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Opinion If we’re serious about ending human trafficking, listen to survivors

Peter Vincent is an attorney specializing in counter-terrorism, national security, human trafficking and narco-trafficking. He previously served as an official with both the U.S. Departments of Justice and Homeland Security.

Human trafficking represents a grave humanitarian crisis, a serious public-safety concern and, increasingly, a lethal terrorist threat. Having spent my public-service career combating terrorism and countering violent extremism, I saw first-hand how foreign terrorist organizations expertly leveraged human trafficking as an instrument to both raise operational funds and to sow fear in communities. However, beyond terrorist financing, the profound damage trafficking in persons causes to our families, communities and countries – the harm wrought on our collective humanitarian psyches – goes far beyond and deeper than the terrorist bomb blasts and bullets that injure and kill our fellow citizens.

Human trafficking is one of the most persistent and pernicious ills of our era. It ruthlessly exploits the most vulnerable populations, both across international borders and within our cities. Sophisticated transnational criminal organizations co-ordinate with local street gangs to operate human-trafficking rings, which often utilize the same networks and channels to simultaneously engage in drug and weapon smuggling as well as money laundering. Perhaps most alarmingly, human trafficking has increasingly become the preferred fundraising tactic of international terrorist organizations like the so-called Islamic State.

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According to the International Labour Organization, nearly 25 million people worldwide may be involved in compulsory labour, often as a result of human trafficking. Thanks to tireless activist groups, there is more awareness around modern slavery and trafficking than ever before. The United Nations’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals include reducing human trafficking and ending all forms of child labour by 2025. But how do we begin to make progress against such a massive and complex challenge?

We can begin by recognizing that the problem is far more nuanced than its popular media depictions. We must resist the temptation of simplistic narratives about domineering pimps and abused girls. Not all human trafficking involves sexual labour, nor do all trafficked persons consider themselves exploited. Human trafficking is a complicated byproduct of interdependent factors including poverty, forced migration, illicit drugs and legitimate global supply chains. It is not enough to simply target prominent criminal actors. Researchers and legislators should instead try to isolate the forces contributing to human trafficking in their areas of responsibility. Regions with conditions which support systemic trafficking networks (e.g., Southeast Asia and its garment-manufacturing industries) require different approaches than regions experiencing violent political upheaval. Canada’s National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking indicates that most known human trafficking in Canada is related to sexual exploitation, but authorities have observed increasing cases of trafficking for compulsory labour, most commonly in Alberta and Ontario.

Any government serious about change should focus on productive enforcement and legislation, while collaborating with non-governmental organizations to neutralize other aspects of the local human-trafficking apparatus. All contributors to anti-trafficking work should uphold the critical distinction between survivors and consensual sex workers, and listen to survivors’ voices. Those who have experienced the horrors of trafficking first-hand are necessary to understand the role of trafficking in our communities.

The United Nations’s Blue Heart Campaign embodies this victim-centric approach. Founded in 2008, the Blue Heart Campaign promotes UN efforts to counter trafficking and offers financial aid for survivors through a voluntary trust fund managed by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). UNODC’s involvement speaks to the close connection between organized crime and human trafficking, which produces an estimated US$32-billion in illegal profits per year. Other UN ventures include GLO.ACT, a four-year project to implement countertrafficking measures in 13 countries spanning Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe and Asia. The breadth of these initiatives underscores the social, economic and legal costs of trafficking.

The whole-community approach taken by the United States may also offer some helpful guidance. In 2010, the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) introduced the Blue Campaign, an agency-wide anti-trafficking program implementing many features of the UN model. The ultimate goal is to combat the problem through increased public awareness, prosecution of trafficking rings and meaningful assistance for survivors. Like its UN analogue, DHS’s Blue Campaign has a victim-centric approach, prioritizing survivors’ need for long-term support, stability and community resources.

The Blue Campaign also provides education for police and civilians alike, and dedicates funding to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. These public-private partnerships promote better understanding about the realities of human trafficking. Government representatives train businesses that often unknowingly facilitate human smuggling, such as airlines and hotels, to help their employees identify suspicious activity. Simply promoting awareness about trafficking and making it easier to report potential concerns has made a difference in general community safety. Among law enforcement, DHS co-ordinates with domestic and international police services to share best practices in anti-trafficking operations. DHS contributes to nearly 100 anti-trafficking task forces in the United States alone. DHS is also a primary participant of the Human Smuggling and Trafficking Center (HSTC), an inter-agency, international centre for compiling and disseminating intelligence about trends in criminal trafficking networks. During my tenure at DHS, I travelled the globe, meeting with government ministers, law-enforcement officials, survivors and non-governmental organizations. I witnessed the positive impact of this multifaceted approach.

Initially laser-focused on viewing human trafficking through the prism of global terrorism fundraising, I left federal service with a profound appreciation for the humanitarian power of collective responsibility and ownership. From small steps at home to international legislative programs, we all have the ability to contribute. It is the responsibility of governments to co-ordinate these contributions into comprehensive, effective policies, and to work with their counterparts to achieve our shared goal of a world free from the scourge and degradation of human trafficking.

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