Human trafficking knows no borders.

By Siddharth Kara

In the summer of 2012, I met a young girl, whom I will call “Maria,” at a migrant shelter near San Diego, California. Maria was from a small town in the Chiapas state of Mexico, 17 years old and had been recruited to leave her home with the promise of a job working as a cleaning lady in hotels and office buildings in the United States. Acute poverty drove Maria’s family to send her with the agent.

It took her almost one month of perilous bus and train rides, passing from one agent to another, before she eventually made it to the border town of Nuevo Laredo. At the border, she was told that she had to pay a fee of US$800 to gain permission from the Zetas cartel to cross the border into the U.S. The Zetas “owned” that part of the border, and no one was allowed passage without paying them first. Maria did not have that kind of money, so she agreed to pay the fee on credit, which she would work off once she found a job.

Ten days later, Maria and several other migrants were taken across the border in the middle of the day by two “coyotes.” The coyotes handed them off to another member of the same trafficking network on the U.S side of the border. They were then taken to a filthy stash house, and during the next several days the migrants were carted off to various destinations. Maria and one other young girl from El Salvador were driven to San Diego.

Maria does not like to talk about what happened next. Rather than being given a job as a cleaning lady, she was locked inside a house, raped for several days, then forced to engage in commercial sex with up to 15 men per day in order to repay her debt. She was viciously beaten, and her captors told her they would kill her parents if she tried to escape.

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“I had never been with a man before,” Maria told me. “Those men hurt me so much. I hated that place. I knew God had sent me to hell, but I did not know why.”

Maria is one example of the hundreds of thousands of individuals trafficked into slave-like exploitation around the world each year. Some find hell in the far corners of the world, and some, like Maria, find hell even in the United States.

While the brutalities of human trafficking have gained significant attention worldwide during the last decade, the forces that promote human trafficking and the best ways to tackle the crime remain poorly understood. A very important fact that is often overlooked is that developed nations of the world are more intensely affected by human trafficking than most people may realize.

Human trafficking is not just an issue that affects those people over there. It is an offense that also exists in countries such as the U.S., Canada and other developed nations, infecting numerous local economies such as construction, agriculture, restaurants, hospitality and even with the transplant of organs that have been fraudulently or coercively extracted from vulnerable people, many of them desperate migrants like Maria. This latter area has been a more recent focus of my research, and I have begun to document the traffic of illicit organs across the South Texas-Mexico and California-Mexico borders.

Having said this, it must also be noted that human trafficking in developed nations is not the only way that the issue impacts the average citizen of these countries. Even when human trafficking and similar forms of slave-like labor exploitation are occurring on the far side of the world, they may still impact the lives of average citizens by tainting the supply chains of numerous products they purchase every day, such as tea and coffee, chocolate and rice, frozen shrimp, hand-woven carpets, shirts and pants, sporting goods, laptops, cell phones and much more. I say this, because I have personally documented victims of human trafficking, forced labor, debt bondage and the worst forms of child labor in all of the above scenarios spanning almost 30 countries around the world, including the United States.

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Before going any further, it is worth briefly outlining exactly what human trafficking is and how it has come to pervade almost every corner of the global economy. The first point to understand is that human trafficking is nothing new. For millennia, one set of individuals with power and resources has acquired and transported vulnerable and impoverished individuals around the world to be exploited as slaves. For most of human history, we called this practice the “slave trade.”

In January 2011, while studying human trafficking in Nigeria, I visited one of the first slave trading outposts in West Africa, built by the Portuguese at the town of Badagry in 1502. Roughly half a million African slaves were held in shackles in this building at some point during the 350 years of the North Atlantic slave trade, before being shipped off for servitude in the Americas. Not one of these people ever saw the continent of Africa again.

Human trafficking is essentially nothing other than the evolution of this long-standing practice into the era of the global economy. Though chattel slavery was largely abolished throughout most of the world beginning in the 19th century (for example, under the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution or the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 in the U.K.), the practice of acquiring, transporting and exploiting individuals in slave-like conditions has persisted well into modern times.

The 2000 United Nations Palermo Protocol defines human trafficking as: “…the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.”

For millennia, one set of individuals with power and resources has acquired and transported vulnerable and impoverished individuals around the world to be exploited as slaves. 

This global recruitment, transport and exploitation of vulnerable individuals is now easier, quicker and more profitable than at any point in human history. No longer must slave traders spend weeks at sea to transport slaves from one continent to another, and no longer is slavery confined just to agriculture, construction or domestic servitude as in the Old World. Today, a trafficker can transport an individual all the way around the world in a day or two for a relatively modest expense, then exploit that individual in dozens of highly profitable industries linked to the local or global economy.

By my calculation, the weighed average cost of a trafficked slave worldwide has dropped more than 90 percent in the past 160 years from roughly $5,000 in 1850 (2011 US dollar equivalent) to around $440 today. At the other end of the equation, the annual return on investment for the slave exploiter has skyrocketed from 15 percent to 20 percent per year in 1850 to between 300 percent to 500 percent today, even more in the case of coerced sexual exploitation. These metrics alone indicate why human trafficking not only pervades the globe, but also expands each year by attracting the interest of both small-time criminals as well as sophisticated organized crime networks.

The next point to understand is that many victims of human trafficking “move” themselves, only to be exploited in slave-like conditions on arrival in
the destination country due to a severe lack of rights, protections and opportunities. This fact is perhaps more true of developed countries than many people may realize, due to the immense flow of migrants who are desperate to gain entry into these countries in search of a better life.

In the United States, the southern land border is of course the primary route of entry, but many victims cross from the northern land border or even by plane or across the sea. I have documented east Asian victims of human trafficking who arrived in the United States by spending weeks crossing the Pacific in the cargo holds of ships, and labor trafficking victims from India who were first flown to Mexico then trafficked across the border by drug cartels for sale into forced labor in meat packing plants in middle America.

The third point to understand is that human trafficking does not need to involve the crossing of a sovereign border of any kind.

As Ambassador Luis C. de Baca of the U.S. Office to Monitor and Combat Human Trafficking recently explained at the launch of the U.S. State Department’s 2012 Trafficking in Persons report: “This is not a crime of movement across borders. … It doesn’t matter if someone is in their own country; it doesn’t matter if they’re in sex or if they’re in labor. If the person is not free to leave, if the person is unable to go get another position and is being held through some type of coercive force, that person is considered a trafficking victim.”

Indeed, the United States’ FBI estimates that roughly one-third of all human trafficking cases involve the internal trafficking of American citizens.

All developed nations have substantial domestic populations of vulnerable, impoverished people who are highly susceptible to false offers of a better life. Vulnerable teens can be trafficked into sexual exploitation just as easily in developed countries as in developing nations. In the U.S. and Canada, the domestic traffic in vulnerable individuals has begun to capture more attention during the past several years, but much more research needs to be done to assess accurately the level of domestic trafficking and understand exactly how, where and why it is occurring.

My final point is that human trafficking can impact you in your home even if it is occurring on the far side of the world. In the era of the global economy, the majority of the products we consume every day are either produced abroad or the materials that constitute them are sourced from other countries. Multi-national corporations scour the globe in search of under-regulated and cheap labor markets in order to minimize costs and boost competitiveness.

Products such as cocoa beans from Ghana, timber from Brazil, hand-woven carpets from Nepal, frozen shrimp from Bangladesh, cotton from Uzbekistan, rice from India, apparel from Pakistan, palm oil from Malaysia, gold from Ghana, minerals for cell phones and laptops from the Congo and many more are well documented to be tainted by child labor, forced labor, debt bondage, human trafficking and other forms of unconscionable human exploitation. Billions of dollars worth of tainted products are imported into developed nations each year and purchased by consumers every day.

It is vital that future efforts to combat this broad-based tainting of global supply chains be grounded in a reliable understanding of the precise nature and extent to which each commodity’s supply chain is tainted. For example, in my second book, “Bonded Labor: Tackling the System of Slavery in South Asia,” I reveal that after extensive data gathering throughout southwestern Bangladesh, I calculate that roughly one out of 57 shrimp consumed around the world are tainted by forced labor, bonded labor or child labor from Bangladesh alone, which is a relatively small contributor to the global frozen shrimp export market. As the average U.S. citizen consumes approximately two kilograms of shrimp per year, this means that each American eats roughly one to three pieces of tainted shrimp each year, just from Bangladesh. Adding major shrimp exporters such as China, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines to the list will raise the ratio of tainted shrimp considerably. The point being, whether it is shrimp or rice or cell phones, human trafficking and other forms of slave-like exploitation taint the supply chains of countless products that are consumed in the developed world every day.

Our lives are touched by modern-day slavery, like it or not. 

What then, is being done to tackle this immense and complex problem? Many developed nations have begun to take this issue very seriously. For example, the U.S. has one of the best human trafficking laws of any country, called the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which was passed in 2000 and has been reauthorized several times since.

The U.S. and Canada have also spent tens of millions of dollars to raise awareness of human trafficking, to research the issue and to support much-needed prevention and protection efforts around the world. In Western Europe, most countries have national laws on human trafficking, and in 2005 the Council of Europe created a broad-based “Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings,” which calls for elevated cooperation and resources to tackle the issue, a human rights approach to trafficking survivors and special protections for female and child victims.

However, as much as developed nations are doing to tackle human trafficking, it sadly remains a fraction of what needs to be done.

The level of research, investigation, prevention and prosecution of trafficking offenses remains deeply inadequate around the world. Far more resources must be deployed, and far more work must be done to combat this issue.

I believe we can succeed in this mission, but doing so can only begin with a new brand of global abolitionist movement consisting of everyday citizens who persist with a relentless demand that their leaders do far more to wage a truly effective and fully resourced campaign to eradicate human trafficking once and for all.

U.S. President Barack Obama recently spoke about human trafficking at the 2012 Clinton Global Initiative Conference, committing the U.S. to more effective efforts to tackle human trafficking, which he described as “the intolerable yoke of modern slavery.” With this kind of support, perhaps the time has come for more successful efforts to tackle modern slavery.

For the sake of the countless like Maria—a child trafficking victim who was brutally exploited in a country that is meant to be a beacon of freedom and opportunity around the world—the need to succeed could not be greater.

Siddharth Kara is a fellow on human trafficking at the Harvard Kennedy School and a fellow on forced labor at the Harvard School of Public Health. Kara is also the author of “Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery” and “Bonded Labor: Inside the System of Slavery in South Asia.” He has traveled to more than 30 countries across six continents to research modern slavery and currently advises the United Nations and several governments on anti-trafficking policy and law.

Public Safety Canada ( and United States Homeland Security ( both have resources to help individuals and organizations understand and address human trafficking issues in their communities.

This story originally appeared in the January/February 2013 issue of Kiwanis magazine.

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