The Fight Against Human Trafficking and Modern Day Slavery

In the 2008 film Taken, a French thriller film co-written and produced by Luc Besson, starring Liam Neeson, Maggie Grace and Famke Janssen, Neeson portrays a former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operative who is trying to rescue his daughter after she is kidnapped by human traffickers while travelling abroad. The movie scored high with audiences for its entertainment value, although few bothered to examine whether it was based on fact. This happens every day.

While being entertained by a film that's taken place abroad that and is believed to be mere fiction, it is believed that between 100,000 and 300,000 children are victims of human trafficking in the United States alone. One in three children is lured into commercial sexual exploitation in their first 48 hours on the streets.

Awareness is the first step to change.

I recently had the honor of interviewing Laurel Bellows, president of The American Bar Association (ABA). Laurel is one of the nation's leaders in the crusade against human trafficking and modern slavery. She is a fierce advocate of Proposition 35. Laurel and I conversed about what is being done to make our nation aware of the fact that this is happening in America -- possibly to our friends and our families.

Thank you for taking the time to talk with me today about a growing problem in our nation that few are aware of.

It's my pleasure, Bryan. We are excited about what we are accomplishing to combat modern slavery and human trafficking.

What is the genesis of the ABA's involvement?

We have United States citizens, and men, women and children brought into this country for the purpose of becoming enslaved; the fact that Americans don't know it's happening in their own country is devastating. When we (the American Bar Association) decided to take this on we were met with the query -- what value can the ABA add to what's being done at the moment? That moment was about a year and one-half ago, and at the time not much was really being done. There were a number of organizations out there that were doing good work, but nobody knew about them. Those organizations were only focused internationally.

What are the goals of the ABA concerning human trafficking awareness?

Our goals are to raise awareness of the American public, that trafficking is local and it's everywhere in the United States. There is virtually no place in our country that is untouched by modern day slavery. Secondly, what the ABA could do in particular -- we have developed a program based on the conversations with all of the major entities engaged in fighting slavery here, to figure out what we should be doing to supplement what's already been done.

One of them is in process right now, as you know. It is the drafting of a uniform state law that will be passed by every state in this country, so that not only will every state have a new anti-trafficking legislation, but it will encompass some of the important functions that we think are crucial; such as stronger penalties. Not just the pimp-prostitution kind of penalties, but the kind of sentence that will deter and certainly punish those at the level of crime they are committing.

Equally as important, is the expungement of those convicted of prostitution, while victims of human trafficking. This means for both men and women over the age of 18 (and under) who were forced into prostitution (and therefore never should have been convicted), charges are dropped and erased from the record. There is other safe harbor legislation as well. Of course, we are strengthening the fact that we're talking about both slave labor and sex work. Some states already have laws that prohibit trafficking for labor purposes and some for sex, but very few others have strong legislation for both.

How are we going to better handle the victims of this ongoing travesty? Is the new legislature going to protect the rights of the victims?

We're training first responders in the United States -- that would be law enforcement, police, healthcare professionals, judges, defense counsel, and prosecutors to recognize victims and how to handle them as victims, rather than defendants. They need to learn how to take on cases, and how to prosecute those who are actually responsible for the problem. Of course, we're focused on pro bono initiatives that make sure the victims are properly represented.

We're also looking at national law. In particular, the reauthorization of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, this is required, and has not been reauthorized by Congress. We will be pressing for that.

In January of this year on Technorati, I covered the role that U.S.-based corporations are playing in human trafficking. How is this being handled?

Lawyers represent clients and corporate clients often, and are responsible for their business conduct standards (drafting them, and their ethics standards as well as their human resources policies). Lawyers are in a perfect position to craft the business conduct standards that are necessary to eliminate slavery from the supply chain of corporations. We're focusing quite a bit of attention on strangling the process out of the trafficking trade by eliminating the ability to use slavery in manufacturing or services involved in the products that U.S.-based corporations are offering.

Tell us about the ABA's national awareness campaign -- what will be done to make society more aware of the fact that this is happening right in our backyards, with us being none the wiser?

Every American has to understand that we have this problem in our country. How do they spot a victim? What number do they call? The Polaris Project is a fabulous organization that the ABA works with, one of their biggest functions is to maintain the 800 number that gives them the ability to connect directly with law enforcement, and send someone to help whoever is calling. We are also working with large corporations, by asking them to insert into their handbooks and employee manuals, 'how to spot a victim of human trafficking' and who to call if they spot one. Airlines are getting a better at training their employees as well. Just like we are trained to notify someone if we see luggage left unattended at an airport, we need to get better at identifying when there is a human trafficking victim. We'd like everyone in the country in their everyday life to be informed and trained well enough, to be able to identify potential victims and call that number.

The number Laurel speaks of is the assistance line that is run by the Polaris Project. It is (888)-3737-888. To learn more about the organization and what they do, please visit their website here.