Most of us have heard of human trafficking, but few realize the extent of the problem. Human trafficking is a crime involving the exploitation of someone for the purposes of compelled labor or a commercial sex act through the use of force, fraud, or coercion. It is a crime that occurs in the most remote regions of the world and those closest to home, even in the small town of Dalton, Georgia where I grew up – just two months ago, two brothers from Dalton were charged with child sex trafficking involving at least five young girls.
In this year’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, we have documented cases of men forced to work long hours on boats far from shore in the fishing industry, LGBTI youth exploited in sex trafficking schemes, and whole families that toil each day in charcoal production and in brick kilns.
In dedicating my years as a federal prosecutor to bringing human traffickers to justice, I worked closely with the survivors of those crimes who participated in the trials. Their voices and strength continue to drive my work as Ambassador-at-Large. The Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons leads the U.S. Department of State’s global engagement on human trafficking and supports the coordination of anti-trafficking efforts across the U.S. government.
Each year, the Department produces the TIP Report, the result of extensive research and analysis by staff in Washington and U.S. embassies around the world, informed by our engagement with foreign officials, NGOs, faith groups, experts, and international organizations. This year, the introduction to the TIP Report is focused on prosecutions of human traffickers. The total number of worldwide convictions reported by governments in 2016 still pales in comparison to the size of the problem as a whole. With more than 20 million estimated trafficking victims around the world and fewer than 15,000 prosecutions and 10,000 convictions reported by governments, we clearly have much more work to do.
The pursuit of justice through prosecution is critical in the fight against human trafficking. So you will see recommendations throughout the TIP Report to encourage countries not only to increase prosecutions, but also to prescribe and impose sentences severe enough to deter others from engaging in this criminal activity.
At the same time, we urge all governments to put in place or strengthen protections for victims, especially so they are not penalized for crimes committed as a direct result of their exploitation. Prosecuting victims for crimes committed as a direct result of being subjected to human trafficking compounds their exploitation and results in further harm. In cases in which trafficking victims, either adults or children, have records for crimes committed as a result of being subjected to trafficking, such records should be vacated or expunged.
Human trafficking cases are among the most important cases governments can undertake. While governments can never fully reverse the trauma of human trafficking, they can help survivors seek the justice they deserve and return to a life of their choosing, a life with dignity and free will.