Every year between 700,000 to 4 million people are trafficked around the world for sexual exploitation and forced labor. Most victims are women and children. The U.S. State Department estimates that at least 50,000 people are trafficked annually into the United States.
For most people, slavery is something they learn about in history class; an unspeakable horror absent from today's more civilized world. Unfortunately, this is not the case for the millions of people whose search for a better life leads them into the hands of 21st century slave traders.
Jenny Stanger with the Los Angeles-based Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking, or CAST, says slavery and its effects can be found everywhere.
"Slavery is all around us, and we all benefit from it. We benefit from it by the cheap clothes that we wear, the cheap food that we get in the grocery store, the cheap food that we eat when we go out to a restaurant. It's not to say that slave labor is used to make all of those things, but it might be. There might be a connection to slavery, and we're benefiting from it," she said.
Men, women, even children are migrating from countries where they have few or no opportunities for employment. However, very often there are no legal means for them to migrate, and they turn to organized crime for help.
Human smugglers are all too eager to charge exorbitant sums of money to move people across borders. Often, the vulnerable migrants end up being forced to work against their will to pay these debts. Profits from human trafficking are estimated close to seven billion dollars annually.
Victims can find themselves working anywhere: Western Europe, oil-rich Gulf States, Japan, Thailand, and Bosnia. Even in America, "home of the free", there are tens of thousands of people trafficked here for forced labor. These people are held against their will and forced to work in the sex industry, on farms, in restaurants, bakeries, garment factories, and in individual homes as domestics.
"Any kind of informal, underground type of job situation is where you're going to find the potential for slavery," said Jenny Stanger.
She also said, "And it's not virtual slavery. I mean we're talking about slavery. I hear the phrase virtual slavery all the time or slave-like. We are finding people in slavery. There's nothing virtual or slave-like about it. It just is slavery. People whose identification has been taken away from them. There's violence being used to control them, and they're not being paid. And they're being forced to work all day, every day, no days off."
Sharon Payt is senior coordinator for the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons at the U.S. State Department.
"I personally think it's the dark side of globalization. As you've had more fluidity between countries and the borders are coming down, what we get is a lot of people being free to travel between countries who weren't free before. The criminal networks have taken advantage of this. There are increasingly vulnerable populations now for all kinds of different reasons regionally throughout the world. These trafficking networks are so well organized they're able to take advantage of that extreme poverty, that extreme vulnerability that a lot of people groups find themselves in," Sharon Payt said.
In October 2000, the U.S. Congress passed the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act. The legislation created the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, which works with international, state and local law enforcement agencies to protect victims of trafficking, prosecute the traffickers, and educate the public about the problem.
The Office also puts out an annual report on global efforts to fight human trafficking. The report ranks countries into three groups with the worst offenders at the bottom. In 2003, the countries judged not to have made any real effort to stop human trafficking will face economic sanctions. Coordinator Payt says this will be crucial.
Sharon Payt said, "This was a very deliberate strategy that's kind of key in the legislation because it promotes attention among governments to this issue who otherwise wouldn't be interested, or perhaps not give it as much attention as they should. For example, we have a lot of governments now that are very, very interested in engaging in anti-trafficking efforts. And we think in part it's because they know that there's a listing mechanism to identify them as having a problem that is issued in conjunction with our annual report. Then there are of course, the sanctions that are going to come into play for the first time next year.
But critics say the U.S. State Department's report doesn't altogether address the issue. They complain the list is political and lets key U.S. allies, including South Korea, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and several Persian Gulf states, off the hook.
Countries obviously want to avoid a negative ranking and in a rush to get a higher grade, they often pass legislation that isn't helpful, although it looks good on paper. Critics say this is a band-aid approach to fighting trafficking and won't do much good.
Coordinator Payt says the criticism is welcome.
"We like the attention. There must be an ongoing heated debate, and as soon as that stops, then that means we are going to have less political attention toward this issue. So we want to garner all this attention right now to get stuff done. We've got a mountain to move. NGOs (non- governmental organizations) are our real partner in this, and of course, as advocates they're going to be spurring us on to better implementation and to really holding hostile governments or difficult governments or unconcerned governments' feet to the fire," coordinator Payt said.
Ann Jordan, a director at the International Human Rights Law Group, agrees that U.S. law can be improved but cites some achievements.
"I think we have made progress. In the United States, we have not a perfect law, but really quite a good law. It recognizes that people who are trafficked are victims. They're not simply undocumented migrants. And we have prosecutors in the Justice Department who are working enormous hours on these cases, putting them together and prosecuting them. And we have a good conviction record here in the United States," she said.
In addition to increased spending on law enforcement efforts, Ms. Jordan says the developed world needs to examine its immigration policies.
"No matter how much awareness there is about the issue, even among potential migrants, if it's not possible for people to migrate safely, you're not going to see a reduction in the numbers, because people are so desperate in many countries that they're willing to take the risk, and they think it's not going to happen to them," Ms. Jordan said.
In the United States alone there are close to eight million people who are here illegally. Jordan says the vast majority of them are working, and if the government were to legalize their status, they wouldn't be as exploitable.
In an increasingly globalized world where ethnic and religious conflict force people off traditional lands and from rural areas into crowded, economically depressed cities, more and more people will be desperate for work.
At the same time, the demand for cheap labor continues to grow in the United States and Western Europe. Unless governments begin to address this imbalance, observers say human traffickers will be more than willing to step in and take advantage of the situation.