There Are 21 Million Victims of Human Trafficking Right Now: Coming to Grips and Trying to Solve Mass Human Suffering

On May 10th, a panel convened by David Phillips at the Columbia University's Institute for the Study of Human Rights, Program on Peace-building and Rights,addressed the outrage that there are almost 21 million victims of human trafficking around the world, according to a 2016 report from the International Labour Organization. 

The panel, co-sponsored by Elizabeth Salett, Director of Human Trafficking Search, ( was organized "to raise awareness about the interconnection between human trafficking and armed conflict and the many forms it takes – whether it is through child recruitment, sex slavery, organ trafficking, forced labor or forced military service." Salett told AlterNet via email, "It was also to learn about the recent work of the UN Security Council and its efforts to the strengthen the international response to addressing human trafficking."

Lucy Usoyan, President of the Ezidi Relief Fund spoke first, explaining the plight of Ezidi women in Iraq and Syria under ISIS, how they are sold on the black market to ISIS soldiers and kept as sexual slaves and domestic servants for months, sometimes years. In Iraq and Syria alone, there are at least 3,000 Ezidi (an ethnically and religious Kurdish minority) women and girls enduring forced labor and sexual slavery at the hands of ISIS, who believe their atrocities are "a holy condition" as Usoyan explained. 

Compounding the situation, even their liberation from ISIS doesn't guarantee a smooth transition home. In some cases, Usoyan noted, the women are rejected by their communities, treated as if their captivity and ISIS's cruelty were their ownfault. This presents an additional challenge for the institutions, like the U.N. and foreign governments who assist these women; freedom from ISIS does not necessarily mean freedom from persecution. 

The next speaker, Tom Wheeler, Senior Policy Advisor, Development and Human Rights, United Kingdom Mission to the United Nations,  exlained the opportunities and challenges said institutions have to fight human trafficking in all its forms. He discussed how the issue is "a high priority" for the current British Prime Minister, Theresa May.

He pointed to the Modern Slavery Act of 2015, which consolidates previous laws related to slavery, and according to Wheeler, provides more protections for women performing any kind of labor against their will. It also provides more stringent requirements for any business worth over £36 million (about $50 million in US dollars), to prove that they are preventing domestic slavery in their supply chain.

For UK-based companies, human trafficking is a problem in corporate warehouses, where workers are often paying off debts to human smugglers that brought them to the country. It's also a problem in countries where the companies aren't based, but get their source materials from, for example, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where workers are forced to dig for minerals commonly found in our cell phones, overseen by various groups involved in local armed conflicts.

When the state is weak on enforcing anti-slavery laws, Wheeler believes it's up to businesses to recognize whether they are unwittingly participating in these conflicts by using forced labor.

The next speaker, James Cockayne, Head of Office at United Nations University elaborated on the role the United Nations can play in this issue. He noted that there are multiple policies and programs that touch on parts of the issue: armed conflicts, peacebuilding, labor, and migration but no one umbrella framework focuses on how they relate to each other in contributing to human trafficking. Siloing and fragmentation among departments, both UN speakers noted, is a key challenge; more coordination and communication between departments working on the programs and policies addressing human trafficking is crucial. 

Of course, these programs and policies are also only as good as the people enforcing them. On the ground peacekeepers and relief workers in conflict zones need to be trained to look for signs of trafficking. During a question and answer session, one attendee mentioned that perhaps doctors too need to be trained to spot these signs, as they may be the first sources of aid that victims see. 

Cockayne continued, this push must be done with political will, not only from the U.N., but from governments around the world. Cockayne believes that "we can't deal [with human trafficking] without political will because the people involved are the least politically powerful." Even on a micro level, trafficking victims are least likely to call the police, for fear of retaliation from their captors or even that their immigration status may be found out. 

There are a few positive signs for institutions addressing the issue. In December 2016, the Security Council adopted its first anti-human trafficking resolution, after many years of assuming it was a decision for a country's own criminal courts to solve, even if countries like Iraq and Syria that don't have the infrastructure to do so.

The resolution asks the Secretary General to produce recommendations and report on progress in a year. Cockayne cautioned that the UN can't be the only actor involved: the body can "parse resolutions, have great debates," but getting these debates to translate into concrete action, "will require a whole other push." In addition to Theresa May's committment, Cockayne sees some promise in Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, who has said that his fight against human trafficking would be a core part of his government legacy, a sign, according to the UN staffers, that fighting human trafficking is a bipartisan issue.  

During the closing remarks, Cockayne asked Usoyan whether the UN staff on the ground in Syria and Iraq were "assisting correctly." Usoyan answered that it depended on the area. In "Northern Syria sure there's a U.N. office, but it's been closed for a year." In Sinjyar, there are still 500 families living in tents and the U.N., she said, has refused to supply vaccines to Northern Syria. Cockayne promised a follow-up. 

Perhaps more than the usual meeting locations, a classroom in Columbia University provided space for true candor and communication.

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