.

Jay S. Albanese, Virginia Commonwealth University

Not even close.  Trafficking enterprises (large or small) face pressures on their survival and profitability, but these pressures do not come only from police.  They come from the difficulties maintaining  supply (recruitment and movement of victim recruits), demand (responding to demand variations around the world, e.g., see the crackdown against sex tourism), competition (i.e., other sources of the services provided by trafficking victims, such as local (non-trafficked) prostitution and illegal labor), and regulators (law, police, and border control authorities).  So police are only one of the multiple pressures needed to be placed on human trafficking enterprises.

These pressures are confounded by the problem of trying to explain the very high estimates of human trafficking victims against the many fewer cases discovered by actual police investigations.   It seems that either we are doing a terrible job of finding victims—(which is unlikely given growing investigation and  prosecution efforts globally) — or else the very large estimates are not simply not accurate.  The worst thing that could happen is that the public becomes cynical about the importance and seriousness of human trafficking, when it sees extremely high estimates of human trafficking victim, while law enforcement is able to find far fewer actual human trafficking cases.  It sends a mixed message.

Perhaps an alternate approach is needed.  Are our current efforts reducing the size of the pool of individuals at high-risk of being trafficked (given what we’ve learned from known cases)?  This seems to me to be the ultimate goal of our anti-human-trafficking efforts: reducing the pool of potential victims.

Jay S. Albanese is a criminologist and Professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is author of the book “Transnational Crime and the 21st Century: Criminal Enterprise, Corruption, and Opportunity” (Oxford University Press 2011). His essay Deciphering the Linkages between Organized Crime and Transnational Crime can be found in the latest issue of the Journal of International Affairs.

Kathryn Farr, Portland State University

Law enforcement is necessary but not sufficient for dealing effectively with the human trafficking problem.

The U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) commits to three anti-trafficking goals: prevention, protection and prosecution.  Some suggest that we have put too much emphasis on prosecution and law enforcement more generally.  In particular, the U.S. government has focused much of its anti-trafficking effort on securing our borders (particularly that with Mexico).  In fact, federal anti-trafficking activity is situated in the Department of Homeland Security and carried out largely through the Department’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arm.

I agree with those who call for greater attention to prevention, for example, by reducing demand for illegal sexual services and exploitative migrant labor, or through immigration reform that provides better and safer migration opportunities. Protection efforts should also be intensified, for instance, training officers and service staff to better identify trafficking victims, and providing victims with vital social, economic and legal services.

Additionally, I would like to see more government effort to combat human trafficking into labor sectors other than the sex industry. The cross-border trafficking of persons from poorer countries into forced and enslaved domestic, factory and agricultural labor in the U.S. is a sizable problem that is often minimized in the current discourse on human trafficking.

Kathryn Farr is a Professor Emerita of sociology at Portland State University, and author of the book “Sex Trafficking: The Global Market in Women and Children” (Worth Publishers 2005).

Sara Elizabeth Dill

Law enforcement historically has been the greatest impediment to combating human trafficking.  Any efforts to reduce human trafficking must be multi-faceted, looking at criminal justice, immigration, economics, and politics, while also focusing on eliminating demand.  Take away the profits, make the risk vs. benefit equation unpalatable for traffickers, and you end human trafficking.

As to economics, many women who “willingly” enter into prostitution do so either because they are coerced or tricked, or because the economic situation in their country leaves them with no other option.  Individuals in forced labor hesitate to complain because the job they have, even if it is no better than slavery, is still better than the options in their home country.

Countering human trafficking also requires an international approach.  While domestic trafficking in the US has grown exponentially in recent years, international efforts must still be made.  Harsh sentences, fines, and required standards and oversight of businesses around the world are a must.

Finally, law enforcement and immigration must alter the way in which they view and treat victims.  Victims of modern day slavery require extensive treatment, resources, and rehabilitation.  They should not face criminal charges or the threat of deportation.  Social service providers and members of the community need to be involved every step of the way, as victims rarely trust anyone in the government.  We must protect victims and give them the help they require.

Sara Elizabeth Dill is a founding partner in the Chicago and Miami offices of the Law Offices of Sara Elizabeth Dill. She is currently serving as the co-chair of the American Bar Association Criminal Justice Section’s Immigration Committee. Her latest article is “Human Trafficking: A Decade’s Track Record, Plus Techniques for Prosecutors and Police Moving Forward” Criminal Justice, Spring 2011.

Jonathan Todres, Georgia State University

Human trafficking is a severe violation of human rights and human dignity, and perpetrators must be held accountable. However, a law enforcement response typically takes place after the harm has occurred. In addition to supporting law enforcement, we need to focus on developing law, policy, and programs that can prevent the harm from occurring in the first place.

To reduce the prevalence of human trafficking, all sectors of society have a role to play—not just law enforcement. The health care and education sectors provide meaningful opportunities for early intervention and prevention. The private sector—including the media, manufacturers and retailers, the tourism industry, the transportation industry, and others—also has an important role to play.  Survivors of human trafficking and vulnerable communities must also be involved in developing responses to this problem.

Relying on law enforcement to address the problem on its own is to ask the impossible. The criminal justice system is not designed to address the root causes of the problem, and expecting law enforcement to do this is unfair to them and to victims of human trafficking. Law enforcement isn’t designed to address why certain individuals are vulnerable or what underlies the demand for exploited labor. A comprehensive effort that engages all sectors of society is the only way we will prevent these crimes from occurring.

Jonathan Todres is an Associate Professor of Law at Georgia State University College of Law. He specializes in children rights and has written numerous articles on the trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation of children. He is also the co-editor of “U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child: An Analysis of Treaty Provisions and Implications of U.S. Ratification” (Brill Academic Publishers 2006). 

Anne T. Gallagher

Nobody who understands how human trafficking works would seriously argue that law enforcement should be the sole, or even primary, strategy of attack. Exploitation has built our world and continues to drive global economic growth. To imagine that we are solving a problem as complex, widespread and deep-seated as this, simply by prosecuting a derisory proportion of those who exploit their fellow human beings for profit, is both foolish and dangerous. It is also very convenient because it distracts from the real reasons that trafficking is flourishing unchecked in just about every country on earth: our society’s voracious demand for cheap goods, cheap labor and cheap sex, for example; or the fact that many governments and major corporations reap significant financial benefits from trafficking-related exploitation. Closer to home, it allows us to avoid personal responsibility for our own behavior and consumption.

However, rejecting law enforcement as the sole solution to trafficking is not the same as rejecting law enforcement altogether. Human trafficking, like domestic violence and other personal assaults, is a serious crime: committed by real criminals against real people. My experiences on the front line of law enforcement have convinced me that a strong, even aggressive criminal justice response is an essential part of the solution. That response should not be held to ransom by those with different or broader agendas such as the elimination of prostitution. Its goal should be to curb the impunity of exploiters and secure justice for victims; it should be grounded in respect for human rights for the rule of law; it should seek to complement and reinforce broader efforts to protect victims and prevent future exploitation. This is a difficult crime to investigate and prosecute and the risk of getting things wrong is very high. But we have to try. Those who have been trafficked deserve at least that much respect.

Anne Gallagher (@AnneTGallagher) has been recognized by the US State Department as the leading global expert on the international law of human trafficking. From 1998 to 2002 she served as special adviser on trafficking to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and in that capacity was involved in developing the new legal framework around this issue. Since 2003 she has led the world’s largest criminal justice intervention against human trafficking, involving all ten Member States of the Association of South East Asian Nations. Dr. Gallagher holds a PhD from Utrecht University and is the author of the award-winning book: “The International Law of Human Trafficking.”

Laura Sundblad, Columbia University

While stronger law enforcement is absolutely necessary in order to raise the perceived risk of engaging in human trafficking, law enforcement must be coupled with other measures in order to address the root causes of the problem. The enabling conditions for human trafficking need to be eliminated in both source and destination countries and regions, which often overlap.

In source countries and regions, this entails overall improvements in living standards through investments into education, health, job creation, and social protection, particularly for the most vulnerable parts of the population. In addition, targeted approaches are needed to both protect potential victims and to inform them of the risks associated with online ads and other sites of trafficking activity. As California’s statistics show that 72 percent of human trafficking victims identified by California’s task forces are American, these measures are needed in the US as much as anywhere else.

In destination countries and regions, combatting the demand for trafficked humans requires a greater awareness of the scope of the problem. Part of the process of bringing human trafficking into the spotlight is to eliminate the stigmatization of trafficking victims. Law enforcement officers also need training and monitoring in supporting and protecting trafficking victims instead of revictimizing them. In the case of labor trafficking, we have to address the fact that the low prices of the goods and services we consume are unsustainable and rely at least partly on a coerced workforce – in other words, slavery.

Overall, reducing human trafficking requires us to truly value and cherish each human life and to commit to protecting those who are most vulnerable.

Laura Sundblad is a first-year student pursuing a Master of Public Administration degree at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

Jaclyn Schettler, Columbia University

Prosecuting traffickers, “johns,” and others who benefit from modern day slavery is important because it deters people from committing those crimes, prevents criminals from repeating them, and provides a measure of justice for those who have been trafficked. But even though law enforcement alone may reduce human trafficking, it will not eliminate it since it ignores the root causes of the problem.

In addition to facing violence and intimidation from traffickers, victims over age 18 often face criminal charges for prostitution, as well as prosecution and deportation (based on immigration status). In this way, law enforcement actually harms the trafficked person by penalizing them for actions they were forced to take. In the U.S. and among international bodies, we must work to reduce stigma and, in particular, ensure that there are no repercussions — legal or otherwise — for those who report these crimes. Many countries, including the U.S., have implemented policies that improve the treatment of persons who have been trafficked; this is a step in the right direction.

Human trafficking flourishes in areas of high poverty, low economic opportunity, gender inequality, conflict and post-conflict societies and in places where there is corruption or weak rule of law. Traffickers frequently target those in search of jobs, or safety and stability. Trafficked persons are often promised work abroad, but arrive at a destination country and are forced into servitude.

In addition to law enforcement and international collaboration on anti-trafficking measures, we need to empower communities to stop trafficking. These efforts must involve economic development and poverty alleviation, increasing opportunities for women and girls, decreasing gender inequality and gender-based violence, as well as ensuring access to information on prevention and support to those who have been trafficked.

Jaclyn Shettler graduated from Columbia University in 2010, with a degree in Human Rights. She currently resides in Washington, D.C. and works in human development.

This post of The Great Debate was compiled by  Rachael Levy, Krisztian Simon, Eric Smyth and Ariel Stulberg.