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Slavery in Persons—Not Trafficking in Persons

"A single death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic." —Joseph Stalin

Last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton released the U.S. State Department’s annual report on human trafficking. It’s a behemoth volume coming in just under 400 pages. The report is essentially a diagnostic tool to assess every country’s efforts on fighting human trafficking, or more accurately, modern day slavery. Behind every heartbreaking statistic is a life and story. The numbers are mixed with narratives, which I always appreciate.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the report, and, in my opinion, it’s the best so far for a few reasons.

One of the most challenging points to get across about this issue in general is that a larger proportion of the exploitation resides inside forced manual labor, rather than in sex slavery. It’s understandable that sex slavery, specifically child slavery, gets the lion’s share of attention. However, forced labor (from state-sponsored child labor in Uzbekistan to children mining the metal for our phones in the Congo) actually affects more people. This side of the issue is sometimes lost. The sad reality is that sexual violence is often a component of forced labor. I am happy to see this year’s report giving more focus to this side of the issue.

Another forgotten group inside the issue is child soldiers. Children as young as 7 in areas such as Congo (DRC), Burma and Sudan are conscripted into militias to fight on the front lines as well as serve as cooks, porters, guards and sex slaves. Young girls are often abducted to serves as wives. This is a forgotten arm of the issue that needs far more pressure. The report has brought this further into the spotlight.

Lastly, this year, for the first time ever, we have ranked ourselves by placing the same criteria we use for other countries to assess how we are operating on preventing, prosecuting and protecting. To me this is a move forward in diplomacy and a sober acknowledgment that we have a lot of work to do ourselves. With humility we must always acknowledge how slavery was a historical boost to our own economy. Slavery has never left us, we have simply given it different names. We still have a lot of work to do and a lot more to admit to ourselves.

By this time next year, I would like to see us work harder on how we define the issue itself. We need to wrestle with our vernacular. While “trafficking” is a fair term for the issue, the true definition of this atrocity is slavery. Call it what it is. Let’s change the title of the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Human Trafficking to Office to Combat Slavery. It’s punchier, to the point and far more accurate.

We need to judge ourselves as activists, too. We need less rhetoric and more action. Less movement of information and more strategic wins. Less advertising and more content. We need to fight the tragedy and not the statistics.

In Solidarity,
Justin Dillon

Justin Dillon is the founder of Call + Response.

1 Comment

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Bret Mavrich commented…

A cynic might point out that the problem with changing the word "Trafficking" to "Slavery" is that the US will be forced to admit that, 150+ years after the Civil War, slavery is still on its soil. It is an euphemism that will never be changed; it would discredit the entire basis of the US placing sanctions on other countries.

But I'm no cynic. Beyond the politics, I think the distinction in terms does good work. The trends in trafficking are, by and large, a different face of slavery with entirely different problems. Slavery is a simple idea, but trafficking victims are enslaved for a host of different reasons, complicated reasons, and we need a broader net to group them all together.

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