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Senate Committee Holds Human Trafficking Hearing

On July 17, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held ahearing, “The Next Ten Years in the Fight against Human Trafficking: Attacking the Problem with the Right Tools.” The hearing covered human trafficking both internationally and within the United States, with a special focus on sex slavery. The hearing also included a discussion of S. 1301, the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, and S. 2234, the End Trafficking in Government Contracting Act of 2012 (seeThe Source, 6/29/12).

Chair John Kerry (D-MA) opened the discussion with a focus on the domestic front: “According to the 2012 Trafficking in Persons report, ‘The United States is a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children – both U.S. citizens and foreign nationals – subjected to forced labor, debt bondage, involuntary servitude, and sex trafficking.’ That’s an amazing statement – and I hope it would inspire outrage in everybody.” He continued, “In 2000, Congress passed and President Clinton signed the historic Trafficking Victims Protection Act [P.L. 106-386], which established a coordinated U.S. government framework based on the so-called ‘three Ps’: prevention, protection, and prosecution. To these three P’s, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has added a crucial fourth: partnerships with local governments and organizations.” Sen. Kerry concluded with a call to action, saying: “We must also engage in a multifaceted approach and work in coordination with law enforcement agencies, victim services, and community organizations. We must focus on prevention strategies that target transparency in business supply chains, eliminating the market for slave-made goods. And, of course, we must assist other governments in their efforts to build sustainable public justice systems so that perpetrators of human trafficking are held accountable.”

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) offered his own take on problems in trafficking: “In [my] work on this, both in my time in the state legislature and here, one of the things I’ve run into is this conflict…some folks in law enforcement and interested parties who struggle with the notion that the young ladies and others who are being trafficked are actually victims as opposed to perpetrators. I’ve struggled with trying to explain to people that, in fact, these folks are not willing participants in a criminal enterprise, even if they are 21 or 19 or 20 [years of age]. In that sense, it’s hard to explain that to people because when you interact with a victim, they’ve been so emotionally battered and psychologically battered that they act like a willing participant, but in fact they’ve been trapped by those circumstances.” Sen. Rubio also spoke about the role of the Village Voice’s backpage.com in child trafficking, saying, “The bottom line is that we know that on the leading advertiser in this country for adult services, children 14 years of age and younger, 15-year-old girls, are being advertised and their services are being advertised, and I wanted to utilize the forum here today to call attention to that. It is grotesque, it is unacceptable, [and] it is disgusting. There is no First Amendment protection for child pornography and child trafficking and prostitution.”

Jada Pinkett Smith, actress and advocate for Don’t Sell Bodies, lauded Congress on its past efforts to fight trafficking: “In 2000, and again in 2003 [P.L. 108-193], 2005 [P.L. 109-164], and 2008 [P.L. 110-457], members of both parties came together to pass the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), containing provisions to combat domestic and international trafficking and to assist victims of trafficking. The law also authorized millions of dollars in expenditures across a range of government agencies to support these efforts. I have met beneficiaries of those expenditures in the US and abroad. I have seen firsthand the transformative effects of those programs. Women, girls, men, and boys whose lives were stolen and restored.” After introducing the stories of several trafficking victims, she continued with an expression of support for TVPA renewal and a plea for renewed dedication to the cause, saying, “As we look forward to the next decade, we must renew our commitment to ending the scourge of slavery. This means reauthorizing the TVPA and ensuring that anti‐trafficking programs receive adequate funding. Fighting slavery doesn’t cost a lot of money. The costs of allowing it to exist in our nation and abroad are much higher. It robs us of the thing we value most – our freedom.”

David Abramowitz, vice president for Policy and Government Relations at Humanity United, cited the risk to children, stating, “[S]ome experts estimate that 200,000 to 300,000 U.S. children and youth are at risk of being trafficked into commercial sex.” He went on to describe the challenges of addressing trafficking at its source, noting that “instead of shackles and chains, traffickers use debt, coercion, fear, and intimidation. Actions of modern day slavers include seizing travel documents, creating hidden fees that become impossible debts to pay off, and threatening police retribution or violence against family members at home if the victim tries to leave.” He also included an acknowledgment of the danger for women: “We have to recognize that the ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors I described above are ever-present in vulnerable communities. As long as social discrimination exists and women do not have equal access to economic opportunities, or work such as domestic labor is not recognized and protected, disadvantaged communities will seek work in locations or industries that make them vulnerable to exploitation.”

Holly Burkhalter, vice president for Government Relations at International Justice Mission, argued for a reform of law enforcement practices, asserting, “[I]t is not acceptable for police to abuse, arrest, and extort money from women under the cover of ostensible ‘anti-trafficking’ sweeps. Roundups where dozens of women are swept into prisons, only to be released when their pimps pay off a bribe, have absolutely nothing in common with effective and professional policing. Donors and NGO’s that work with local police can and should condemn such behavior, which hurts innocent women and sets back the anti-trafficking cause.” She concluded her testimony with an appeal to Congress to pass S. 1301: “We’re missing a critical opportunity to sharpen our tools to fight the crime of trafficking. The Senate bill includes a number of important innovations, including a provision to pursue slavery eradication in several ‘focus countries,’ enhanced protection for victims of trafficking in the U.S., and increased capacity for JTIP [Department of State Trafficking in Persons Office] to respond to situations of emergency and disaster. Failure to reauthorize this landmark legislation for the first time in 12 years sends the wrong signal about U.S. leadership on this issue to the rest of the globe and sends us a step backward.”

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