LONDON — From the global underworld of human trafficking came stories of modern-day slavery: prostitutes from Eastern Europe with barcodes tattooed to their arms to signify ownership by pimps in New York; Nepalese men kept inside storage containers and forced to work as bonded labor in Dubai; and Indian girls, some as young as eight, trapped in a labyrinth of brothels with padlocked cages in Mumbai.
But at a two-day conference on ending human trafficking here, the emphasis was less focused on the dark tales of victims and more about inspiring stories of survivors who have struggled for freedom and who’ve joined a movement to fight on many fronts against the human trafficking networks that once enslaved them.
The conference brought together survivors of trafficking, human rights groups, prosecutors, lawyers, activists and journalists all dedicated to exposing the depth of the global problem and to finding effective legal strategies to go after shadowy and profitable human trafficking networks around the world.
“One of the biggest myths is that human trafficking doesn’t happen in the US,” said Minh Dang, was sold as a child into prostitution by her parents in the US. She now lives in San Francisco where she a consultant on human trafficking issues and getting a master’s degree in social welfare at the University of California, Berkeley.
“I want to reframe the debate from stories of survival to stories of freedom,” said Dang, who was recently recognized by the White House as a ‘Champion of Change’ for her work on ending human trafficking.
She described a growing survivor network in the US and emphasized the importance of survivors uniting and taking leadership roles in ending trafficking.
Titled “Trust Women: Putting the Rule of Law Behind Women’s Rights,” the conference was organized by the Thompson Reuters Foundation and the International New York Times. Some 200 organizations and delegates from more than 40 countries gathered to share experiences, forge bonds and devise new strategies aimed at ending human trafficking and committing to the advancement of women’s rights around the world.
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. outlined a new initiative in New York dedicated to fighting human trafficking. The initiative has created a financial intelligence unit that is working with various law enforcement agencies to identify the money trail with an aim toward seizing the financial assets of human traffickers. That, he said, means employing the same tools prosecutors have used for decades against other corrupt organizations, such as the Italian mafia and drug cartels.
“We seek to dismantle the entire criminal enterprise from beginning to end,” said Vance, pointing to a dramatic crackdown on prostitution by stepping up the prosecution of the johns who are paying for the services as well as the livery drivers who are involved in transporting the women and the hotels and apartment complexes that cater to the business. The goal is to ultimately get at the vast, secretive supply chains that bring women and men as prostitutes and bonded labor from Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe.
Human trafficking is estimated to be a $32 billion-a-year enterprise that preys on the vulnerable and the disenfranchised through fear and violence. The industry thrives amid huge gaps in international law and what activists say is a distinct lack of commitment — plus often corruption and complicity — in too many countries where the supply chains for human trafficking are booming.
Martina Vandenberg, founder and president of the Washington-based Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center, said that her organization was expanding its pool of pro bono lawyers who are going after traffickers by pursuing lawsuits on behalf of survivors of trafficking.
Vandenberg said an estimated 21 million people have been trafficked and held in forced labor around the world. But she said that only 47,000 victims had been identified and that there were fewer than 7,500 prosecutions for human trafficking. Of those, there were only 1,500 prosecutions for forced labor.
“Why is there so little focus on prosecution?” she asked a group of panelists at the conference.
Manhattan DA Vance answered, saying, “Most governments do not have this as a priority. The cases are complex, and there has not been the will to take the cases on… We need to find that will.”