Ambassador Mark Lagon serves as Director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.
Every day, all over the world, people are coerced into bonded labor, exploited in domestic servitude, and enslaved in agricultural work and in factories. The majority of transnational victims are females trafficked into prostitution.
We estimate that approximately 800,000 people are trafficked internationally each year; millions more are enslaved in their own countries. Approximately eighty percent are women and girls, and up to half are minors.
In 2000, the U.S. Congress passed, and the President signed, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), which created the office I now head. This legislation legally defines ‘severe forms of human trafficking in persons' as involving ‘force, fraud, or coercion.'
‘Trafficking in persons' and even ‘human trafficking' are jargon terms—trafficking is not chiefly about moving people across borders. Trafficking involves extreme exploitation and control (such as through debt bondage). It is truly a modern-day form of slavery. It shouldn't be regulated; it must be abolished.
Part of our Congressional mandate is to produce the annual Trafficking in Persons Report every June. The report spells out what countries around the world are doing on the three "P” approach: prosecution, protection, and prevention, and what more can be done together between the United States and other countries on all three fronts.
Countries are ranked into "tiers” based on efforts to implement the three "P” approach for the elimination of human trafficking. Prosecution includes passing comprehensive anti-trafficking legislation and criminal, not just civil, prosecutions of traffickers. Protection includes identifying, protecting, and assisting victims, as well as encouraging government and NGO cooperation. Prevention includes raising public awareness and training law enforcement and first-responders.
Human trafficking is a gross human rights crime that steals peoples' freedom and dignity. The report is an invaluable tool in drawing the world's attention to the existence of modern-day slavery.
In the last five years, over 100 countries have passed new laws or amended existing law to toughen penalties for human trafficking. Thousands of criminals around the world are now prosecuted when, just five years ago, only a handful wound up in jail.
We also work diplomatically with foreign governments to encourage progress in combating trafficking and manage anti-trafficking funds. In FY 2007, the USG spent approximately $74 million to fund 154 anti-trafficking projects in about 70 countries.
In my role as Ambassador, I engage diplomatically with representatives of foreign governments here in Washington and abroad. In my 10 month tenure, I have traveled to East Asia, India, the Middle East, Russia, Central Europe, three regions of Africa, and Mexico twice.
I also regularly meet and collaborate regularly with representatives of the NGO community; I brief Members of Congress on issues related to trafficking; and I work with colleagues in the State Department to ensure that sex trafficking and slave labor are given proper consideration in our larger foreign policy calculations.
While there are successes and defeats in any worthy endeavor, I need only think of the exploited, abused and brutalized individuals I have met in my travels around the globe, whenever the work we are engaged in seems daunting. As survivors they are inspiring. And we are tangibly helping people reclaim their dignity.
On my first trip to Southeast Asia, I met Aye Aye Win, a young Burmese woman who dared to search for work beyond her own tortured country. A recruiter painted a beautiful picture of work in a neighboring country. Aye Aye assumed substantial debt to cover up-front costs required by the recruiter for this job placement.
Together with some 800 Burmese migrants, many children, Aye Aye was "placed” in a shrimp farming and processing factory. But it wasn't a job. It was a prison camp.
The isolated 10-acre factory was surrounded by steel walls, 15 feet tall with barbed wire fencing, located in the middle of a coconut plantation far from roads. Workers weren't allowed to leave and were forbidden phone contact with any one outside. They lived in run-down wooden huts, with hardly enough to eat.
Aye Aye is a brave, daring soul. She tried to escape with three other women. But factory guards caught them and dragged them back to the camp. They were punished as an example to others, tied to poles in the middle of the courtyard, and refused food or water. Aye Aye told me how her now beautiful hair was shaved off as another form of punishment, to stigmatize her. And how she was beaten for trying to flee.
Beaten. Tortured. Starved. Humiliated. Is this not slavery??
Naturally, the question arises, what can you do to fight modern day slavery?
Human trafficking happens right here in the United States. I chair an interagency group on fighting trafficking at home and abroad. When we ask others around the world to work with us, it is important that we speak on how we are addressing the problem. You too can keep watch for freedom. If you see signs of forced labor or commercial sexual exploitation of a child or adult in the U.S. or abroad, notify the police or call the U.S. human trafficking hotlines: 1-888-3737-888 or 1-888-428-7581 or 1-800-THE LOST or 1-866-DHS-2ICE.
You can help safeguard freedom in travel by fighting child sex tourism where predators travel to use children in prostitution. Keep vigiliant against it. And ask local travel agencies, hotels, and tour operators to sign the Code of Conduct for the Protection of Children in Travel and Tourism at www.thecode.org.
Finally, speak out about freedom. Talk to one person about modern day slavery and introduce them to our Web site at www.state.gov/g/tip, and raise the level of public awareness to this global problem.