Conflict & Justice

What does human trafficking look like today? How do we stop it?

This story is a part of

Seeking Security

This story is a part of

Seeking Security

The wide-spread practice of forcing individuals — many who are very young — to toil in garment factories or on 21st century plantations and to use their bodies for the sexual pleasure of others is a global problem, and it is finally being acknowledged as such.

Over the summer, I covered a two-day symposium of world-wide mayors on modern day slavery and climate change that was convened by Pope Francis at the Vatican.

Shortly after arriving to the meeting, the Pope’s first gesture was to embrace two women who spoke at the conference about how they had been forced into prostitution. The Pontiff called on the mayors to do all they can on the local level to end this scourge.

Action against human trafficking is also being called for on the national level in the US.

In a speech before human rights activists in 2012, President Barack Obama used the term “modern slavery” to describe the trafficking of people for sex or forced labor; a multibillion-dollar worldwide criminal-enterprise that is well organized and operates mostly undercover.

Two years ago I reported on this “Underground Trade” for WGBH Boston public radio.

The multi-part investigation sought to connect the geographic and commercial dots of this enterprise to New York City and Southeast Asia. It focused heavily on survivors and those who are trying to end this illegal practice and provide justice and resources for victims. I traveled from New England to New York to Thailand to Vietnam to China’s southeast border to expose trafficking routes and venues, and to bring attention to sex and labor exploitation in areas as diverse as a bucolic Boston suburb to bustling Bangkok.

Last week I returned to Thailand and met villagers along the Thai-Myanmar border who said that the practice of forced labor is widespread in the logging industry and on plantations inside Myanmar and Thailand.

And in Cambodia, on a plantation I visited northeast of Phnom Penh, badly paid workers who live on the land told me about friends who left the area to seek a better life on fishing boats in Thailand but never came back.  Some are believed to have been killed or perished on the high seas.

Migrants around the world seeking a new life in the US, Europe and developed Asian nations are particularly vulnerable. Many become indebted to smugglers who play a duel role as traffickers. 

Human trafficking is fueled by poverty and displacement and abetted by many of us, often unknowingly, by rarely questioning where our fish comes from or who is painting our nails or making our clothes.

Sex tourism to Asia, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, as well as Las Vegas and New York, among many destinations, perpetuates human trafficking.

But so too are the many conditions within America’s foster care system that leaves many young adults upon turning 18 at the mercy of mean streets, long-term addictions and pimps; another word for a human trafficker.

The Forum at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health Tuesday took a closer look at this modern slave trade and its impact on public health worldwide, including in cities and rural communities across the USA. We discussed how conflict and extremism, such as that carried out by brutal groups like ISIS and Boko Haram, contribute to this modern day slave trade. Most importantly, we talk about what some are doing to end this horror, from Vietnam-based Blue Dragon to US domestic groups like GEM of New York and My Life My Choice in Boston.

Related Stories: After the floods come the human traffickers, but these girls are fighting back

The darker side of Thailand's sex industry: trafficking underage girls

The heartbreaking look of sadness and desperation on the faces of stateless Rohingyas

Human traffickers find easy prey among Myanmar's minorities