Toward a Shared Understanding of Human Trafficking

By Sosamma Samuel-Burnett J.D.
Founder/President, G.L.O.B.A.L. Justice

January was Human Trafficking Awareness month.  But as the month wound down, and the fight against human trafficking carries on, how aware are we and what does that awareness prompt us to do?  For many the term human trafficking does not have a clear definition.  For others, the definition may be clear, but how it applies may be uncertain.  Still others either don’t understand why this issue is drawing such attention or are turned off by the topic because of its salience in certain circles.  The purpose of this article is to guide us toward a shared understanding of what constitutes human trafficking, how it impacts society locally and globally, and how we as individuals can address this injustice.

Human trafficking is an unfortunate term and a more unfortunate reality.  The concept of trafficking makes us think there is some form of transit involved.  In reality transit may or may not be at issue.   But what is at issues is usually coercion, force, duress for the purposes of exploitation.  The rather sterile term “human trafficking” has led some to prefer to call it exploitation or slavery or even modern day slavery to fully bring to light is viciousness.  Regardless of how we define the term, the key concept to understand is that human trafficking involves someone being forced in some way to engage in activities that exploit them.

Human trafficking takes many forms.  Just as there are various forms of coercion, force, and duress, there are also many forms of exploitation. Human trafficking is often equated with sexual exploitation but that form of exploitation makes up about half of the reported cases of trafficking.  The other half consists of forced labor or servitude that are also significant forms of exploitation.  Indeed, estimates indicate that as many as $36 million people around the globe are enslaved.  Understanding the full range of human trafficking concerns is not only important to understanding the issue, but also in understanding how to address the issue widely.

Human trafficking is not only a crime; it is the world’s fastest growing crime.  Traditionally, the largest scale global crimes have been arms/weapons trafficking and drug trafficking.  But human trafficking is closely behind drug trafficking with the possibility of surpassing it within the decade, perhaps making it the largest scale crime in the world in the not so distant future.  In addition, it is not an isolated crime but is rampant in most parts of the world.  This makes the issue of human trafficking a central concern for criminal justice and international enforcement, but also for society in general, regardless of the country in which we live.

Human trafficking is an economic issue that degrades human value.  Drugs are generally sold once.  Humans can be sold many times – and at potentially greater profit.  Traffickers understand the economics that drive exploitation.  In some areas a person can be bought and sold for as little as $12 a transaction, but with multiple transactions a day, over a longer period of time, these transactions are lucrative to the trafficker.  With minimal risk of enforcement, human dignity and value is replaced by the pursuit of profits.  And sadly, the greatest demand and the most voracious consumers have been Americans.  Sex trafficking alone is a $1+ billion dollar industry.

Human trafficking is a political issue that requires vigilance.  Without concerted laws, enforcement, and public support, human trafficking will not decrease.  In Western countries like England, exploitation has emerged even among government circles.  Until and unless governments stand firmly on the rule of law and the principles of human rights and human dignity, human trafficking will continue to spread locally and globally. The US has moved a step in the right direction with recent anti-trafficking legislation, but greater support and implementation of international human rights standards is also essential.  And, the recognition that human trafficking is happening not only in countries across the globe but also in our own neighborhoods is a political motivator.

Human trafficking is a social issue with underlying factors.  Since human trafficking likely exists in almost every region of the world, it leads one to wonder what are the underlying factors that make it so pervasive?  Underlying social factors are complicated.  They include the role of the family, church, culture, education, media, etc. An over sexualized society, the devaluation of the girl child and women, the increase of pedophiles, all reflect societies that are not based on broad social principles and shared perspectives of human value.  Exploitation thus reflects the society we live in.  In countries like Cambodia, sexual exploitation of children has become common place since the family and societal structures do not prioritize nor value children, especially girls.  Often it is a parent, usually a mother that sells their children into various  forms of exploitation. While some may argue that this is based on economic need, the reality is that the social structures are not protecting those who are most vulnerable.  And in societies that are more economically advanced, exploitation still exists, indicating that there is more to the story than simply having economic alternatives.  The social factors weigh heavily on whether exploitation occurs.

Human trafficking is a moral issue with special concerns.  The growing anti-trafficking movement has in particular focused on the issue of sexual exploitation and sex slavery.  Unfortunately, that focus has some critics concerned that it limits our understanding of human trafficking to only one form, and may also limit the impact on addressing these other forms through economic and political advocacy rather than moral perspectives on sex. While I agree that our concern for human trafficking shouldn’t be limited to only sexual exploitation, I don’t think the solution should be limited to economics or politics.  Morality may be our most effective means of addressing these concerns in all forms.  From a moral perspective, people are exploited when they are not recognized as human beings of inherent dignity and value.  Economics and politics help us to understand motivations for trafficking and/or methods to address the issue, but they do not adequately explain why trafficking really occurs.  Morality on the other hand focuses on what is right and what is good. Thus, even under the worst economic and political situations, people have historically and today functioned in heroic terms.  There is nothing in economic or political strife that compels one to exploit others.  Rather it is a lack of a moral grounding that allows one to exploit, and the economic and political issues just provide the circumstances for that to happen.  Although all forms of exploitation are morally unacceptable, sexual exploitation does have a distinction – the psychological and emotional scars may run deeper and more personally than the physical and mental scars of other forms of exploitation.  It may be more of a moral violation as a result.  Further, any form of exploitation against anyone is morally reprehensible, but special concern should be addressed for minors as they are among the most vulnerable in society.

Human trafficking is a spiritual issue.  Most major religions do not focus on the inherent value of the human being.  Rather they focus on the deity(ies) or nature and what humans must do to be in right stead with them.  Christianity, however, plays a distinct role in society both historically and presently.  It is a deeply personal faith that demonstrates the value of each person as reflected by the love of God for each.  A Judeo-Christian perspective has been central to human rights movements throughout the ages ranging from the slavery abolition movement, women’s rights movement, civil rights movement, etc.  And the Christian church has played a significant role in these movements, as it continues to do in the movement against human trafficking. What drives these efforts is the understanding that we all are God’s children and how we treat the least of us is how we treat God.  When individuals and societies recognize God’s love and God’s value for his creation, that translates to how they treat other men, women, and children.

Certainly human trafficking isn’t an easy concept, nor is it easy to solve.  But it has been widely recognized as wrong.   By gaining a shared understanding of human trafficking – the terms, forms, crime, economics, politics, and societal, moral, and spiritual aspects — we can also develop a commitment and an approach to addressing this wrong.  For some it may mean starting an organization or supporting an organization that rescues, advocates, or rehabilitates. For others it may mean supporting or adopting a survivor to learn, work, and grow.  Others may be most effective in sharing information about the issue through the pulpit or classroom; and still others it may be simply saying “no.”  Unlike the term human trafficking, awareness does have an element of transit – we need to carry our awareness forward to many others and in many ways for the months and years ahead.  Only then can we not only share an understanding, but reach an end to this evil.