SLAVERY STILL EXISTS – EXPLORING THE PARALLELS BETWEEN HISTORICAL SLAVERY AND MODERN DAY SLAVERY AND USING THE EFFORTS OF PAST YEARS TO PAVE THE WAY FOR SUCCESS.
Conversations about the issue of human trafficking have finally gained momentum among communities across the United States. We are seeing a shift in the public’s false perception of human trafficking as an international issue that predominantly afflicts those in Southeast Asia or Eastern Europe, and are beginning to see a collective awareness of its prevalence in this very country, in our own backyards. No one state, city, small town, or community is immune – it is an all-encompassing crime that does not discriminate; it cuts across all demographics and societal norms.
Following President Barack Obama’s 2012 declaration, we have entered into the second consecutive year of recognizing January as the National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. This bold presidential gesture has brought human trafficking awareness and eradication to the forefront , and has challenged individuals and communities at all levels, from government actors to the general public, to once again engage in difficult, yet much needed conversations about slavery – both as it existed historically and now, as modern-day slavery.
Slavery as it existed historically, involved the treatment of human beings as commodities – property to be traded in the marketplace and conferring on owners the “right” to do with them as they pleased. Those that were enslaved were brutalized physically and psychologically, and were subjected to a life of indentured servitude. They were stripped of all their basic human rights and suffered some of the worst atrocities known to humankind.
The 2013 release of the movie 12 Years a Slave tells the powerful true story of Solomon Northrup, a free Black man, who was lured by a lucrative job opportunity and kidnapped, drugged, and sold into slavery. While a difficult movie to watch; it is a must see for all audiences. The director doesn’t hold back as he takes us through the vivid journey of exploitation and violence experienced by Solomon. This movie took me on a rollercoaster ride filled with mixed emotions of anger, horror and sadness. However, one thought lingered throughout – how much progress have we made as a society, when slavery is still alive and well? We are all kidding ourselves if we think that slavery ended when President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation or when the 13th Amendment was introduced into the U.S. Constitution. Skeptics may argue that today’s anti-trafficking movement is merely using exaggerated comparisons with historical slavery as a platform to build public awareness for the modern issue of human trafficking. But before you accept that hypothesis, I challenge you to take a step back for one moment and look at the exploitation and recruitment tactics used by owners then, and compare it to present day conditions; then ask yourselves, are things really that different?
I am confident that you have arrived at the same conclusion that I have – that today’s modern day slavery is not that different. The name may have changed, but the fundamental concepts of historical slavery still resonate in today’s modern society; the concepts just adapted to changing times. Today’s victims and survivors of human trafficking still experience physical violence and psychological manipulation at the hands of their traffickers. A trafficking victim today could be a migrant farmworker who endures a 13 hour workday without a break; whose employer confiscates all his identifying documents and threatens deportation. It could be an adult female whose boyfriend advertises her on the internet for commercial sex services, subjects her to a daily quota, and threatens harm to her or her loved ones if she doesn’t meet his demands. Or, it could be the 12 year old minor, who runs away from an abusive home, only to be seduced into providing commercial sex services by a pimp’s promise of stability and a protective family environment. Yes, the faces of the exploited may have changed, and each individual’s experience is unique, but traffickers are preying on the same vulnerabilities that have existed throughout time and are only getting smarter through modern day technological advances and tactics.
Promises of a better life, attractive job opportunities, lavish and simple gifts, or gestures of love and affection, are all manipulative ploys used by traffickers to recruit individuals into their growing trafficking business. Their initial investment in recruitment is minimal in comparison to the returns from their exploitation and puts truth to the oft-used adage that human trafficking is a low risk crime that yields high profits. The exploitation of human beings by other human beings is an unfortunate and long-standing practice that we all want to believe was abolished; the harsh reality is that these individuals are not living their lives under that blanket of fruitful promises. They are instead forced to work in deplorable conditions; they are stripped of their basic right to make their own choices, and are still being exploited as commodities by their traffickers.
The anti-trafficking community experienced a big win with the 2002 passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA); a formal recognition of human trafficking as a federal crime. In 2013, we further solidified our commitment to combat human trafficking when Wyoming became the final state to pass anti-trafficking legislation. The Policy program at Polaris Project , an anti-trafficking non-profit based in Washington, DC that works to combat all forms of human trafficking, conducts an annual review of state legislation through a 10 category criteria of core provisions required for a comprehensive legal response to human trafficking. The results of their 2013 review highlighted significant improvements in state legislation, country-wide.
The progress in Arkansas is worthy of mention. Rated as a one of the “Faltering Four” in 2012 because it had not made nominal efforts to enact a basic legal framework for human trafficking, it has since jumped up 3 tiers and is now a Tier 1 state that has achieved recognition for being one of the “Most Improved” states in 2013, with regards to human trafficking legislation. Arkansas now has a solid framework for addressing human trafficking with key provisions such as Safe Harbor and Victim Assistance, to name a few. However there is still a lot of work to be done. Now that we have laws in the books, we need to focus our efforts to ensure that they are being implemented. A Safe Harbor provision is only effective when we know that minor victims are given access to services instead of being treated and charged as criminals. This is a collective responsibility to be shared by all relevant actors, not just the criminal justice system. It is important to engage and involve the Child Welfare system to ensure that there are safe housing and trauma-informed services available for minor victims of this horrendous crime. Similarly, a law addressing labor trafficking can only really be applauded when it is used to protect workers from being forced to work for an employer who uses threats of deportation and physical violence to keep them in their jobs.
Human trafficking exists in Arkansas – yes it does. According to statistics generated by the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC), the national hotline addressing the issue of human trafficking in the United States, the NHTRC received 350 calls from Arkansas callers from the period of December 2007 through to September 2013. Of these calls, 51 cases referenced potential situations of human trafficking in Arkansas – both sex and labor trafficking is reported in the state. It is important to note that these numbers are limited only to calls that came in through the hotline and are largely dependent on awareness of both the NHTRC hotline number and, of the issue of human trafficking. Regardless, it is important to recognize that we now have tangible numbers to alleviate anyone’s doubt that trafficking occurs in the state. It is time now to divert our focus and ask the citizens of Arkansas how they are eradicating trafficking in their communities and throughout the entire state. With the passage of new robust laws and the 2013 creation of Attorney General McDaniel’s State Task Force for the Prevention of Human Trafficking , Arkansas is off to a good start. Still, there is much more to be done.
Now more than ever, every single human being in this country can play an active role in combatting human trafficking. From the teacher who incorporates human trafficking education into the classroom curriculum, to the police officer who responds to a call for help; from a trucker who observes women and girls move from truck to truck while parked at a truck stop, to a community member who drives past a suspicious business, with blacked out windows, that is open late; from an emergency room nurse who treats an assault victim, to the individual homeowner who opens the door to a magazine salesperson; each of these situations could be potential trafficking situations. It is therefore incumbent upon everyone to educate themselves about the issue of human trafficking , learn about the resources that are available in their communities, and most importantly, to be aware of their surroundings. If you see something, say something!
There are many ways to get involved – Call the NHTRC hotline, engage your government representatives, volunteer your time with local shelters and service providers, raise awareness about the issue of human trafficking and pass out flyers with the NHTRC hotline number. This is by no means an exhaustive list but should be enough to get you started.
As human beings, it is our responsibility to get involved. Be a voice for the vulnerable and continue the fight to abolish all forms of slavery. Let’s take an honest look at the historical roots of slavery and work together to implement lasting measures to combat their festering presence in the 21st century. Let this be our collective resolution for 2014 and for future years to come and let us not stop until we have dismantled this thriving business. Let’s eradicate slavery in our lifetime – make this our legacy.
Vanessa Chauhan is a Program Specialist with the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC), a program of Polaris Project. Polaris Project is a non-profit organization based in Washington, DC that works to combat all forms of human trafficking. To contact the NHTRC, please call 1-888-373-7888 or text BEFREE (233733).
The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Vanessa Chauhan.