It is a sad irony that while slavery is now legal nowhere,
it still occurs everywhere.
~ Free the Slaves

It is a paradox that human trafficking seems at once an ancient abuse and also a recent phenomena.  Certainly the practices of slavery, forced labor and prostitution trace back to time immemorial.  So how is it that “human trafficking” was only recognized as a criminal act in this past decade?

In the United States, the groundbreaking Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) was passed in 2000. At the United Nations, The Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, was adopted by  the General Assembly and entered into force December 2003. It is the first global legally binding instrument with an agreed definition on trafficking in persons.  Here in the state of New York,  the distinct crimes of sex trafficking and labor trafficking were not codified until 2007!  What took everyone so long?

Part of the problem is simply that laws, and the legislative or deliberative bodies that craft them, frequently lag behind the social realities that give rise to the need for a legal response.  Certainly throughout the world there have been many laws, indeed entire bodies of law, dealing with labor rights, with human rights, with child abuse and with prostitution. But at the close of this past century a number of factors gave a huge boost to human trafficking, giving it a global scale, and making it the fastest growing criminal enterprise at this time.  We look at some of these factors in our discussion of the “Economics of Trafficking“. In short, a number of recent events have created a ‘perfect storm’ for this crime to flourish: the acceleration of the integration of global trade; the dissolution of the Soviet Union; the formation of the European Union with its easing of borders, the emergence of Asia as a manufacturing base; and the current downturn in the world economy.

Traffickers are opportunistic hunters. In the past few decades the opportunity for profit has skyrocketed, and the risks of being penalized have greatly diminished. Human trafficking is now poised to become the most profitable enterprise on the planet rivaled only by the drug trade and illegal trafficking in arms. But we have finally begun to see a legal response from our governments.

One of the first difficulties in addressing this issue was to find a working definition that could be agreed upon. As simple as this sounds, many years of meetings and conferences ended bitterly.  Another problem has been that of overlapping jurisdictions. By its very nature this crime is mobile and ongoing. It is not a single act that takes place in a single location. Not only may individual victims be shuffled around like peas in an elaborate shell game, but entire organizations, factories and corporations are routinely rolled up and reopened in a new place. Clearly the challenge to law enforcement is daunting.

On these pages we hope to clear up some of the confusion that surrounds the different definitions that are currently in use at different levels of government and in different localities.  We will lay out a brief explanation of the applicable international, federal, and local laws. Also we will examine the results that have been achieved by differing legal approaches such as Sweden’s recently adopted laws on prostitution. Finally we will cast a critical eye on how these laws may need to be improved or better implemented, and what we can do as concerned citizens to bring this about.

Resource: Lawyer’s Manual on Human TraffickingPursuing Justice for Victims. Edited by J.L. Goodman and D.A. Leidholdt. Unofficial publication of the Appellate Division, First Department, Supreme Court of the State of New York, Judicial Committee on Women in the Courts, 2011. 330 pgs.

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