As “National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month” draws to a close, it is a fitting time to reflect on how far we have come and where we need to focus our future efforts. I am also thankful for the many valuable experiences that have shaped me and led me to serving as the Ambassador-at-Large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.
When I started my anti-trafficking career more than 16 years ago, I took a job with International Justice Mission to pioneer its labor trafficking work in India. This was a big gamble for my family. My wife and I had a young daughter at the time, and we were expecting our second child. We believed the risk was worth it if we wanted to make a difference – we had to take the chance.
For the first time in my life, I witnessed how human traffickers exploit people and devastate communities. I spent time with survivors, heard their stories, and realized how much our families have in common. The importance of faith-based groups, civil society, and governments providing individualized care to victims became clear. I came to truly understand how the crime of human trafficking denies the inherent dignity of individuals and how combating traffickers affirms the value of all people.
After three years in India, I returned to the United States and began work as a federal prosecutor in the Justice Department’s Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit. As I traveled the country trying labor and sex trafficking cases, I was keenly aware of the similarity across continents of human trafficking schemes and the reality that traffickers operate with impunity. Even with anti-trafficking laws in place, there is little chance of criminal or civil accountability. These profitable illegal operations thrive in a virtually risk-free environment. With the growing awareness of the communities where these crimes took place and the seeds of hope that grow as survivors recover, I became more convinced than ever that we might really be able to stop traffickers from exploiting others.
Even after more than a decade at the Justice Department, those early lessons in India continued to inform what I believe is necessary to fight this crime globally. For that reason, I co-founded the Human Trafficking Institute to build the capacity of police and prosecutors in other countries to use victim-centered and trauma-informed methods to hold traffickers accountable and ensure survivors are treated with respect and care. These layers of experiences have helped me to better understand the crime.
The immense scope and challenge that human trafficking presents can often leave people with a sense of frustration, hopelessness, or awareness fatigue. Yet human trafficking is not inevitable. It is not a natural disaster that we are powerless to stop. There are good reasons for practical hope.
- Every country in the world now has some sort of law that addresses human trafficking;
- Strategies to improve criminal justice systems’ enforcement of anti-trafficking laws have shown strong initial results despite the overall low rate of global prosecutions;
- We have learned some best practices in survivor care, including not penalizing victims for unlawful acts their traffickers compelled them to commit, providing options for them to remain in the country, and ensuring their access to trauma-informed services;
- Survivor advocates, who understand traffickers and their victims, are taking up leadership in this movement;
- Awareness campaigns, educational programs, and other prevention efforts have better focused stakeholders on the issue of human trafficking;
- Governments and the private sector are increasingly interested in preventing human trafficking by eliminating forced labor from their supply chains;
- Governments also can work to stop the importation of goods made with forced labor; and
- Partnerships between faith-based organizations, civil society groups, businesses, and governments are growing.
It is upon this promising foundation that we must turn to the challenges that remain. The millions of people currently enduring exploitation need more than just our good intentions. Much more must be done. In this fight, we must improve rigorous data collection, research, and program evaluation. The desire for quick fixes and one-size-fits-all strategies must give way to long-term, strategic approaches that generate measurable impact. Our growing understanding of the interconnected challenges of this crime can help us better stop the traffickers who prey on others and take pragmatic steps to combat human trafficking. I’m humbled to have the opportunity to serve as Ambassador and to join so many talented colleagues who are dedicated to combating human trafficking.
President Theodore Roosevelt challenged us to contend in the arena for a worthy cause. Freedom is a goal for which we should dare greatly and embrace the challenges ahead. As we near the 20th year of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, we can acknowledge how far we have come and how much we have learned about human trafficking. These experiences will form the stepping stones to future success.
About the Author: John Cotton Richmond serves as Ambassador-at-Large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons at the U.S. Department of State.