January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month – a month that recognizes the need to combat this evil, which victimizes as many as 45.8 million people worldwide.
This is a human rights issue with implications for national security. Trafficking generates an estimated $150 billion annually in global profits, some of which end up in the hands of organized criminals and terrorists.
The U.S. has led the fight to end human trafficking since the start of the 21stcentury. But continued leadership from the incoming Trump administration is essential if the world is to put a stop to it.
Congress inaugurated the U.S. push on anti-trafficking efforts in 2000 with its passage of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, today known as the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. The law created the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.
Each year the office, located within the State Department, releases the Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, which ranks countries according to their compliance with minimum standards for eliminating trafficking in persons. The report sorts countries into four categories, from best to worst: Tier 1, Tier 2, Tier 2 Watch List, and Tier 3.
A valued diplomatic tool, the report is critical in assessing the state of human trafficking and the effectiveness of anti-trafficking strategies. But it is not the end of U.S. efforts to combat trafficking in persons. A framework is already in place to turn the tides on human trafficking. With a few tweaks to the current strategy, the incoming Trump administration could significantly improve the architecture of U.S. anti-trafficking efforts.
Step #1: Develop quantitative, empirical methodologies to document the prevalence of human trafficking and success of anti-trafficking efforts. The TIP report includes few empirical evaluations of the scope and scale of the trafficking phenomenon. Credible estimates on the number of trafficking victims worldwide range from as low as 21 million to as high as 45.8 million. Without a reliable, agreed-upon base number, it is hard to know whether U.S. efforts to combat trafficking are meaningfully decreasing the prevalence of human trafficking.
The TIP report’s sole attempt to empirically evaluate human trafficking is its section on Global Law Enforcement Data, which tracks the number of prosecutions, convictions, and victims identified on a yearly basis. The data collection, which relies on foreign government reporting, offers an incomplete picture of U.S. anti-trafficking efforts. Such data could be augmented with prevalence studies. Washington should partner with academic institutions to create a more robust database more conducive to fully evaluating the number of victims of trafficking and the success of anti-trafficking efforts.
Step #2: Focus resources on specialized law enforcement and judicial training programs. Past initiatives to strengthen the rule of law in countries experiencing severe problems with human trafficking have seen measurable decreases in the number of trafficking victims. International Justice Mission (IJM), an anti-trafficking NGO, documented substantial reductions in human trafficking when victims received greater access to legal and judicial solutions.
IJM’s three-year pilot program, Project Lantern, in Cebu, Philippines, documented a 79 percent decrease in the number of minors available for commercial sex. IJM experienced similar results from programs in Cambodia, where the availability of minors for sex trafficking dropped from between 15 and 30 percent in the early 2000s, to just 8.16 percent between 2014 and 2015. The same report noted that the availability of children under age 15 is even lower, at just 0.75 percent.
IJM’s success is largely attributable to the creation of specialized anti-trafficking law enforcement units. The U.S. should encourage and facilitate the creation of specialized anti-trafficking law enforcement units domestically and abroad.
Step #3: Target traffickers and their profits. Due to its dominance in the global financial system, the U.S. Treasury Department’s anti-money laundering and counter-terrorist financing tools can threaten trafficker’s profits. Treasury has the ability to identify funding sources for human trafficking, track perpetrators, rescue victims, and address the primary motive driving human trafficking: profit.
Freezing trafficker’s assets not only threatens their bottom line, it can illuminate networks of organized criminals or terrorists. Additionally, coordination between Treasury and local law enforcement could result in the rescue of more victims.
The incoming administration has both a moral and a national security duty to carry on America’s long legacy of principled, global leadership on human rights– starting with human trafficking. Congress and the Trump administration will have an early opportunity to enhance anti-trafficking efforts, because the Trafficking Victims Protection Act will come up for reauthorization this year.
This piece originally appeared in Forbes.