The New Abolitionists

Human Rights

In 1999, the hell-raising conservative Christian populist Linda Smith left Congress and disappeared from public life. It was like a whirlwind suddenly stopping in midstorm. Hailing from Vancouver, Wash., Smith had improbably made it to the House of Representatives two terms before as a write-in candidate. Once there, she became nationally known as one of a new breed of Republican women leaders crusading for traditional values and helping Newt Gingrich put a female face on his tax-cutting, welfare-reforming agenda. The New Republic once profiled her in a story titled "Invasion of the Church Ladies." But Smith was more interesting than that. Much to her own party's chagrin, she was also an early and strident champion of campaign finance reform, a role that gave her some crossover appeal in her 1998 bid for Patty Murray's Senate seat, which she nonetheless lost.

Last year, Smith resurfaced. She was now, of all things, working with young girls and women who had been forced, or "trafficked," into prostitution in Southeast Asia and elsewhere. She had founded a nonprofit organization that was setting up homes for these women, called Shared Hope International. And she was a leading organizer of an international conference on trafficking held last February under the auspices of the State Department in Washington, D.C. She brought several previously trafficked girls from India with her for press interviews then, and took one of them to Disney World.

From shaking up congressional politics to providing social services, from campaign finance reform to Asian prostitution, it seemed a puzzling, if virtuous, transformation. In her Vancouver office one day in June, surrounded by a few old brassy political posters and many more tranquil pictures of her wearing saris and surrounded by girls in India, the 54-year-old Smith explains what happened this way: During her last year in Congress, she got a call from a man who had visited missions in India affiliated with the Assembly of God Church, to which Smith belonged for many years. Through the missions' work with prostitutes, he had seen "little girls in cages," and he wanted Smith to know about it.

"I thought it was a bit much," Smith recalls, "but I couldn't sleep. So I called my staff and told them, 'I have to see it.'" Within days, she flew to India, where a representative from the Assembly of God organization Teen Challenge took her into the red-light district. "It was one girl, one day," who changed her life, she says. The girl was about 11 years old, and for some reason, she hugged Smith. "She felt so frail in my arms. I can feel her today." She reminded Smith of the girls she knew from Sunday school, of her own granddaughter. She felt an unaccustomed wave of emotion. "It was so different for me. I'm pretty cut-and-dry." As she looked down at the girl, she asked herself, "What do I believe?" and answered, "I believe you are made by God." Right there and then, she made a resolution: "Today I'm going to act on my faith." She returned to her hotel and immediately started fund-raising for homes she wanted to build for these girls.

There's a mythic quality to her story, the way she dropped everything and found revelation in a single moment. It's easier to understand, though, if you take into account the changing currents around her. Smith's redirection reflects that of the religious right as a whole. Looking past the divisive social issues that ignited the movement for much of the '80s and '90s, conservative evangelicals have turned their attention to international human rights, forging new and unlikely allies along the way. One of the biggest issues to seize their imagination is that of human trafficking.

The archetypal case – a young girl, tricked into leaving her impoverished homeland by the promise of a respectable job, then brutally held captive, raped, and forced into prostitution – strikes deep moral chords. Making common cause with feminists also fired up about the issue, evangelicals are largely responsible for turning the issue into a top priority of the U.S. government.

Leading the government's charge is former three-term Republican Congressman John Miller of Seattle. Although Jewish, Miller's convictions and record on human rights – he opposed granting most-favored-nation status to China despite Boeing's ardent lobbying for it and labored against Soviet control of Eastern European countries – helped to make him the pick of evangelicals working on the issue to take over the State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. President George W. Bush appointed him to the post in December 2002 and this June empowered him with the title ambassador at large. Miller has used his authority to make sure the issue is a top priority of governments around the world as well. His energy and bipartisanship have generated enormous goodwill among groups on both the right and the left. An inspiring spokesperson for the cause, Miller brands human trafficking "modern-day slavery" and calls it "the emerging human rights issue of the 21st century."

It is being treated as such by the press as well as nonprofit groups and government agencies. Thousands of stories have been written on the subject in the last year, including a cover story in The New York Times Magazine under the headline "The Girls Next Door," stressing that trafficking is all around us, even in the "normal, middle-class surroundings" of Main Street, U.S.A.

There's only one catch. There's widespread confusion about what exactly trafficking is and how big a problem it might be. Consider this: Washington state has its own anti-trafficking task force – the first in the country – charged by the Legislature to study the scope of the problem locally. In June, the task force, run out of the Office of Crime Victims Advocacy in the Department of Community, Trade, and Economic Development, released a 92-page report. Congratulating the state for "leading the country in taking collaborative action against human trafficking," the report asserts that "Washington possesses many of the underlying conditions that support trafficking of persons," such as its border status. Midway through the report, however, it notes the number of cases brought under a year-and-a-half-old state trafficking law: zero.

The Christian Right: The Next Generation

"It just jumped off the pages of the newspaper." Richard Cizik, the influential vice president for government affairs of the National Association of Evangelicals, is talking about how human trafficking became a cause for crusade. He remembers reading a piece about the trafficking of women in Eastern Europe, where the harsh economic realities following the collapse of Communism made many vulnerable to false promises. "If we truly stood for human rights for all, surely the trafficking of young girls and boys for the purposes of human slavery could not go unchallenged." Cizik helped put together a coalition of groups across the religious and political spectrum to work the issue. Gloria Steinem sent a representative to meetings. So did the B'nai B'rith. The coalition succeeded in passing federal anti-trafficking legislation in 2000 that created Miller's office.

The coalition did not come about by accident. It was part of a deliberate strategy to move away from the unyielding methods of formative leaders like Jerry Falwell. "Second-generation leaders – people my age – saw the initiatives of the 1980s crash and burn and decided we had to do things differently," the 52-year-old Cizik explains. If evangelicals wanted to accomplish anything, they would have to build coalitions with people they previously considered opponents, on issues they could agree on. Not only did they form alliances with feminists on human trafficking, Cizik says, evangelicals worked with Jews, Catholics, and Buddhists on passing the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, monitoring religious persecution around the world; with the Congressional Black Caucus on bringing about the Sudan Peace Act of 2002; with the American Civil Liberties Union on pushing through last year's Prison Rape Elimination Act; and with gay people on securing more international AIDS funding.

Speaking by phone from Washington, D.C., Cizik sounds practically giddy as he considers the victories won. He notes that some evangelicals take issue with the notice they are getting for their global activism, insisting that it is nothing new. "The difference is this," he tells them. "We have been internationally involved for 100 years, but we have never been successful before on Capitol Hill." Cizik recognizes that having a born-again Christian in the presidential office hasn't hurt.

If leaders like Cizik set a new alliance-building course for the evangelical movement, the topics that rose to the top of the agenda came more from the grass roots, according to Allen Hertzke, director of religious studies at the University of Oklahoma and author of the forthcoming book Freeing God's Children: The Unlikely Alliance for Global Human Rights. Hertzke maintains that the dramatic growth of evangelical churches around the world has led "American evangelicals to an awareness of the plight of their brothers and sisters" in impoverished, often repressive societies.

The religious viewpoint of evangelicals has not been irrelevant in the way they have perceived that plight. It is a reason that human trafficking, more than almost any issue they have worked on, has stood out as an urgent matter. "In some ways, I think having a moral view has actually helped the community see the issue more clearly," Hertzke ruminates. "Trafficking was in a kind of netherworld," he says. It wasn't the kind of human rights issue traditionally addressed by secular groups like Amnesty International, which focused on government abuses of citizens. Hertzke believes that evangelicals saw past that because they came with the understanding that "this is not the way children of God were meant to live."

Out of all the ungodly miseries of the world, though, why did evangelicals pick human trafficking as their clarion call? For one, the notion of modern-day slavery resounded with them, reminding them of the leading role evangelicals like the British parliamentarian William Wilberforce played in the abolitionist movement of the 18th and 19th centuries. Then there is the sexual side of the issue. "It certainly fits with an evangelical concern for sexual integrity," says Ron Sider, founder of the Pennsylvania-based Evangelicals for Social Action, which challenges his peers to work for economic and racial justice. By sexual integrity, he means that "sex is to be reserved for a marriage relationship where there is a lifelong covenant between a man and a woman" – a tenet clearly abridged by prostitution.

The fact that prostitution was being forced upon people, that even children were being held as "sex slaves," seemed all the more horrible but also fit into their world view. "This is just another example of depraved moral behavior," says Clyde Wilcox, a Georgetown University government professor who writes about the Christian right. "The world is a sinful place." Human trafficking resonates with many Christians in the same way that recovered memories of satanic sex rings did in the '80s and '90s, and the way white slavery did at the turn of the century – phenomena, incidentally, that were hailed as endemic until they were scrutinized more closely.

In some respects, the evangelical worldview is similar to that of certain strains of feminism, which also see the world as full of evil – perpetrated by men on women, with sex a primary means of exploitation and abuse. Hence, Equality Now, a New York organization that works on international women's rights and has Gloria Steinem on its advisory board, is enthusiastically working with religious groups on trafficking. The famous feminist University of Michigan law professor Catharine MacKinnon, also affiliated with Equality Now, and whose fervent antipornography views have put her in alignment with the Christian right before, is deeply involved with the cause.

Sex, however, is only one side of human trafficking, which encompasses all forms of coerced labor. The biggest case brought by the U.S. Justice Department, revealed in 2001, concerns a garment factory in American Samoa, where, according to the department, more than 250 Vietnamese and Chinese nationals were forced to work in a guarded compound "through extreme food deprivation, beatings, and physical restraint." When one victim objected, she had her eye gouged out with a jagged pipe. Trafficking victims are also forced to work as domestic servants, on fishing boats, on cocoa plantations, and elsewhere.

There has developed a thinly veiled fault line in the anti-trafficking world, with the evangelical-feminist alliance on one side and, on the other, the kind of liberal, do-gooding groups that traditionally toil in international causes like famine relief and family planning. To the liberal groups, it seems as if the evangelical- feminist bloc, which has the Bush administration's ear, has placed an undue emphasis on sex trafficking. While defenders respond that such is the most common form of trafficking, statistics that back that up are controversial, and critics argue that the emphasis on prostitution is for ideological reasons. "The general public gets confused," says Christina Arnold, founder of an organization called Project Hope International (no relation to Linda Smith's group), which is starting the first shelter on the East Coast for trafficking victims. "All they hear about is prostitution. ... It's gotten to the point where other organizations are having to mount re-education campaigns."

Good Deeds and a Brand-New Power Base

Certainly, Linda Smith has focused on the sexual side of trafficking. The $1.8 million State Department conference she lobbied for and helped host last year went by the heading "Pathbreaking Strategies in the Global Fight Against Sex Trafficking." Similar to other like-minded activists, she has harnessed the trafficking issue to fight against prostitution in general, even where it's legal. "I encourage the administration to consider countries with legalized or tolerated prostitution as having laws that are insufficient to eliminate trafficking," she said in testimony at a congressional subcommittee hearing on trafficking in 2002. "Tolerated prostitution," she argued, "provides cover for the traffickers," a line of reasoning that has become the official position of the Bush administration. It does not penalize countries for maintaining legalized prostitution, as it might through its new policy of sanctioning nations considered to be inadequately fighting trafficking. It does, however, withhold funding from nongovernmental groups that are judged to "promote" prostitution.

The fact that Smith (along with three other groups, two of them faith-based, that make up the War Against Trafficking Alliance) co-hosted the State Department conference and testified before Congress is a testament to how religious groups have finally made it on Capitol Hill. There is a nexus of connections surrounding the Bush administration of which Smith is a part. She and Attorney General John Ashcroft have had a friendly relationship since her days in Congress. They both belonged to Assembly of God congregations and would see each other at functions for visiting church leaders. "I saw him right after he was sworn in," Smith recalls. She used the moment to talk about trafficking. Smith also counts John Miller as a friend. The two met years ago after Miller wrote an op-ed piece praising Smith's stance on campaign finance reform. They socialize. "We're both single in D.C.," Smith says, "so we have dinner." (Both have spouses living in Washington state.)

Smith's access and standing as a former congresswoman have undoubtedly helped her build her organization. She received $930,000 in federal funding over the last two fiscal years. Shared Hope's total annual revenue last year was almost $1.7 million, including private donations and foundation grants. The former congresswoman didn't exactly run off to become a humble, self-sacrificing Mother Teresa (if that's how you see the soon-to-be saint). Worthy as her work may be, Smith has discovered in it a new power base: a sprawling, well-funded, influential organization riding one of the hottest issues in the world.

Not that you'd be able to tell that from her office. It lies in a modest, nondescript building in a leafy neighborhood of Vancouver. Past a small reception area are winding corridors that lead farther than you might imagine. Smith, who travels almost constantly, meets me on a rare day that she is there. She has stayed in town a few days longer than expected because she picked up a bug the week before during a fact-finding mission to the Czech Republic. The next day, she plans to fly to Washington, D.C., for the release of the annual Trafficking in Persons Report, which comes out of Miller's office. The report is to incorporate Smith's documentation of trafficking cases in Australia, where she worked with a local women's group that has been challenging the government's contention that it doesn't have a problem. A few days after that, she's on to Johannesburg, where the War Against Trafficking Alliance is joining with the South African government in putting on a follow-up conference to the one held in D.C. last year. The alliance has received federal funding to put on six such conferences around the world.

Despite the bug, Smith looks cool and collected in a black jumper and sandals, her short brown hair streaked with highlights. She has an aloof manner, accentuated by a somewhat regal timbre to her voice. But she's intense. She begins talking about subjects as if she were in the middle of a conversation, seeming to pick up threads of thought that come into her head, and which she would like me to know. Within minutes, she mentions a "partner" who's a Muslim. She's referring to Mohamed Mattar, co-director of the Protection Project, a research institute based at Johns Hopkins University that is the only secular group in the War Against Trafficking Alliance. She also repeatedly alludes to the personal financial commitment she and her husband, Vern, have made to the cause, adding a money-conscious note to her generosity. They threw a lavish wedding in January for a woman named Ganga, the same one she took to Disney World, now living in a Shared Hope facility in India. "I don't know if Ganga even realizes . . . ," she says of the expense. "We gave her a full Indian wedding for 500 people."

In Nepal, they're also raising another young girl, named Mannisha, whose mother was a prostitute. Although they have not adopted her, they're paying for her education and living expenses. "That's our baby," she says, pointing to a picture on the back wall of a girl about 8 or 9 years old in a pink dress, smiling broadly, holding what Smith says is the first doll she ever had.

Smith seems genuinely wrapped up in her mission. She talks for hours about trafficking routes and destination points and which group of organized crime is doing what to which nationality of girls. Moldovan girls brought to the Dominican Republic, Thai girls to South Africa, Nepalese girls to India. India, the place she got into this work, is her touchstone. She relates how she met young women who were forced into prostitution in order to repay money that had been given their parents, a classic tale. "They were trying to preserve their dignity even though they were given no more than a day off for the birth of a baby," she says. She bemoans the plight in general of girls in India. "A nonperson is a nonperson," she says of the prevailing attitude. Her response: "These girls can do anything they want."

Her greatest contribution is the way she is trying to help them do so. A number of anti-trafficking groups "rescue" women into the void, with no home for them to go to other than nasty government facilities and no plan for what they might do next. In Mother Jones late last year, Maggie Jones wrote about one rescue in Thailand orchestrated by the International Justice Mission, a religious-based group aligned with Smith in the War Against Trafficking Alliance. Feeding information to police, IJM succeeded in shutting a brothel down, but many of the girls had in one month's time "run away from being saved," according to Jones.

Smith, in contrast, is building homes for trafficking victims, offering them educational and vocational options and sticking with them for the long haul. Michele Clark, the other co-director of the Protection Project, says that Smith understands that "you can't just say, 'Here's a bed for 30 days; go back into the same world from which you were trafficked.' She understands that it can take years for a woman to recover."

Outside Mumbai in India, Smith partnered with Teen Challenge to develop a 72-acre facility known as the Village of Hope. There's a mango orchard on it, and Smith says she's looking at putting a mango processing plant there to make the facility self-sustaining. Smith funded the facility's start-up, while Teen Challenge runs it day to day, a partnership model that she uses on all her projects. In Fiji, she and a local group have established another facility with a bakery. In South Africa this summer, Smith dedicated a renovated farmhouse where she wants to put another bakery as well as a toilet paper factory. While residents would have an opportunity to learn job skills from such enterprises, Smith says she also makes sure they get a basic education and, in some cases, pays for them to go to college. She appears to spend atypically large amounts on individual cases. "We have $10,000 on one girl," she says.

Yet it's curiously hard to pin Smith down on details of her operations. Asked how many people live in the Village of Hope outside Mumbai, she shrugs dismissively and says, "I don't know." It has a capacity for 300 to 500, she had told me, but is not at capacity. She never quite comes up with a figure for how many homes she has opened in all, despite being asked repeatedly, finally saying it's hard to calculate because some have closed while others have opened. Going through them one by one, it emerges that there are at least 10 facilities in six countries. "We intend to not have press coverage," she says at one point, indicating that the dangerous, illicit nature of what she is up against mandates a need for secrecy. So, in some cases, do her methods. "If we identify a child" in a brothel, she says, "we will have her physically removed." Asked how, she responds, "I'm not going to go there."

Obviously savvy to sensitivities around proselytizing, she is wary of talking too much about the religious aspect of her work. Smith's spiritual life has evolved. About 18 months ago, she left her Assembly of God congregation to attend a multi-denominational church that ministers to those coming off the streets and out of prison. But religion is still a central part of her life. In a promotional video about her homes that she plays for me, she says to the camera about those she is helping, "When they find there's a God, one God, that loves them – it changes them." When I ask her about it, she says that workers at the homes "are not trying to convert somebody to a religion," though they are open about the fact that "they're there because of what they believe."

Donald Wilkerson, the executive director of Global Teen Challenge, based in Virginia, is more up-front about the religious nature of the Village of Hope, which his organization oversees on a daily basis. "It's clearly a Christian program," he says, one that entails a regimen of religious instruction and daily prayers. Many of the women that come to the village learn about the facility through a church Teen Challenge has set up near Mumbai's red-light district.

While there might be some specific reasons for Smith to be vague, there's an amorphousness that lingers over the entire trafficking field.

Is All Prostitution 'Sex Slavery'?

Leigh Winchell, head of the regional office of the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement, sits in his high-up downtown Seattle office overlooking Puget Sound. ICE, as it is known, is charged with conducting trafficking investigations domestically. Winchell recently popped up in newspaper coverage of a June prostitution bust in Bellevue. Two of the alleged prostitutes were illegal immigrants from China. Winchell told the Seattle Times reporter writing about the case: "Human trafficking in the sex trade is alive and vibrant, particularly in the Northwest." Yet the Bellevue police, who helped conduct the raid, say they do not believe the women were being held against their will. When I ask Winchell about that, he tells me that he did not intend to suggest that this was a trafficking case. "Any comments I made in regard to the Bellevue case were more global in nature."

A tall, burly former cop, Winchell affirms that he has made trafficking a top priority, both because of directives from top brass and because of his judgment of the local landscape. "My agents tell me that about half of the women smuggled across the Pacific Northwest border are going into the sex trade." I wonder aloud whether they're being trafficked or going willingly. He acknowledges that some may be willing, but says: "All they have to do is be brought into the U.S. for purposes of the sex trade, as I currently understand it."

"But doesn't trafficking require some measure of force or deceit?" I ask.

He falters and reaches for some papers on the subject from a senior official at the Department of Homeland Security. "I have to research it. I believe just the fact that they are being smuggled alone falls into the area of fraud."

A few minutes later, he returns to the subject. "Where do you draw the line between smuggling and human trafficking? A person is smuggled in and put to work in the orchards. Are they being held against their will? They may have come here with a debt to pay and knowingly did that. So were they forced or coerced? I don't know."

It says something about the non-intuitive nature of what this crime is that the man responsible for investigating it here has to check his papers in order to grasp it. His confusion is understandable. There are varying definitions. The United Nations definition has three essential elements: some kind of transportation of an individual, some form of coercion or deception, and the ultimate result of one person "having control over another person for the purpose of exploitation." As this year's federal trafficking report notes, "many nations misunderstand this definition, overlooking internal trafficking or characterizing any irregular migration as trafficking." The differing U.S. definition "does not require that a trafficking victim be physically transported from one location to another," as the report states. But it does require "force, fraud, or coercion," unless the victim is a minor. To complicate things further, Washington state has its own definition, which is so loose as to include exploitative mail-order bride situations as a form of trafficking.

In fact, a number of evangelicals and feminists fighting trafficking consider virtually all prostitution, whether forced or not, a form of trafficking. "In reality, there is no distinction between them," says feminist scholar MacKinnon of prostitution and trafficking. She refers to the "inherent exploitation of the buying and selling of people for sex, which is what prostitution is – paying for sexual abuse, typically paying a third party [a pimp] to sexually abuse someone else."

It's an argument that Miller is sympathetic to. "Yes, people can be voluntarily in prostitution," says the trafficking czar. But, he says, "the more usual situation is that there is coercion or force or threats or psychological pressure." He points to research published this January in the Journal of Trauma Practice, worked on by University of Washington psychologist Ann Cotton among others, who interviewed current and former prostitutes around the world. Many had been raped or abused in their past. Eighty-nine percent said they wanted to leave prostitution. "I don't know of any other occupation where 89 percent of people want to escape," Miller says.

There is an argument to make that people who go into prostitution do not truly do so of their own free will but have been driven by economic desperation and abusive circumstances. But does that make them, literally, slaves? What about sweatshop workers? Poorly paid janitors? They're not as demeaned as prostitutes, but surely they're dying to leave their profession, too. One gets the impression when Miller talks about the "emerging human rights issue of the 21st century" that we are dealing with a new, shocking crime. It seems an odd label for prostitution, the oldest crime in the book.

Part of the problem in understanding trafficking is that there are a lot of assumptions made from afar about the ostensible victims, argues Joanna Busza, a lecturer at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. "Nobody's bothered to ask them how they got there and if they're exploited," she says. She and two fellow researchers spent time in Mali and Cambodia interviewing people that had been identified by local nongovernmental organizations as trafficking victims. They published their findings this June in the British Medical Journal. Of 1,000 young people identified in Mali, many of whom had returned from working on cocoa plantations in the Ivory Coast, "only four could be classified as having been deceived, exploited, or not paid at all for their labor." Talking to Vietnamese prostitutes in Cambodia, just six of 100 women "reported having been 'tricked' into sex work or betrayed by an intermediary." Many of the women, however, were working under a "debt bondage" system, paying back loans made to them or their families, and were unhappy with their sometimes violent working conditions.

Busza's study has tapped into a reassessment some are making within the anti-trafficking movement about the scope of the problem. "The situation has been exaggerated; that seems to be the reality we're learning," says Ann Jordan, the director of a trafficking program run by the International Human Rights Law Group in Washington, D.C., who has worked on the issue since living in China 15 years ago. Jordan, who works with a network of service providers nationwide, notes that the feds keep changing the statistics regarding the number of people trafficked into the U.S. At one time, they said there were 50,000 trafficking victims here, then 18,000 to 20,000 and now, according to the latest State Department report, 14,500 to 17,500.

"I only know that all our partner NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] are busy with clients all the time," Jordan says. "But they have nowhere near that number. Either we have tens of thousands of people in the U.S. sitting in slavery or their numbers are off. I don't know." According to Ashcroft's report on trafficking to Congress this May, the federal government had identified just 450 trafficking victims domestically in the 2003 fiscal year who were eligible to receive certain benefits, including the newly created "T" visa. In King County, the Refugee Women's Alliance received a grant of approximately a quarter million dollars to lead a "trafficking response team" that would provide services to victims. It has handled only about 10 cases in more than a year.

"A lot of the stats are, if not made up, then certainly the basis for which they are derived is never given," says David Feingold, who coordinates regional trafficking projects for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Bangkok. Speaking by phone from there, he says that a lot of the estimates come from nongovernmental organizations that have no training in research. His agency has put together an illuminating database of the many and wildly varying trafficking statistics, cited along with their sources (accessible online at The worldwide trafficking estimates vary from 700,000 victims (in the range of the current State Department figure) to 200 million.

"It's very embarrassing," Miller admits of the statistical fluctuations. Within the federal government, he says, the varying numbers reflect the increasingly intensive research effort.

The Victims Are Real, But How Many Are There?

Like Jimmy Carter and George Mitchell, Miller has achieved new renown in his post-political life. "I've been around government for 25, 30 years, and I've never seen a guy as admired by people on both sides of the aisle," says Michael Horowitz, a prominent neoconservative affiliated with the Hudson Institute. Having left Congress in 1993 to spend more time with his then 4-year-old son, the 66-year-old Miller was chairing the Discovery Institute, a conservative Seattle think tank, and teaching English literature at the Northwest Yeshiva High School on Mercer Island when the president tapped him to take charge of the national trafficking office. Since doing so, he has brought a new level of forcefulness to an office that previously kept beneath the radar.

"My role has been to elevate the issue," he says, speaking by phone during a vacation trip to Lake Chelan, "to make sure that our embassies and the State Department and other agencies take this very seriously, that they know that this is not just some throwaway part of American policy." Miller has been willing to put pressure even on allies of the U.S., including Japan, which in this June's trafficking report was put on a "watch list" of problem countries. If those countries fall to Tier 3, the lowest grading of countries evaluated in the report according to their anti-trafficking efforts, then they risk losing American aid and funding for cultural exchanges. Last year, a Tier 3 rating so spooked Kazakhstan that its foreign minister went on national television and gave a 30-minute address railing against the scourge of trafficking.

Miller has met victims himself. He says one of the first was a woman in the Netherlands. She had been living in the Czech Republic in a failing marriage when a friend suggested she could make money waiting tables in Amsterdam. Leaving a 2-year-old daughter behind, she crossed the border with someone who turned out to be a trafficker, who handed her over to another in Amsterdam who took her to the red-light district. "You will work here," Miller says the trafficker told her. When she said she wouldn't, the trafficker replied, "Yes you will, if you want your 2-year-old daughter to live."

There are enough stories like hers, some far more brutal, to serve as a reminder that trafficking is not a chimera. But as for how pervasive it is, Miller maintains that it's impossible to know. "Victims don't stand in line and raise their hands to be counted," he likes to say in his booming, jovial voice. He minimizes the importance of exact quantification. "All of us involved in the issue know enough firsthand to know that the problem is huge." Pressed on the point, he points to 8,000 trafficking prosecutions worldwide in 2003. "The typical trafficker is involved with 20, 100, 500 victims," he says. "If you just take those into account, you're clearly in the hundreds of thousands."

But the difference between 20 victims per trafficker and 500 is the difference between 160,000 and 4 million victims – sizably different levels of magnitude. The difference is not academic. It's essential to determining what should be done about the problem – if you can pin down exactly what the problem is – and how many resources should be put into it. The federal government spent $91 million fighting trafficking in the last fiscal year, much of that money going to nonprofit groups and government agencies around the world that accordingly have a vested interest in trumpeting the problem and are refocusing their energies around it. "Trafficking is big business not just for traffickers but also for the international development community," write Busza and her co-authors in their piece scrutinizing the prevailing wisdom on Malian and Cambodian trafficking. The trafficking task force in our own cash-strapped state recommends that a new funding pool be set up to tackle the issue. Miller's office uses current trafficking estimates, broken down according to country, to pressure governments around the world to pass new anti-trafficking laws and spend money on the problem – or risk facing sanctions.

The disconnect between the rhetoric on trafficking and the actual number of documented cases, nowhere more evident than in Washington state, does more than raise questions about the resources spent. It presents a credibility problem that takes away from the horror of the real cases out there.

Some in the anti-trafficking field consider it heresy to suggest that the issue has been hyped. But the Human Rights Law Group's Ann Jordan takes a more sanguine view. If the numbers are smaller, she reasons, we probably can have more success in solving the problem.

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