The State Department’s annual report on global trafficking reviews the degradation, exploitation and suffering of millions of children, women and men in brothels, rice mills, fishing boats, factories and farms. To some American diplomats and foreign governments, the Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report and its ranking of countries according to their anti-trafficking efforts is a nuisance or an insult. But to trafficking victims, the integrity of the report can make the difference between freedom and slavery.
Consider what has happened in the Philippines. Labor and sex trafficking are common, but prosecutions and convictions of perpetrators are exceedingly rare. The TIP Office placed the Philippines on its Tier II Watch List in 2009 and warned that demotion to Tier III — and the loss of U.S. foreign assistance — was a real possibility if Filipino authorities didn’t step up efforts against labor and sex trafficking.
The government, led by newly elected President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino, responded. The Justice Ministry issued a decree placing prosecution of trafficking crimes on a fast track. A major labor trafficking case was prosecuted, and corrupt immigration officials were fired.
Perhaps the most promising development is the decrease in child prostitution on the island of Cebu, where collaboration between local authorities and my group, International Justice Mission (IJM), resulted in the rescue of 295 underage girls from brothels; quality care for them; and the arrest of 105 pimps, brothel owners and traffickers. Last October, a group of independent criminologists found that the prevalence of minor girls in Cebu’s flourishing sex industry plummeted 79 percent.
The Philippines has by no means eradicated child sexual exploitation or labor trafficking. But the successes in Cebu are likely to be replicated in Manila and other regions through IJM’s partnerships with government agencies in the Philippines. If other designated law enforcement groups work as well as Cebu’s Regional Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force, the exploitation of children in the sex trade will decline dramatically and the effort can serve as a model throughout Southeast Asia.
Credit for these developments goes to the Philippines’ government but also to the U.S. ambassador in Manila, Harry Thomas, and to the State Department Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons for prioritizing trafficking and helping local authorities address it.
The TIP Office’s candid report has led to significant changes elsewhere. Pressure on Nigeria, for example, led to a noteworthy increase in government rescue of Nigerian women trafficked to Italy and a surge of trafficking prosecutions. A Tier III ranking of Indonesia several years ago for its poor record on labor trafficking contributed to passage of historic anti-trafficking legislation. The prime minister of Senegal has credited the TIP Report with his government’s decision to begin investigating and prosecuting forced child-begging rings.
Although the TIP Report and the TIP Office’s superb diplomacy have contributed to countless improvements around the world, the office is under fire from some State Department officials who resent TIP’s blunt reporting and vigorous human rights advocacy when it ruffles diplomatic feathers, particularly in allied or powerful countries. And this year, TIP’s already tiny budget of $21.2 million in fiscal 2010 (under 0.05 percent of all spending for U.S. foreign aid) for anti-trafficking programs in more than 70 countries was slashed almost 24 percent by Congress.
International efforts to combat traffickers are outgunned, to put it mildly. Trafficking enriches criminals by $32 billion per year. Some things are worth paying for, and ending slavery in our lifetime is one of them. Perhaps because it is a toxic strand of our historical DNA, Americans across the political spectrum care deeply about modern-day slavery. Many would be shocked to learn that more money is spent in a single month for the “war on drugs” than on all domestic and international anti-trafficking programs over the past decade.
The Obama administration should strengthen the TIP Office by making it a permanent State Department Bureau and increasing its staff and resources accordingly. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton should protect the Trafficking in Persons Report from being diluted by competing diplomatic priorities and should direct our ambassadors to slavery-burdened countries to make the rescue of victims and prosecution of traffickers and slave owners a top priority.
Congress has a chance to help by passing the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act before the law expires this year. Failure to do so — and failure to fund its programs — sends a simple message to people who buy and sell other human beings: Feel free.
The writer is vice president for government relations at International Justice Mission, a human rights agency that focuses on victims of sexual exploitation, slavery and other forms of violent oppression.