Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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Guest Post: Congressional Holdup on Human Trafficking

by Guest Blogger for Micah Zenko
August 1, 2012

The U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC (Jim Bourg/Courtesy Reuters). The U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC (Jim Bourg/Courtesy Reuters).

Emma Welch is a research associate in the Center for Preventive Action and the International Institutions and Global Governance program at the Council on Foreign Relations.

In less than a week, Congress will break for its August recess, and all pending legislation will enter a holding pattern for the next month. One of the most important items remaining on the docket is the reauthorization of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA).

Signed into law in 2000 with robust bipartisan support, the TVPA made human trafficking a federal crime and established a comprehensive framework to coordinate antitrafficking initiatives across the U.S. government. It provides critical funding and resources to help victims, prosecute offenders, and monitor trafficking incidences in the United States and around the world. The law also established a dedicated interagency task force and the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons at the State Department, which is mandated to carry out annual country reporting. Republican senator Sam Brownback, one of its original cosponsors, hailed the passage of the TVPA as a means to combat the “ugly side of globalization.” During the George W. Bush administration, Congress reauthorized the TVPA with overwhelming support in 2003, 2005, and 2008.

In December 2011, however, the TVPA expired. The Senate Judiciary Committee introduced a leaner reauthorization that would allocate more money for victims’ services, expand enforcement tools, and extend its mandate through 2015—all within an annual budget that would be reduced by 30 percent. But, nine months later, the proposed bill has yet to reach a vote on the Senate floor.

Human trafficking touches every country around the world, albeit to varying degrees. The TVPA defines human trafficking as the “recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purposes of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.” The most recent report on forced labor by the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that nearly 21 million men, women, and children, are victims of trafficking at any given time. Since the last ILO report in 2005, the number of victims has increased by 69 percent, although expanded data sources may account for a large share of the jump. And human traffickers disproportionately target women. According to the ILO, 55 percent of forced labor and 98 percent of sex trafficking victims are women and girls.

There is no conventional profile of a trafficking victim. Victims range from migrants forced to labor with no compensation, prostitutes trapped in a cycle of enslavement by their pimps, and children advertised for sex in online fora like CraigsList and BackPage.

The United States shares this global burden. The State Department estimates that at least 145,000 people are trafficked to the United States each year. In the 2012 Trafficking in Persons Report, the United States is described as a “source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children—both U.S. citizens and foreign nationals—subjected to forced labor, debt bondage, involuntary servitude, and sex trafficking.” Although the Department of Justice has undertaken significant enforcement efforts—over the past three years, the number of prosecutions charged has increased by 30 percent—it only secured seventy convictions in 2011.

In a hearing last week, Senator John Kerry asserted: “In the end, none of us can escape our moral obligation to be a leader in the fight against this modern-day slavery. History teaches us that we are safest and stronger when… America takes the lead and we share the destiny of all people on this planet.” This legislation is a no-brainer for Congress. But when push comes to shove, the 112th Congress has demonstrated an uncanny ability to turn every piece of legislation into a zero-sum game of partisan tug-of-war. (A recent analysis shows that the 112th Congress is the least productive and most polarized in U.S. history.)

The reauthorization of TVPA should not wait until the eleventh hour. Not only does TVPA provide tangible, lifesaving resources for trafficking victims in the United States, it is also the linchpin of U.S. antitrafficking initiatives abroad. To show real leadership to combat human trafficking, Congress should vote to reauthorize the law without delay.

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