Invisible Shackles: A closer look at the new measures aimed at bringing an end to human trafficking

Courtesy of Imagens Evangélicas

By: Mahira N. Khan

There is an industry, market driven, that is in high demand and extremely profitable. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security estimates that this industry employs over 20 million people worldwide, with about 18,000 in the U.S. alone. The industry makes annual profits estimated at $150 billion. This industry is also illegal under federal and international law. Comprised of the most serious and gravest crimes, this industry includes forced labor, marriage, organ extraction, sexual slavery are and many more. This is the human trafficking industry.

Human trafficking is the illegal buying, selling, and smuggling of people, usually women and children, to profit from their forced labor and/or sexual servitude; it is also known as trafficking in persons (TIP). Under U.S. federal law, “severe forms of [TIP]” includes sex trafficking and labor trafficking. Sex trafficking is the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for commercial sex acts, where the sex acts are induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or where the person induced to perform the act is not 18 years of age. Labor trafficking is 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.

While every state in the U.S. has criminalized sex trafficking and most have criminalized labor trafficking, incidents have still been reported in all 50 states. In recent years, state legislatures have focused on passing measures to tackle this problem by doing everything from providing funding to law enforcement authorities to requiring states to identify minors in foster care who have been victims. Why aren’t these measures enough? According to law enforcement experts, the most urgent problem in prosecuting and abolishing TIP is the continued practice of arresting the victims rather than their customers or pimps.

A series of five acts, also known as the “safe harbor laws” were passed in May 2014 by the U.S. House of Representatives, shortly after the U.S. received news of the missing schoolgirls in Nigeria, which put TIP in the spotlight. These laws, among other things, will provide greater punishments for the traffickers, grant immunity from prostitution charges for minors under 18, create procedures for expunging prostitution convictions, and grant restitution to victims. The proposed legislation reflects bipartisan efforts to combat a problem that has no received widespread attention.

The first act, The Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act of 2013, features an amended criminal code to impose additional and increased penalties for TIP crimes. It also eliminates the possibility for persons involved in child exploitations crimes to establish an affirmative defense. These perpetrators would be required to show clear and convincing evidence that they believed the child was an adult. Additionally, it proposes the creation of a “Domestic Trafficking Victims’ Fund,” which would be used to fund victims’ support programs. The funds are deficit neutral and derived from fines on persons convicted of child pornography, human trafficking, child prostitution, sexual exploitation, and human smuggling proposes.

The Preventing Sex Trafficking and Improving Opportunities for Youth in Foster Care Act now requires states to take steps to identify, prevent, and address sex trafficking of youth in foster care while improving their lives by ensuring they have normal opportunities and experiences and the tools to become successful adults proposes. Additionally, the Act would ensure development of policies and procedures through the foster care and adoption system for identifying and screening children believed to have been trafficking victim and ensure states do more to quickly move kids out of foster care and into loving families.

The Stop Exploitation Through Trafficking Act of 2013 amends previous TIP acts and would require that within three years, each state have legislation that (1) treat minors who engaged or attempted to engage in a commercial sex act as a victim of a severe form of TIP, (2) discourages the charging or prosecution of a minor for prostitution or a sex trafficking offense, and (3) encourages the diversion of such an individual to child protection services.

The Stop Advertising Victims of Exploitation Act of 2014 (also known as “SAVE Act of 2014) proposes to amend federal criminal code so that advertising commercial sex acts involving a minor or an individual engaged in such acts though force, fraud, or coercion is prohibited. The Act adds advertising to the types of conduct constituting sex trafficking, requires a person to have knowingly benefited financial or otherwise from the sale of such advertising to be punished under this Act, and puts the advertiser of trafficked children under age fourteen in prison for a minimum of fifteen years to life.

The International Megan’s Law to Prevent Demands for Child Sex Trafficking is another Act.  Named after Megan Kanka, a seven-year-old from Hamilton, New Jersey who was killed by a repeat sex offender living nearby her house, the bill would request foreign governments to notify the U.S. of impending international travel of a child-sex offender entering the country. In return, the U.S. would also notify the country to which the offender intends to travel (referred to as “reciprocal notice”). It will also discourage and eradicate “child sex tourism” by monitoring the activities of the offenders while in the country

These Acts introduce many new provisions that may prove successful. Key provisions include an emphasis on rehabilitation and immunity for the victims, increasing penalties for even engaging in advertising, and requesting foreign cooperation. Individual states are also making an effort to eradicate the problem through independent state laws.  Shutting down online sexual service advertisements is still being considered, but it has been problematic to find a solution that does not conflict with First Amendment rights.

TIP essentially thrives due to two reasons: low-risk communities and high-demand. Low-risk occurs when communities are unaware of the problem, when government and community organizations are not prepared to respond, when laws or ineffective or dormant, and when safety nets for victims do not exist. The introduction of these bills has the country hopeful that these issues might no longer be a problem in the future, especially with the increased media attention TIP receives. However, the high-demand of this business is still an issue. The TIP industry thrives off demand; when individuals are willing to buy commercial sex and cheap labor, they create a market and make it profitable for traffickers.

These laws seek to target the traffickers, but what about those who help the industry flourish in the first place? An ideal solution to help further address and eliminate TIP would be to impose increased and harsher penalties for those who request and pay for the products of TIP. While laws exist to target those who solicit the services of trafficked victims, reclassifying solicitation of trafficked persons to be just as grave of an offense as trafficking itself would be a key step to overthrowing the TIP industry.

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