UN and partners launch initiative to end ‘modern slavery’ of human trafficking

Antonio Costa

26 March 2007 – The United Nations, Governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) today jointly launched The Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking, choosing the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade to fight a modern scourge that may entrap up to 27 million people at any given time in a market valued at $32 billion.

“Slavery is a booming international trade, less obvious than 200 years ago for sure, but all around us,” UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa told a ceremony in London today, which is also the bicentennial of the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire.

“Perhaps we simply prefer to close our eyes to it, as many law-abiding citizens buy the products and the services produced on the cheap by slaves,” he added, noting that most victims of this modern-day slavery are women and young girls, many of whom are forced into prostitution or otherwise exploited sexually.

Trafficked men are found in fields, mines and quarries, or in other dirty and dangerous working conditions. Boys and girls are trafficked into conditions of child labour, within a diverse group of industries, such as textiles, fishing or agriculture.

Because human trafficking is a crime, and therefore clandestine, accurate numbers are not available. Many believe 2.5 million, the number given by international experts for those held in bondage through physical and/or psychological force at any one time, represents the tip of a much greater iceberg.

The UN International Labour Organization (ILO) calculates the minimum number of people in forced labour at 12.3 million, while research by Free the Slaves, a non-governmental organization (NGO) based in the United States, puts the number at 27 million.

Human trafficking has become big business. The UN and other experts estimate the total market value of illicit human trafficking at $32 billion, about $10 billion derived from the initial “sale” of individuals, with the remainder representing the estimated profits from the activities or goods produced by the victims of this barbaric crime.

Human trafficking is a global problem, which UNODC believes has reached epidemic proportions over the past decade. No country is immune, whether as a source, a destination or a transit point for victims of human trafficking.

A recent UNODC report called ‘Trafficking in Persons: Global Patterns’ identifies Thailand, China, Nigeria, Albania, Bulgaria, Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine among the countries that are the greatest sources of trafficked persons. Thailand, Japan, Israel, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Turkey and the US are cited as the most common destinations. Overall people from 127 countries are exploited in 137 nations.

The UN Protocol Against Trafficking in Persons, in effect since December 2003, makes human trafficking a crime, and has been ratified by more than 110 countries, but participating governments and their criminal justice systems have not effectively curbed the practice. Few criminals are convicted, and most victims never receive help; on the contrary, many victims themselves are convicted of offences such as illegal entry or unlawful residence.

Among its goals, the Global Initiative aims to raise public awareness throughout the world as part of a larger strategy to eliminate the practice by informing potential victims of the dangers, reducing demand for services and products that rely on slave labour, protecting victims and improving law enforcement methods.

Greater enforcement is essential. “The Protocol is only a piece of paper unless it is implemented,” Mr. Costa stressed, noting that in some countries, the power of organized crime, corruption and complicity of police stifle enforcement efforts. More resources, both money and personnel, are also needed.

“Everyone agrees trafficking is a problem, but funding for global action by UNODC has been less than $15 million for the past seven years, and not much better for other organizations,” he said. “We have the tools to do this but we do not have the political will, large scale public awareness or the resources to make it happen.”

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