Human trafficking: The faces and sorrow at the heart of a UN report

13 February 2009 – Rose was just a teenager in Cameroon when she was promised a chance to go to school in the United States. What she got was – slavery, working 15 hours a day for years, paid nothing, and beaten.

Anna (not their real names) was beaten throughout her childhood in Moldova, and fled her home in despair at age 12. But those who “helped” her run away to a supposedly better life trafficked her to Poland where she was forced to beg on the streets and beaten if she did not make enough money.

Sokha was 14 when she was trafficked across the border from Cambodia into Thailand to sell fruit – and was then forced into prostitution when her “boss” found the fruit trade not sufficiently lucrative.

And Kwame’s young life embraced a dream when his parents were told he would join a sales business. Instead, he was trafficked to the infamous fishing region around Ghana’s Lake Volta where he was forced to do dirty, dangerous jobs for eight long years.

These are the human faces, and the sorrow, of just four of the victims whose terrible plight is highlighted by the Global Report on Trafficking in Persons issued by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) – four young people whose sagas can be multiplied several million-fold. According to the UN International Labour Organization (ILO), two million more people are enslaved each year.

Rose finally opened the door in suburban Washington, D.C., and ran shoelesss although it was October and bitterly cold. She called the number of a Cameroonian man who visited her slave owner’s house occasionally and seemed concerned about her. He picked her up hours later. Another Cameroonian took her into his home and she was eventually reunited with other young Cameroonian girls who had been enslaved.

Ana spent five years begging in Poland before she managed to escape and was returned to Moldova by the local police.

Sokha was eventually saved by an organization in Thailand that rescues girls from prostitution. Now she hopes to set up her own sewing business and employ other girls trafficked as she was.

After eight years of backbreaking labour and heartbreaking abuse, Kwame was freed by an anti-slavery group in Ghana. He is now recovering and wants to go to school “so that I can grow up to become somebody.”

There are so many others who have suffered a similar fate that it would take a whole forest of trees to produce the paper to record their plight. The lack of reliable statistics go to the core of the problem – so little is known that no estimate can be given of the magnitude of those caught up in this modern-day slavery.

“Many governments are in denial,” said Antonio Costa, the UNODC Executive Director. They don’t report adequately or prosecute cases of what is often referred to as people-trafficking, he added.

While the most common manifestation of trafficking is sexual exploitation (accounting for 80 per cent of the phenomenon), other activities such as forced labour in mines, factories, sweatshops or domestic servitude, as well as child soldiers, are less frequently detected.

Also, while trafficking seems to imply movement across continents, sadly most exploitation takes place close to home, within countries or regions.

On the plus side, the number of countries implementing the international agreement that addresses trafficking in persons has doubled. Of the 155 countries that were surveyed, over 60 per cent had enacted laws following a special UN protocol to fight human trafficking adopted in 2003. However, many governments still resist enforcement, said Mr. Costa. According to the UN's chief crime fighter, “This is a crime that shames us all.”

“Over the past decade, trafficking in persons has reached epidemic proportions. No country is immune,” warned UNODC.


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