Several weeks ago, I rode in a Toyota Qualis to a small conference center just outside of Bangalore, India to interview several former slaves. There were 77 people staying there– men, women and children– all of them recently freed from bondage in a brick kiln in Bangalore. All were to return to their homes, small villages in Orissa, nearly 400 miles to the north, within a couple of days. All had come to Bangalore months or years earlier with the promise of work, many bringing their wives and children with them, others leaving their families behind and promising to send their earnings home. But there would be no earnings to send.
Exiting the Quails, I was led up a stairway to an open meeting place. The victims were all gathered together in a large group, sitting on the floor and listening to instructions from the social workers who worked for the organization that had helped to rescue them. Small children clung to their mothers’ saris, and the men were gathered around one of the social workers, speaking Tamil. They had the deeply tanned complexion of rural workers who spend their days in the sun; most of the men had moustaches and wore lungis, a traditional southern Indian garment that resembles a long kilt. Most were likely from working castes, which are positions in Indian hierarchy based on the Hindu religion. Caste discrimination has been illegal in India since its independence, but it still subtly pervades much of society. It is people like these who are most often victims of human trafficking and modern slavery.
After everyone had eaten, I asked a social worker about interviewing one of the men. I’d been assigned by the NGO I work for to do an interview and thereafter prepare a short press release which would eventually be used to raise awareness among Indian government officials about forced labor. They led me to a young man named Achal. He was tall and handsome, and very articulate. Achal was 25 years old and had lived most of his life in a small village in Orissa. Over time, he found it difficult to support himself by working the land his family had farmed for generations. This is not uncommon; as India has developed economically, it has begun to shift from an agrarian to a service-based economy. Farmers increasingly find themselves unable to support their families by working their land alone, and large numbers are migrating to cities such as Mumbai and Bangalore. Achal was one of these workers, and he came to Bangalore and found work in a brick kiln, eventually bringing his young wife to help him with the work.
The owner of this particular brick kiln was from what is traditionally seen to be a higher caste. He also had many powerful friends in Bangalore. As Achal worked for the owner, he increasingly found his freedoms restricted, and his wages shrinking from what was originally promised. Then the physical abuse began.
As Achal told me his story, I could not help but cringe at parts. Achal had been forced by the owner to recruit other workers for the kiln by offering them small loans and then asking them to work to repay the debts. When these workers began being abused, they escaped from the facility during the night, and the owner held Achal accountable for their debts. He was eventually sent back to Orissa without his wife and child to pay off their debts by working for a friend of the brick kiln owner. Achal’s wife and small child were held by the owner as insurance in case he tried to escape or to default on the debt. Desperate to raise the money and free his wife and son, Achal attempted to sell his kidney for fast cash. When his kidney was not approved, he went to the police as a last resort. Several weeks later they organized a rescue operation and pulled out the 77 victims.
Listening to Achal’s story, I was astounded. Yet his story is hardly unique. Human Rights Watch, in a 2008 study, estimated that there are 40 million people in India living in conditions of bonded labor, conditions not too dissimilar to Achal’s. And this is only in India. In Thailand, the Philippines, Cambodia, Costa Rica and countless other countries, young women are frequently kidnapped and forced to work in brothels as prostitutes. If they do not cooperate, they are beaten or their families are threatened. Nor are these problems confined to developing countries. Thousands of people are trafficked into the United States each year, often victims of elaborate deceptions that are designed to leave them powerless and dependent on their traffickers, alone and far from home. Human trafficking is now the third largest income generating activity in the world for organized crime syndicates, after trafficking of drugs and firearms.
The figures can be overwhelming, but there is hope. Organizations such as Restore NYC work to help women who have been trafficked into brothels in New York to heal from physical and emotional trauma, obtain work visas in the United States, receive job and skills training and generally rebuild their lives. Nicholas Kristof, a columnist for the New York Times, recently profiled one of Restore’s clients in his column, bringing attention to the scope and severity of a problem that exists in many American cities from New York to Toledo.
Trafficking is increasingly gaining international attention as well. In 2010 a woman named Anuradha Koirala topped CNN’s list of “Heroes of the Year,” individuals the news network identifies as “everyday people changing the world.” Koirala founded an organization called Maiti Nepal in 1993 that rescues and rehabilitates women who have been trafficked from Nepal into India to work in brothels. Maiti Nepal has helped to rescue and rehabilitate more than 12,000 Nepali women and girls since its inception 18 years ago.
But even with the myriad NGOs working against human trafficking, it is an uphill battle. Their work is vital and thousands of lives have been restored, but the problem of trafficking remains. It is currently the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world. The trafficking problem is so advanced that it would require institutions to exist in every country with special powers to investigate and disrupt trafficking crime syndicates. These organizations would have to employ thousands of professionals who worked around the clock to fight problems such as trafficking and organized crime. They would require state funding and a national, integrated network of offices in each and every country, state and district in the world.
Luckily, the organizations I am describing already exist in almost every country in the world: the police force. Though NGOs have been able to make headway in the trafficking problem, and to help rehabilitate victims, there is simply no substitute for qualified and well-trained criminal justice systems as a deterrent to human trafficking. The problem, as put forth by a human rights lawyer named Gary Haugen in a recent article in Foreign Affairs, is that public justice systems rarely protect those who are the most vulnerable in society. As Haugen notes, “Most public justice systems in the developing world have their roots in the colonial era, when their core function was to serve those in power—usually the colonial state. As the colonial powers departed, authoritarian governments frequently took their place. They inherited the public justice systems of the colonial past, which they proceeded to use to protect their own interests and power, in much the same way that their colonial predecessors had.” As he concludes, “without functioning public justice systems to deliver the protections of the law to the poor, the legal reforms of the modern human rights movement rarely improve the lives of those who need them most.”
But this is not cause for cynicism. In 2005, with a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, the NGO that Haugen founded in order to help develop public justice systems, International Justice Mission (IJM), partnered with the metropolitan police department in Cebu, Philippines on a project to develop the capacity of the Cebu police to combat forced prostitution within its city limits. The initiative, called Project Lantern, consisted of a simple strategy: to provide local police with training and resources to identify cases of forced prostitution, safely conduct operations to rescue victims, and to prosecute the perpetrators of trafficking under existing statutes in the Philippine legal code.
Beginning in 2006, Crime and Justice Analysts (CJA), a research and evaluation firm specializing in crime and criminal justice issues, began an independent study to test the effectiveness of Project Lantern. At the end of four years, CJA found a 79% decrease in the availability of minors for sex in commercial sex establishments and street-based prostitution. The study confirmed that investment in criminal justice systems can have a direct impact in the lives of victims – 225 sex trafficking victims have been rescued over the course of the project. Furthermore, a well functioning police system can act as a powerful deterrent for future criminals. Eighty-seven suspected traffickers have been arrested over the course of the project, and 2010 saw landmark convictions of two trafficking ringleaders. Criminals in Cebu are thinking twice before they kidnap and victimize young women.
All of this should add up to a message of cautious hope. Victims of modern day slavery can be rescued and trafficking itself can be curbed. We simply need the political will to invest in criminal justice systems, which, when given proper resources, have shown a remarkable ability to shut down human trafficking, rescue victims and prevent future abuse. Criminal justice systems exist in every country in the world, they are simply in need of attention. To address trafficking, we do not need to reinvent the wheel; we simply need to fix it.