MANILA - Delegates from 20 Asia-Pacific nations and the United States gathered here recently to build a strategy for combating a modern manifestation of slavery - the growing trade in human beings.
At this three-day conference, we heard about Asian villages where few girls remained. They had been taken by traffickers who had lured, abducted or bought the children for sale to brothels or into forced labor. We heard about Chinese women who had been promised modeling jobs in Italy, but ended up in brothels in Mongolia. We heard about women who managed to escape their captors, only to see their families terrorized by the very same criminals, demanding payment of their victims' ''debts.''
Trafficking in people is not just an Asian problem. In the past decade, the international trade in human beings, particularly women and children, has reached epidemic proportions. No country is immune. Economic crises and regional instability, combined with increasingly open borders, have created a fertile environment for traffickers.
Each year, an estimated 700,000 to 1 million women and children are shipped across national boundaries and sold into modern-day slavery. About 50,000 of them are brought into the United States for sexual servitude, domestic servitude, bonded sweatshop labor and other debt bondage.
Trafficking in humans is, first and foremost, a human rights issue. But it is also a transnational crime issue, a socioeconomic issue and a public health issue.
Trafficking is a transnational crime issue because organized criminal enterprises that have flourished in the aftermath of the Cold War find trafficking in people a relatively easy and low-risk enterprise. They are sometimes abetted by corrupt government officials. The international trade in human beings is a major source of revenue for organized crime. The profits earned from it feed back into the other illicit activities of organized crime.
Human trafficking is a socioeconomic issue because severe poverty and the relative powerlessness of women in many developing countries make for an endless supply of potential victims.
There are also problems with repatriating victims after they have escaped or been rescued. Some cannot safely go home because they would face ostracism for 'dishonoring' their families or because their families sold them into slavery in the first place. Too often, victims continue to face the threat of violence and death from their traffickers.
Human trafficking is a public health issue because it exacerbates the spread of HIV/AIDS, hepatitis-C and other infectious diseases. In many rural villages in Nepal, for example, one can find young women and girls who were sold into prostitution in India, contracted AIDS, were discarded by their captors and returned home to die. Many former victims desperately need crisis counseling services, which often are not available.
The U.S. government strategy for combating this trafficking includes educating the public, assisting the victims, protecting the vulnerable and apprehending the perpetrators. The administration is working with Congress to pass an effective bill that provides severe punishment for traffickers and protection for the victims, including medical treatment, shelter, and the opportunity to become legal residents of the United States in some cases.
However, that bill must not, as some have proposed, inflict mandatory economic sanctions on countries that are perceived as doing too little to combat trafficking. That would be counterproductive. It could require the U.S. to impose sanctions on as many as two-thirds of the world's governments. It would not end trafficking; instead, it would foster a climate of suspicion and distrust and cripple the important work of nongovernment organizations on behalf of victims in many parts of the world.
Advocates for trafficking victims in many developing countries have urged Washington not to punish their governments but to target organized criminal elements that traffic women and children.
Regional approaches to ending human trafficking are also needed. At the meeting in Manila, government representatives, international organizations and nongovernmental organizations came together to develop an action plan to combat trafficking from, to, and within the Asia-Pacific region.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has already drafted an action plan for Europe. It has begun implementing projects to increase NGO support, mount public awareness campaigns and work with legislatures on stronger laws. Other regional organizations have also started to turn their attention to human trafficking.
Most importantly, there must be a coordinated, concerted global push to end the trade in human beings. Adoption of the UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime and its Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, is a vital step. This treaty, now being negotiated, will help source, transit and destination countries hunt down and severely punish traffickers, assist victims in rebuilding their lives and educate woman and children about the dangers of trafficking.
No one country has the power to eradicate this scourge. The transnational character of human trafficking demands that all nations work together in an aggressive effort to end this barbaric assault on human rights and human dignity.
Anita Botti is deputy director of the U.S. President's Interagency Council on Women and a member of the U.S. Interagency Taskforce on Trafficking in Women and Children. She contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.
Copyright 2000 IHT