A Sustainable Approach to Combating Human Trafficking

"Human trafficking has no place in the modern world." -- John Ashe, President of the United Nations General Assembly

Although today is the first ever World Day against Trafficking in Persons, the issue of human trafficking is hardly a novel one; rather, this crime has sadly survived and thrived for thousands of years. Nonetheless, as Mr. Ashe recently declared, it is time for us to erase human trafficking from the pages of our historical, cultural, and societal narrative. This may seem like an idealistic ambition, but we can start taking the necessary steps towards realizing that goal.

A Brief Overview

According to the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, human trafficking is defined as "the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring, or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation." Furthermore, exploitation includes "the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labor or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude, or the removal of organs."

On the basis of this definition, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) categorizes three elements of human trafficking: the act (what is done), the means (how it is done), and the purpose (why it is done). The UNODC takes steps to help States draft legislation against trafficking in persons and assists them with obtaining resources to implement these laws. Thus, anti-trafficking work is organized around three principles: prevention, protection, and prosecution. The UNDOC works to help States criminalize the act, the means, and the purpose; prevent these three elements from occurring; and protect victims and prosecute offenders.

Despite these global efforts, human trafficking remains the third most profitable type of organized crime behind drug and arms trafficking, generating billions of dollars in profits per year. Simply put, more needs to be done. The best way to prevent a tree from growing is to attack its roots; in other words, vigorous efforts to prosecute and punish traffickers -- which serve as a deterrent to would-be traffickers -- must be coupled with strategic efforts to prevent this crime. We must consider why it occurs and what makes these roots flourish, so that we can effectively sever them.

What Helps Human Trafficking Flourish?

The nexus between human trafficking, poverty and environmental degradation is one that is not typically considered by policymakers or the general public. For several years, researchers have been establishing links between poverty and environmental degradation; we know that the mismanagement and unsustainable use of natural resources facilitates poverty and vice versa. Increasingly, there is evidence that the same conditions create vulnerabilities to human trafficking. Industries like agriculture, fishing, and mining are extremely susceptible to negative environmental impacts; at the same time, for a variety of reasons workers within these sectors face the risk of increased exposure to human rights abuses. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), agriculture is one of the largest sources of employment worldwide, with more than 1 billion people employed in the sector. It is also one of the most hazardous sectors in the world, as workers are often subject to laboring in difficult terrain and extreme weather conditions, increasing their prospects of getting injured or dying. Similarly, the fisheries sector makes a crucial contribution to global food and economic security, yet workers in this industry face the hazards of physically demanding labor in an isolated workplace -- an environment which increases their vulnerability to forced labor. Mining -- particularly artisanal and small-scale mining - can have a negative impact on the environment and often occurs in remote or rural areas with little government presence, leaving individuals in mining communities in Latin America, Africa and Asia more vulnerable to forced labor and sex trafficking. The U.S. Department of State highlights examples of human trafficking within these industries in countries around the world:

  • In the Middle East, traffickers exploit foreign migrant men in the agricultural sectors of Israel and Jordan. Traffickers reportedly force Syrian refugees, including children, to harvest fruits and vegetables on farms in Lebanon.
  • In Asia, men from Cambodia, Burma, the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, China, India, and Bangladesh are subjected to forced labor on foreign-flagged vessels (often from Taiwan, South Korea or Hong Kong) operating in territorial waters of countries in Southeast Asia, the Pacific region, New Zealand, and around the world.
  • A gold rush in southeastern Senegal has created serious health and environmental challenges for affected communities due to the use of mercury and cyanide in illegal mining operations. The rapid influx of workers has also contributed to the forced labor and sex trafficking of children and women in mining areas.

Mismanagement of agricultural, marine and environmental resources -- due to corruption, poor governance, and other factors -- fosters an environment in which workers and communities face more serious risks to health, safety and human rights abuse. It's a vicious cycle: environmental degradation fuels poverty, which in turn increases vulnerabilities to human trafficking.

Severing the Tree From its Roots

How do we go about breaking this cycle so that we can effectively combat human trafficking? Moving forward, multilateral institutions like the UNODC, as well as other governments, civil society and labor organizations, academics, and actors from the private sector can push for the enactment and implementation of legislation that establishes greater environmental protections and strategies for sustainable livelihoods and management of natural resources. Ultimately, it is necessary to strengthen partnerships between these stakeholders and enhance a global dialogue that amplifies the connections between human trafficking, poverty, and lack of decent work and respect for the environment.

Indeed, human trafficking is a complex phenomenon. It is inaccurate to claim that addressing these specific linkages will provide the panacea that is needed to truly eliminate all forms of trafficking in persons; however, if we intervene now and fundamentally alter the way we live through a sustainable approach, the roots of human trafficking may finally start to wither away.