Understanding the new slavery

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 November, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 November, 2002, 12:00am

SLAVERY IN HUMAN society has a long history, dating back to Mesopotamia in 6,000 BC. And while most of us would like to believe that it is a thing of the past, there are many signs that trade in human beings is alive and well.

News of modern-day forms of slavery and trafficking emerging in the past several decades has been so alarming that the United Nations set up a working group to study the problem in 1975. Since then, numerous governments, non-governmental organisations and activists have joined together to combat the problem. But according to those on the frontlines, the problem is now bigger and more complex than ever. And there is little agreement on the causes and possible remedies.

Measures to counteract trafficking are themselves often controversial. A case in point is the Trafficking in Persons report from the United States, which has been issued annually since the US passed an anti-trafficking law in 2000. Some human rights experts agree that the law in many ways represents progress because it includes funding to help victims of trafficking, and puts some legal muscle behind the campaign to stop traffickers, but others have criticised the fact that the report ranks the anti-trafficking efforts of 82 countries, with the notable exception of the US itself.

The rankings are significant because the US plans to begin imposing sanctions, starting next year, on countries in the Tier Three category, reserved for those with trafficking problems and no serious measures to tackle them. Possible sanctions include the withdrawal of money for mine-clearing programmes and support for loans from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Indonesia and Cambodia could face such action.

Thailand has been labelled a Tier Two country, meaning it is making the minimum effort required to combat trafficking. Thai government officials fear that, despite a number of court cases brought against traffickers, and progress on trafficking treaties with some of its Southeast Asian neighbours, the country may be moved up a level next year.

Some critics have noted that Pakistan, a Tier Three country in last year's report, has been moved down a level this year, and wonder aloud whether the report is being used to gain co-operation for US policies, especially in relation to its war on terrorism.

'Is it realistic to impose sanctions unilaterally?' said Vitit Muntarbhorn, of the Thailand Subcommittee on the Rights of the Child. 'The fact is the world is not very comfortable with this at the moment.'

Other measures taken to address the problem include a United Nations protocol and an Association of Southeast Nations agreement signed this summer that covers co-operation in tackling trafficking. But much of the real energy in anti-trafficking efforts over the past decades has been at the local level, with non-governmental organisations playing a key role.

The attention focused on trafficking is on the increase, but those who follow it closely offer one depressing conclusion: trafficking is becoming more complex, with no real solutions in sight. Problems include its underground nature, and the fact that the extent of connections to organised crime is unknown.

Many believe the trafficking networks involve a mix of small-scale, non-organised people-movers and large syndicates, often operating with help from corrupt officials - and that only a small percentage of cases ever come to light. Estimates of the numbers trafficked each year range from 700,000 to four million, but few reliable figures exist.

The large grey zone that includes people who agree or pay to be smuggled across borders to places where they can find work and may later be trafficked, the existence of methods such as illegal adoptions and fake marriages, and cases of high-level officials who traffic in servants under the cover of diplomatic immunity only add to the complexity.

Even within a small geographical area, reasons can vary. For minority girls from the highlands of Thailand, experts say, the biggest factor is a lack of citizenship and the rights that entails, including access to schooling. But for the hill tribes of neighbouring Myanmar, the largest problem is political and economic stagnation.

Some non-governmental organisations working in Thailand and its border areas have tried to identify the reasons for vulnerability, offer micro-enterprise or other economic development, and inform villagers about the risks related to migration. Phil Marshall, of the UN Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking, said: 'There's a large supply of people willing to be moved and there's a large demand [in the form of] jobs for them. There's not a large supply of people willing to be trafficked.'

Although many draw a connection between globalisation and increased levels of human trafficking, some aid workers advocate specifically local solutions. Oren Ginzburg, a researcher with Unicef in Thailand, said the group was looking at ways to base researchers inside villages for long periods and incorporate local people into its work 'so the research is part of the solution already'.

Moreover, factions within the anti-trafficking community disagree openly on causes and how best to intervene. Perhaps the most divisive argument is the one over how to treat prostitution. Is it another mode of labour that deserves protection, or is it a form of exploitation that should not be tolerated and that never includes any true choice? The answer has implications for where anti-trafficking energy and funding goes. One proponent of making prostitution illegal wherever possible is University of Rhode Island professor Donna Hughes. She is lobbying the US government to end all funding to any non-governmental organisations that work with sex workers.

Some anti-trafficking activists argue that making prostitution illegal will only make the women that much more vulnerable to trafficking and to corrupt police, rather than deter prostitution. They advocate incorporating women who have been trafficked into prevention programmes, and also point out the dangers of conflating trafficking with prostitution. Many people are trafficked to work in factories and in homes, and assuming that all trafficking is related to the sex trade would be a mistake, they say.

Such debates show no signs of abating, but the encouraging news is that the issue is continuing to receive serious attention. In addition to the many international meetings that have focused on the issue over the past year, the US State Department is planning to hold one in Washington in February. There is controversy over how it is being organised and who will be invited, but if the meeting manages to bring about some consensus on the nature of the problem, and about how to deal with it, that would represent real progress.

Anh-Thu Phan is Associate Editor of the Post's opinion pages

Graphic: ANH23GET