President Barack Obama galvanised many anti-trafficking activists this week by calling human trafficking “by its true name - modern slavery”. He announced new initiatives to combat trafficking, and called on all countries to address the economic problems that lead to bondage.
“The president’s aggressive action is a meaningful victory for human rights that should rally policymakers and the public to fight the practice of modern-day slavery where hundreds of thousands of victims are forced into labor or exploited for sex in the United States alone,” said Laurel Bellows, president of the American Bar Association, in a statement.
“It’s the migrant worker unable to pay off the debt to his trafficker. The man, lured here with the promise of a job, his documents then taken, and forced to work endless hours in a kitchen. The teenage girl, beaten, forced to walk the streets. This should not be happening in the United States of America,” he said.
Nor should it be happening in the supply chains of overseas companies doing business with the U.S. government, one of the world’s largest purchasers of goods and services, he said. To that end, he had signed an executive order to strengthen compliance and enforcement to ensure that “American tax dollars must never, ever be used to support the trafficking of human beings.”
Holly Burkhalter, vice president of government relations for the Washington-based International Justice Mission (IJM), described it as “a critical step”. “In highlighting the conditions that foreign workers on U.S. government contracts can face overseas, this executive order has the potential to bring freedom to victims of modern slavery,” she said in a statement.
“The order also helps build a crucial foundation of credibility: As the U.S. seeks to come alongside other nations and help them address trafficking within their own borders, we’re demonstrating our commitment to addressing it ourselves as well,” she added.
But the IJM’s chief executive officer, Gary Haugen, cautioned that Obama’s executive order is not enough. Although the U.S. House of Representatives has passed the End Trafficking in Government Contracting Act, it must still be passed by the U.S. Senate before it becomes law, he said.
Ariel Zwang, chief executive officer of New York-based Safe Horizon, one of the largest victims’ services agencies in the United States, said: “Safe Horizon wholeheartedly agrees with President Obama that modern slavery is one of the greatest human rights challenges of our time and we are inspired by the administration’s commitment to addressing this issue.”
‘VICTIMS NOT CRIMINALS’
In his remarks at the CGI, Obama outlined his administration’s new initiatives against trafficking:
“First, we’re going to do more to spot it and stop it. We’ll prepare a new assessment of human trafficking in the United States so we better understand the scope and scale of the problem. We’ll strengthen training, so investigators and law enforcement are even better equipped to take action — and treat victims as victims, not as criminals. We’re going to work with Amtrak, and bus and truck inspectors, so that they’re on the lookout. We’ll help teachers and educators spot the signs as well, and better serve those who are vulnerable, especially our young people.
“Second, we’re turning the tables on the traffickers. Just as they are now using technology and the Internet to exploit their victims, we’re going to harness technology to stop them. We’re encouraging tech companies and advocates and law enforcement - and we’re also challenging college students - to develop tools that our young people can use to stay safe online and on their smart phones.
“Third, we’ll do even more to help victims recover and rebuild their lives. We’ll develop a new action plan to improve coordination across the federal government. We’re increasing access to services to help survivors become self-sufficient. We’re working to simplify visa procedures for ‘T’ visas so that innocent victims from other countries can stay here as they help us prosecute their traffickers.”
Obama cited the stories of trafficking several victims, including Sheila White, who grew up in the Bronx section of New York City. Fleeing an abusive home aged 15, she linked up with a man who promised to protect her, but instead sold her to men who raped her, beat her and burned her. With the help of a non-profit group, she recovered, earned her high-school equivalency degree and has become an anti-trafficking advocate in New York.
The U.S. president also called on all nations to address the underlying economic causes of bondage. “With development and economic growth that creates legitimate jobs, there’s less likelihood of indentured servitude around the globe. A sense of justice that says no child should ever be exploited - that has to be burned into the cultures of every country,” he said.