State department reports on America’s modern ‘slave trade’ for first time

Chris Moody | Contributor

An annual State Department study released this week on human trafficking included a report on the modern slave trade within the United States for the first time, drawing praise from international human rights groups.

“The United States is a source, transit and destination country for men, women and children subjected to trafficking,” the Trafficking Persons Report read, concluding, “the U.S. government demonstrated progress in its anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts.”

The 373-page study provided a detailed overview of nations where human trafficking and slavery exist. Until now, the report has failed to include the United States, where the government estimates up to 17,500 people are trafficked each year. Human rights activists said the inclusion of the United States in the report makes it much easier for them to promote international dialogue on the sensitive subject.

“For many years the big gripe many people had with the report was that the United States government was able to rank other government performances but never measured itself against its own standards,” said Andrea Austin of the Polaris Project, an organization that combats human trafficking. “It was a glaring omission that the United States was not included.”

Human rights groups have long pressured the State Department to include the United States in its analysis, said Kevin Bales, an expert on human trafficking and president of the anti-trafficking group Free The Slaves. “We have been calling for that since the first report 10 years ago,” he said. Calling the study “transparent,” Bales said it is vital that the United States publish data on its own problems with human trafficking in addition to shedding light on the problem in other nations.

Free The Slaves reports that thousands are trafficked into the United States from 60 countries, working in 90 American cities. According to the State Department, these victims of human trafficking are found in dozens of industries throughout the United States, most notably “agriculture, manufacturing, janitorial services, hotel services, construction, health and elder care, hair and nail salons, and strip club dancing.”

“This country has thousands of minor kids being pimped on the street,” said Holly Burkhalter, vice president of government relations at International Justice Mission, a group that uncovers abuse and exploitation abroad. “That’s a trafficking problem.”

Despite the previous absence of this information on the State Department trafficking reports, the Attorney General publishes a report on domestic human trafficking each year. But anti-trafficking activists say the inclusion of the United States in the State Department document is a necessary step toward encouraging international cooperation on the issue.

“By including ourselves in the report, the United States acknowledges that we too have a problem with trafficking and being honest about that means we are applying to ourselves international antislavery goals,” said Burkhalter. “That’s just good diplomacy.”

To organize all 175 countries included in the report, the State Department divided each nation into three categories, rating them by the level of trafficking. Nations within the first tier, including the United States, Colombia and Taiwan had the fewest cases of human trafficking while nations in the third tier, including Iran, Myanmar and North Korea, harbored the most egregious violations. The State Department estimates that there are approximately 12.3 million people living in some form of slavery around the world fueling a $32 billion industry.

The United States has increased its enforcement of human trafficking laws during the last 10 years. The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 created a federal task force on human trafficking and opened the lines of communication between agencies. There are more than 40 federally funded task forces on human trafficking comprising even more local agencies.

Human rights activists said they were confident that increased enforcement, combined with international cooperation and public awareness could sharply reduce the level of human trafficking within the United States.

“This is potentially a country where we can wipe it out,” said Bales.

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