21st century slavery: What you need to know about human trafficking

With profits of at least $32 billion annually, slavery is the second-most profitable criminal enterprise on Earth

Most Americans — including many law enforcement officers — believe slavery in America disappeared with the passage of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1865. 

But make no mistake — slavery still exists in all 50 states. 

In fact, slavery exists in virtually every country in the world. Today, an estimated 21 to 29 million women, children, and men are enslaved worldwide, and the profits are at least $32 billion annually, making slavery the second-most profitable criminal enterprise (behind the drug trade).

Two Primary Documents
The global and domestic response to modern slavery (more-commonly referred to as human trafficking) can be traced to the beginning of the 21st century when two important documents were created. The first was the United Nations’ Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children. Ratified in 2000, the Palermo Protocol has since been signed by more than 150 countries. 

The second document — the one which is more pertinent to American law enforcement — is the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), passed by the U.S. Congress the same year. Both of these documents addressed the worldwide concern that slavery — thought by many to be a thing of the past — was actually flourishing in many parts of the world, and in many heinous forms.

The TVPA addressed many aspects of human trafficking — including the creation of new criminal laws — creating new forms of immigration relief for foreign-national human trafficking victims who are discovered in the United States, and perhaps most importantly, defined human trafficking.

Two Definitions for Trafficking
The TVPA defines “severe” forms of trafficking slightly differently for labor and sexual exploitation: 

•    Labor trafficking is defined as “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage or slavery.“

•    Commercial sex exploitation is defined as “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person forced to perform such an act is under the age of eighteen years old.”

Understanding the federal definitions is important since most states’ laws on human trafficking are modeled on the TVPA, and today all 50 states have their own anti-human trafficking laws. That said, not every state has the exact same definition and many states regularly update their laws. Every law enforcement professional should be aware of their specific state’s laws regarding human trafficking.

On a global scale, slavery in human trafficking can take on many forms including: 

•    child soldiers
•    bonded labor, where the laborer is indebted to the employer and is working to repay his debt
•    chattel slavery, where a person is “owned” by another person, who buys, uses, and sells them just like any other piece of property 

It is a sobering thought that within the United States, all of these forms of human trafficking have been identified, with the exception of children soldiers. Incidents of human trafficking have been found in all 50 states.  

In my next article, I’ll discuss tools and techniques that police can use to identify and prosecute traffickers, and provide assistance to human trafficking victims.

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