Winning the War Against Human Trafficking

In December of 2000, the United Nations met in Palermo, Italy, to adopt a revolutionary protocol on the modern trade in human beings. This event was a wake-up call to a complacent world. Despite many accounts of its demise, slavery had resurfaced in the criminal underworld and spread like a cancer across the globe.

In the past decade, the United States has taken a leadership role in combating this scourge. U.S. law enforcement agencies have broken up trafficking rings, convicted criminals, and rescued victims -- from children forced into prostitution to domestic servants enslaved by their "employers" to immigrants exploited in agriculture. In addition, the State Department has aggressively lobbied foreign governments to take action, and NGOs at home and abroad have tirelessly supported these efforts.

On the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, it is fitting to ask for a progress report. Are we winning the war against human trafficking? The answer, unfortunately, is no.

Twelve years after Palermo, the trade in human beings is the world's fastest growing criminal industry. The sustained proliferation of this crime in such a hostile legal environment raises an unsettling question: Is slavery inevitable? This query is not academic. It is not political. It is moral and existential. If there are more slaves in the world today than ever before, what hope do we have that human trafficking can be defeated?

Fortunately, our history gives us reason to be optimistic. In the late eighteenth century, the African slave trade was hugely lucrative, politically protected, and morally unquestioned in the West. Undeterred, William Wilberforce and his fellow abolitionists in Britain brought the colossus to its knees within a generation, sparking an emancipatory movement that circled the globe. In the shadow of today's statistics, history assures us that we can turn the tide against the traffickers. But to talk clearly about solutions, we must squarely confront the problem.

There is a reason the business of slavery is booming: It is extraordinarily profitable. According to Siddharth Kara at Harvard, sex trafficking generates $35.7 billion in annual profits. Add in slave labor and the total exceeds $91 billion. At the same time, law enforcement budgets are diminishing. Despite a strong rhetorical mandate, Congress and state legislatures allocate meager resources to anti-trafficking initiatives. To change the paradigm, we need an escalation of fiscal commitment equivalent to our response to the AIDS pandemic. We need a PEPFAR for slavery.

But amending our budgetary priorities is not enough. We also need to reshape our strategy. Like all commercial enterprises, human trafficking is fueled by consumer demand. Pimps and traffickers force underage girls into prostitution because ordinary men pay billions of dollars a year to have sex with them. Similarly, suppliers use slave labor to produce goods because consumers demand low prices and corporations turn a blind eye to the exploitation in their supply chains. Given the clarity of the economic equation,the solution to modern slavery is straightforward. Along with locking up traffickers and restoring victims, we need to curb demand for prostitution and slave-made products.

This is a daunting task, but it isn't impossible. A decade ago, Sweden made the criminalization of sex-buying the centerpiece of its anti-trafficking policy. By targeting the johns, Sweden injected poison into the prostitution market and drove traffickers out of the country. According to a 2011 Harvard study, a similar approach could work in the U.S. Since sex-buyers are typically men with jobs and families, minor penalties would deter them -- a short jail sentence, a $1,000 fine, public exposure, car impoundment. A few states like Massachusetts have reinforced their anti-trafficking laws with strong prohibitions against sex-buying. Every state should follow suit, and law enforcement should make arresting johns a priority.

On the labor front, the "fair trade" movement has established that conscientious consumers will pay more for ethical products. In the wider marketplace, supply-chain transparency is virtually non-existent, but two initiatives are aiming to change that. The State Department recently launched, which exposes the pervasiveness of slave labor in the production of common goods. In addition, the Not For Sale Campaign has unveiled Free2Work, a smartphone app that grades popular brands against fair labor standards. These are baby steps toward a slave-free world, but they are steps in the right direction.

Though many may be tempted to see human trafficking as an incurable ill, it is neither inevitable nor invulnerable to a holistic market-based attack. The pimps and traffickers of today can't stand against the moral outrage of an engaged populace any more than the slave masters of the past. As I write, more than twenty million people are in chains around the world. The only question that really matters is this: Will we do what it takes to set them free?