About the Author: Ambassador Mark P. Lagon is Senior Advisor to the Secretary of State and Director of the U.S. Department of State’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.
As Ambassador-at-Large to combat human trafficking, I have focused on how human beings are degraded and devalued by others in raising awareness of the human trafficking problem with foreign governments. The world is slowly recognizing that women, children, and migrants are particularly vulnerable to the trap of human trafficking. Often overlooked, however, are the millions of vulnerable minorities around the world, ensnared in forced labor and commercial sex.
Some societies treat minorities as disposable. Indeed it is a sad fact that they are not recognized as human beings of equal value which allows victims to be enslaved as sadistic and greedy exploiters go unpunished.
For example, stateless people are invisible people at high risk of trafficking due to their marginalized political status, lack of economic opportunities, and poverty. Take the stateless Vietnamese in Cambodia. Vietnamese women and girls in Cambodia are dehumanized by sex traffickers—and their status as a stateless minority leaves them with few rights, if any. They are bought and sold as commodities and subject to daily violence by pimps who sell them and culpable buyers alike.
Take the Roma who live throughout Europe. Many Roma—especially children, disabled, and elderly— are trafficked from Eastern Europe and the Balkans to Western European capitals to work as street beggars, for example. They are beaten and threatened if they do not make a daily quota. Too often people and governments ignore this very real exploitation because they did not look at what is behind the “beggars,” imagining the coerced trafficking victim is a lazy vagabond.
Other cases reinforce the important fact that human trafficking is not necessarily about movement, transportation, or crossing borders. While it may involve those things, it is defined by force, fraud, and coercion and the exploitation which results.
The largest population of human trafficking victims in the world is a minority that rarely crosses borders: lower castes in South Asia. The number of human trafficking victims in India dwarfs the number anywhere else in the world. Kevin Bales of Free the Slaves estimates that 20 million slaves are in India alone, many victims because they are of lower caste. In particular, the use of debt—often reinforced by violence—enslaves lower caste people in situations ranging from making bricks to weaving carpets to selling sweets in stalls on city streets.
I’ve talked with survivors in Tamil Nadu, an especially poor state in India. Many in bonded labor, some sexually exploited, have rights to freedom under a 32-year-old Indian law. Yet the federal and local political will to rescue them from exploitation does not match the commitment on paper.
I have also met with the champion of Uyghur Muslim rights in China, Rebiya Kadeer, who was jailed for speaking truth to power. She and U.S-funded, but independently operated, Radio Free Asia have reported that Uyghur Muslims have been relocated under force, which makes them human trafficking victims. Conveniently, Kadeer says, many of those trafficked are women of child-bearing age to reduce the Uyghur complexion of Xinjiang.
There are many other examples, such as indigenous peoples like the Amerindians in Guyana or the Twa/Batwa pygmies in Central Africa. Even here in the United States, I have seen in my work how minorities are particularly vulnerable to being trafficked, and am encouraged by our efforts to protect them.
From the Department of Justice’s prosecutions of traffickers, to the Department of Homeland Security’s new regulation to provide a pathway to citizenship for qualified trafficking visa recipients, to the recent reauthorization of our anti-trafficking law, we are offering a model for the world by protecting society’s most vulnerable. When we urge other nations to do more, we have best practices to share with them.
Worldwide, in order to eradicate today’s form of slavery, the best laws and efforts to implement them will depend on seeing minorities as fellow human beings—worthy of dignity, demanding protection, deserving justice.