Contemporary Human Trafficking: Extent of the Challenge
Slightly more than two centuries after Parliament of the United Kingdom prohibited slave trade in 1807—which essentially marked the onset of global efforts at eliminating that scourge—the world is still confronting its offshoot in the form of human trafficking. One cannot but agree that it is “the crime that shames us all today,” as Antonio Maria Costa—former Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC)—put it in a foreword to UNODC’s two reports on human trafficking, released in 2006 and 2009, respectively.
Human trafficking has an elaborate internationally agreed definition that is contained in the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children—also known as the Human Trafficking Protocol—that supplements the 2000 UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime.[i] The very complexity of the definition would indicate that the international community knows much about human trafficking. This, however, is not the case. This section will explore what we really know about the issue.
Human trafficking is believed to affect all countries in the world, though in different ways. Countries are generally divided into three categories: origin, transit, and destination. Affluent countries generally stand as the destination for the trafficking of individuals that originated in poorer countries. However, both poor and affluent countries may serve as transit states. At the same time, trafficking in persons is also known to take place in within the borders of a country.
Various studies by international organizations and individual states furnish statistics on numbers of trafficking victims that significantly differ from each other. For example, the 2012 Global Estimate of Forced Labour by the International Labour Organization (ILO) put the total number victims at 20.9 million. [ii] The U.S. Department of State’s 2012 Trafficking in Persons Report cites 27 million victims.[iii] Human trafficking is regarded as a problem that overwhelmingly targets women and girls, which together account for more than 80 percent of all victims. As far as children victims of trafficking are concerned, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates that figure to be around 1.2 million children annually.[iv]
Breaking down human trafficking by purpose reveals that public’s primary concern has traditionally been with the trafficking for sexual exploitation. This form was estimated to account for the lion’s share of total trafficking figures—up to 80 percent or more.[v] However, recent years have seen increasing realization that the trafficking for the purposes of labor exploitation might be far higher in magnitude than previously thought.[vi]
In particular, the ILO makes this point clear in its own studies. Hence, in its 2012 Global Estimate of Forced Labour, the ILO estimates that of the total figure of 20.9 million victims, 14.2 million are victims of forced labor exploitation—68 percent—whereas 4.5 million—22 percent—are victims of sexual exploitation. The remaining 2.2 million—10 percent—are victims of other forms of trafficking-related exploitation.[vii] Since labor exploitation is higher than sexual exploitation, the ILO gives the figures in terms of gender breakdown that challenge the previous perceptions of human trafficking targeting women almost exclusively. According to the ILO, women constitute 55 percent of all forced labor victims.[viii]
In geographical context, the 2006 UNODC report identified the following global patterns; Western Europe and North America were the main destinations for trafficked persons, with Asia also featuring to some extent as a destination. The regions of Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa, and Asia were the countries of origin for victims. With that, Asia is estimated to generally account for more than half of all human trafficking cases—origin and destination.[ix]
When it comes to profits, trafficking in persons is widely viewed as the world’s third largest illegal activity after the illegal trafficking of arms and of drugs. Incomes from human trafficking, by some estimates, vary from $7 billion to $32 billion a year.[x]
Human trafficking is underpinned by economic and social causes. In economic terms, it is a by-product of globalization that is driven by its own supply and demand logic. The later involves the demand for sexual and labor services, which is the largest in affluent countries. The supply, in turn, stems from poor countries, where some people are keen to attain better life in more prosperous states. Yet, setting out in search of happiness abroad, future victims of trafficking do not foresee that they may fall victim to exploitation in order to satisfy the above demand.
As for the social causes, human trafficking, on the one hand, is certainly made possible by gender biases, still prevalent in many supply-related countries. These serve to force women and girls to look for income abroad, thereby making them easy prey to criminals. On the other hand, trafficking in persons would not be possible in the demand countries, if their societies did have a degree of tolerance to human exploitation.
Nonetheless, for all that we know by now about human trafficking, it seems that we do not know enough. In fact, the UNODC 2009 Global Report on Trafficking in Persons admits as much.
The lack of credible and sufficient data on human trafficking can be attributed to several factors. First and foremost, we should realize that it is a very clandestine activity, and the traffickers go to great lengths to keep it that way. Thus, it is hardly surprising that we do not know everything about this crime. Moreover, not all countries have enacted appropriate human trafficking legislation that allows for effective action and proper reporting. Indicative of this is UNODC’s finding that two out of five countries surveyed in its 2009 report—155 countries were surveyed—failed to report at least a single conviction related to human trafficking.[xi]
What is most worrisome is that levels of human trafficking appear to be persistently rising. Judging by the ILO’s recent study, the number of victims of forced labor has increased from 12.3 million in 2005 to 20.9 million in 2012.[xii]
The First Post Cold-War Decade: Problem’s Recognition
During the Cold War, human trafficking was not as prominent an issue. With the borders between the two ideological camps tightly closed, there were hardly any significant flows of people between them. For that reason, trafficking in persons was not a matter of great concern to either of the superpowers or their respective allies. Moreover, during the period in question, there was not much interest in transnational challenges in general, because the world’s major players were primarily preoccupied with traditional security issues. It is plausible and probable that trafficking occurred elsewhere throughout the world, but it did not solicit attention or focus. What is interesting is that the issue of human trafficking received more global attention in the first half of the 20th century than in the second. Apparently, such was the case, because the former period was characterized by a more open international environment than the latter.
Indeed, a number of international instruments adopted over the first three decades of the 20th century attest to the world’s attention to preventing illicit human trafficking: the 1904 International Agreement for the Suppression of the White Slave Traffic, the 1910 International Convention for the Suppression of the White Slave Traffic, the 1921 International Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic of Women and Children, and the 1933 International Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Women of Full Age.[xiii] Interestingly, they all focused on fighting white prostitution, and thus—in my opinion—failed to acknowledge and confront a wider scope of the challenge.
While the Cold War period did not give substantial attention to the topic of trafficking, there were several gender-related events that raised awareness about trafficking in general. The proclamation of the Decade for Women in 1975 was as a catalyst of such efforts.[xiv] In 1979, the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. As a result, the 1980s saw the advent of a multitude of international non-governmental organizations engaged in activities against gender violence and discrimination.
The end of bipolar rivalry triggered the opening of borders. Consequently, the international community came to realize the importance of addressing transnational threats. While the opening of the borders was one factor that enabled transnational threats, another was associated with advances in information and communication technologies, above all the Internet and mobile phones, which made the work for traffickers, drug dealers, and terrorists much easier than used to be in the past. For example, the Internet considerably helps facilitate recruitment for some activities related to migration, such as work in model agencies, which on surface appears to be legitimate. Yet candidates who respond to such advertisements may in fact be misled about the true purpose of their prospective enterprise and instead end up abroad as forced laborers.
Human trafficking in the initial post-Cold War period was mainly viewed in the context of illegal migration, which falls within the broader category of transnational organized crime. Indeed, trafficking in persons and illegal migration seem to have many similarities. What appears to unite them above all is that most future victims of trafficking start as illegal migrants hoping for a better life abroad. But, at some point their migration goes awry, and instead of becoming better off, they end up being exploited. So, human trafficking may be regarded as a prevented form of migration.
However, despite an ostensibly similar nature of human trafficking and illegal migration, they represent two different challenges. Such an understanding would come by the decade’s end and result in a number of relevant international legal instruments.
Meanwhile, the realization of the need to cope with rising transnational organized crime led to the establishment of a specialized UN agency. Thus, in 1992 the Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice was established with the view to implementing the UN Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Programme that was designed a year earlier. Further institutional arrangements led to the establishment in 1997 of the UN Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention by combining the UN Drug Control Programme and the Centre for International Crime Prevention. In 2002, that entity was to be renamed into the UNODC.
The issue of human trafficking also received certain degree of attention at some major international events held in the 1990s: the 1993 Vienna International Conference on Human Rights, and the 1995 Beijing International Conference on Women. They contributed to a better understanding of the issue of human trafficking.
Overall, the 1990s can be regarded as a period when the international community began feeling the impact of trafficking in persons that was flourishing as result of the relatively open post-Cold War globalization and the global environment. Nonetheless, there was no clear understanding of the challenge at the time. It is its complex nature—which closely linked it with other problems like illegal migration, contemporary slavery, and violence against women—that made it difficult to grasp relevant the nuances. Consequently, trafficking in persons was not treated as a distinct form of crime. As a result, throughout the 1990s there was neither any specific legislation against trafficking in persons in most countries, nor tangible international cooperation or coordination among their law enforcement and other relevant agencies.
The 2000 Human Trafficking Protocol: Staking on a Security Paradigm
As the challenge of transnational organized crime was becoming more persistent at the end of the 1990s, the international community began treating it more comprehensively. As a result, there emerged an understanding that illegal migration and human trafficking were not the same, but rather stood as two separate crimes, each requiring separate analysis and appropriate action.
Indeed, despite apparent similarities, there are significant differences between the two types of crimes. First, illegal migration is a clear crime against the state, the borders of which a migrant illegally crosses. Whereas trafficking in humans is a crime against an individual, who becomes the object of exploitation. Second, illegal migration is about a voluntary act by an individual to cross the border of another state. Trafficking in persons may look like a voluntary act at some stages.[xv] Yet it is not, because it involves violence or deception against an individual, which results in their exploitation.
Such an understanding was reflected in two separate Protocols—covering trafficking in persons and smuggling of migrants—adopted by the UN General Assembly as part of the 2000 UN Convention on Transnational Organized Crime—also known as the Palermo Convention and Protocols.
With the benefit of hindsight, it could be reasonably argued that the Human Trafficking Protocol contained both positive and flawed elements. On a positive side, the Protocol generally inaugurated a three-pronged approach against the crime anchored around the three Ps—prevention, prosecution, and protection.
As well as providing guidelines for reducing human trafficking, the Protocol furnished the international community with a clear-cut definition of the crime of trafficking in persons. It also established specific obligations for signatories to criminalize human trafficking, and implement a number of other measures—such as tightening border controls, and enhancing cooperation between law enforcement agencies.
Despite the successes of the Protocol, it can also reasonably be held that it failed to cover all possible angles of the crime. On the surface, the Protocol may seem to be concerned with all the three Ps. In reality, it favors one prosecution more than prevention and protection. The Protocol’s drafters appear to have ushered an approach that could be described as a law and order paradigm. They created a strong law-enforcement tool with comparatively weaker language on preventive and protective measures. Indeed, the prosecution provisions in the Human Trafficking Protocol contain mandatory language, such as “states parties shall,” while the protections and assistance provisions soften the language to terms such as “in appropriate cases” and “to the extent possible.”[xvi]
As the protocol on the smuggling of migrants—officially the Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air—was based on the same understanding, in practice it meant that the signatories began harmonizing their legislation in line with the Protocols, and the nexus of human trafficking and illegal migration was increasingly addressed as a security concern rather than as an issue that spans the realms of security, development, and human rights. This primarily served to bring about the adoption of restrictive immigration laws and policies.
Another concern with the protocols—on trafficking in persons and smuggling of migrants—relates to the problem of victim identification. Since neither protocol provides guidance with regards to identifying smuggled versus trafficked persons, their identification became the prerogative of individual countries. This created ambiguity, because it is often quite hard to clearly identify whether an individual is the victim of trafficking or of illegal migration. What matters is that the outcomes from the identification are different. If the case falls within human trafficking, the victim is entitled to protection. If, however, the case is identified as illegal migration, states are expected to facilitate the return of victims to the countries of their permanent residence.[xvii].
Two main factors seem to explain why the international community opted for a law and order paradigm against trafficking in persons. First, the Palermo Convention and Protocols were drafted by criminal justice experts, whose primary experience involved prosecution of crimes. [xviii] That is why, in this author’s view, the drafters advanced such measures that—in their professional expertise—mattered more than anything else, like tightening border controls and arresting criminals. This focus possibly, and inadvertently, imparted their specialized-based preference into the international legal instruments. Second, at the turn of the millennium, countries came to view transnational threats primarily through the lens of security, disregarding their no less important links to development and human rights. The 11 September terrorist attacks on the United States served only to justify such an approach.
The crucial question then becomes whether the security-based paradigm to address human trafficking would yield positive results.
The 2008 Vienna Forum: Search for New Momentum
The Palermo Convention with its Protocols came into effect in 2003.[xix] Three years later, the UNODC produced a landmark international report on trafficking in persons. The UNODC built on data collected between 1996 and 2003 in an attempt to assess the occurrence of trafficking in regional and national contexts. Yet, this data did not allow for an assessment of the impact of the Protocol in the fight against human trafficking. Nor did the report provide actual numbers of trafficked victims. The report only provides numbers of identified victims, an issue if there is underreporting or misidentification of victims. Notwithstanding, the report revealed the crime’s immense geographical reach.
Naturally, the report’s findings provided a boost to further research on, and action against, trafficking in persons. Many countries in the UN started asking what was to be done to speed up the implementation of the Protocol, which as of 2006 was very far from being a universally ratified tool.[xx] Further consideration is needed for what other additional measures on human trafficking were worth adopting.
The international community was thus poised to explore ideas for enhanced international coordination on human trafficking. On 20 October 2006, the UN General Assembly adopted a Belarus-sponsored resolution titled “Improving the coordination of efforts against trafficking in persons.” The resolution’s key value was to empower the Inter-Agency Coordination Group against Trafficking in Persons (ICAT), consisting of seventeen international agencies, which was established only a month earlier at a meeting in Tokyo. This move enabled the UN agencies involved in the fight against trafficking in persons to organize regular exchanges of information and effective coordination of their activities.
Likewise, the context prompted a greater scrutiny of the Protocol itself, in particular, whether the document sufficiently dealt with the causes of trafficking. As a result, there gradually began to emerge a growing understanding that the Protocol, with its law and order thrust, concerned itself more with the consequences of human trafficking than with its causes.
Indeed, tightened border controls certainly made it more difficult for individuals willing to illegally cross borders in search of a better life abroad to get to a destination point. But these measures fail to address the reasons that force people to migrate illegally. Moreover, the law and order approach, perhaps inadvertently, might have enhanced the role of traffickers and smugglers. Indeed, faced with the restricted legal migration opportunities, such determined “fortune seekers” had no option but to ask the assistance of criminal groups.[xxi]
This understanding—with regard to the Protocol—might have stood behind some regional anti-trafficking initiatives, which attempted to cover the Protocol’s purported deficiencies. In particular, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) adopted the 2003 Action Plan to Combat Trafficking in Human Beings that ostensibly treated equally all aspects of the Protocol: prevention, prosecution, and protection.[xxii] Furthermore, in 2005, the Council of Europe adopted the Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings, which, by contrast, provided a pronounced focus on the third P, which is protection of victims.
Regional initiatives, however, were not enough to turn the rising tide of human trafficking. With this in mind, since 2007 Belarus began developing the idea of devising a universal comprehensive document on human trafficking. This coincided with another important initiative on human trafficking, the UN Global Initiative to Fight Trafficking in Persons, launched in March 2007 by the UNODC’s Executive Director, Antonio Maria Costa. The initiative became known as the UN.GIFT and its central element was the Vienna Forum that took place in February 2008.
The Forum brought together around 1600 participants representing governments, international organizations, civil society, and the private sector. It was undoubtedly the largest ever-held gathering on the issue of human trafficking. Its greatest value lay in the fact that it was able to awaken the world to the very bitter reality that slavery is still with us in our contemporary life, and it is thriving. The event compelled the international community to challenge its knowledge, perceptions, and attitudes with regard to many things, related, among others, to the causes and consequences of trafficking, in order to gain a better understanding of how human trafficking occurred and why it was on the rise.
The Vienna Forum did not aim to produce an outcome document. Perhaps it was not possible among so many different participants. Its purpose rather was to begin shaping a global partnership against trafficking in persons, which was to include in its ranks all the aforementioned players. Belarus had previously come up with idea of a Global Partnership against Slavery and Trafficking in Human Beings which was articulated from the UN rostrum in 2005.[xxiii]
In retrospect, the Vienna Forum could be fairly viewed as the beginning of the international community’s move towards a genuinely comprehensive antitrafficking approach in terms of stakeholders and coverage.
The 2010 Global Plan: Embracing a Comprehensive Approach
The Vienna Forum ended with the closing remarks by UNODC Executive Director Costa, in which the latter urged the UN.GIFT team to “help the General Assembly prepare its own comprehensive strategy for the following year.”[xxiv] Some other speakers at the Forum, including Sergei Martynov—then Belarus’ Minister of Foreign Affairs—have also spoken in favor of a comprehensive document on trafficking in persons.
The rationale for such a tool was thoroughly articulated in a few post-forum publications by some top Belarus’ diplomats.[xxv] Basically, the reasoning was related to certain structural, normative and organizational arguments. Structurally, in addition to the Human Trafficking Protocol, at the time there were in place a number of other international and regional tools on the issue that had previously been elaborated within ILO, the International Organization for Migration, OSCE, the Economic Community of West African States, and other institutions. Each, however, was mainly covering some specific aspect of human trafficking, or a specific region, rather than the issue as a whole. In other words, the global antitrafficking structure could be characterized as being dispersed. Thus, it seemed only logical in that context to impart to it a higher degree of coherence and uniformity.
Normatively,a comprehensive document on human trafficking would be one that put an equal emphasis on each of the three Ps. There was reason to believe that an international antitrafficking tool elaborated under the auspices of a specialized agency was imbued with a preference for advancing a specific aspect that fell under the mandate of such an agency. Thus, all the above tools essentially became “specialized.” Therefore, it seemed prudent to draft a new comprehensive document at the UN General Assembly, lest biases prevail again.
Organizationally, it was about how the international community organized its anti-human trafficking work in terms of actors. Indeed, there appeared multiple players in the area of human trafficking that had not been visible on the global scene even a decade ago: states, international organizations, civil society, private sector, and even celebrities. Yet, the existing international tools on trafficking in persons did not prescribe precise roles for the increasing number of non-state actors, because the former primarily aimed at harmonizing relevant national legislation. That is why there was the need for a global framework that would ensure effective cooperation, coordination, and pursuit of concerted policies among various stakeholders and multiple anti-human trafficking initiatives. Thus, the traditional three P approach to human trafficking would acquire an additional P—partnership.
Several important events that took place in the post-forum environment served to boost momentum towards a new comprehensive antitrafficking tool. First, it was the UNODC’s Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, released in February 2009. In contrast to its 2006 Report, this time the UNODC operated with a far more extensive dataset and managed to survey 155 countries. The report amply focused on trafficking trends in various contexts, as well as on national antitrafficking legislations. Its message was unambiguous, trafficking in persons is a serious rising threat that needed to be urgently confronted by the world.
Another vital boost to a comprehensive approach was provided by the UN General Assembly’s interactive dialogue on the theme Taking Collective Action to End Human Trafficking that was held on 13 May 2009. The debate clearly demonstrated the determination of a large number of countries to begin work on a Global Plan of Action to Combat Trafficking in Persons.
Finally, in February 2010, the UN Security Council held its first ever meeting devoted to the challenge of transnational organized crime, owing to increasing perception around the world of the dangers posed by growing global criminal networks. That elevated the issue to a new level of consideration, because it was no longer framed just as a global issue, but as a threat to international peace, security, and development. As a result, policymakers and experts began making parallels with how other similar threats, for instance, terrorism were treated. As far as the latter was concerned, since 2006 there had already been in place a global UN counterterrorism strategy that provided an overarching framework to more than a dozen relevant treaties and conventions. That fact, too, bolstered the argument in favor a having a similar comprehensive framework on the issue of human trafficking.
So, the overall context became so compelling as to make the president of the UN General Assembly’s sixty-third session appoint two co-facilitators on a Global Plan of Action in the end of 2009. Soon after that, there occurred another important development that was essential to bringing the work on the Global Plan to fruition. Namely, in March 2010—at the initiative of Belarus—there emerged in New York the Group of Friends United against Trafficking in Persons that comprised twenty UN Member States.[xxvi]
The UN Global Plan of Action to Combat Trafficking in Persons was adopted by the General Assembly in July 2010. While equally treating the crime’s key aspects, the Plan, however, puts a high premium on a human-rights and victim-centered approach. For example, by launching the Voluntary Trust Fund for Victims of Human Trafficking, the Global Plan raised in importance the issue of protection, which was believed to have been disregarded somewhat in the past. In organizational terms, the Plan prescribes specific measures for all the relevant stakeholders. The document also encourages a greater degree of cooperation and coordination among all of them.
The Global Plan’s importance seems to be twofold. First, it is significant in that it provides all-encompassing measures against human trafficking. Second, as such it is also bound to contribute to the implementation of other numerous specialized international instruments on human trafficking. Importantly, in addition to the New York-based Group of Friends, branches began operating in other hubs of multilateral diplomacy, in Vienna and Geneva, with the view to contributing to Global Plan’s effective implementation.
So, how effective is the new global antitrafficking regime? It is rather hard to answer that with certainty at the time of writing this article. To some extent this question will be answered by the UNODC’s next global report on trafficking in persons. Even so, finding the answer to the above question will be the primary task of a High-Level Meeting of the UN General Assembly, scheduled for 13 May 2013. Hopefully, they all will demonstrate that the twenty-year-long effort to arrive at a comprehensive approach against trafficking in persons has met with success.
Mr. Vladimir Makei has served as the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Belarus since August 2012. Additional details are available on the website for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Belarus.