Please note: resources listed in this blog post contain information about human trafficking that may be disturbing.
In 2011, President Obama issued a presidential proclamation declaring January to be National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention month, raising awareness of an urgent problem affecting millions of people around the world. In each subsequent year of his presidency, Obama issued proclamations to renew this designation, and to update Americans on the government's efforts to combat this global threat to human rights. In his final such proclamation, from December 2016, Obama states, "As leaders in the global undertaking to end the exploitation of human beings for profit, we must always remember that our freedom is bound to the freedom of others."
Many of us in the U.S. think of slavery and human trafficking as something that happens to "others." Perhaps they are refugees from Nigeria, preyed upon by criminals in Libya. Maybe they are poor children exploited in textile factories in Bangladesh. If they are here in the U.S., they must have been brought here by people from far away.
It's true that each of these is a scenario of modern slavery. Globally, over 40 million people were living in some form of bondage in 2016, including nearly 25 million in forced labor and 15 million in forced marriages. Migrants in search of a better life are especially vulnerable to trafficking, not just in Africa but worldwide. Child labor is an integral part of the textile industry, and some 6 million children are estimated to be victims of forced labor. And there have been numerous reported cases of families bringing migrants to the U.S. to work as household servants, for little or no compensation.
But there are many more scenarios than you might realize, and they can hit close to home. The Office on Trafficking in Persons, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, lists some common misconceptions on their website, along with warning signs that might indicate someone has been trafficked. Migrant farm workers denied wages and healthcare, undocumented immigrants laboring in shops and restaurants to pay back their "debt" to traffickers, and vulnerable young people born right here in the U.S. can all become targets. Tens of thousands of trafficking victims have been reported in America; the actual number is thought to be much higher.
The Denver Public Library provides access to a wealth of government documents dealing with the issue, both at home and abroad. Several recent books also examine human trafficking from different perspectives. Hidden Girl tells the story of a young child sold into slavery in Egypt, then smuggled into the U.S. by a wealthy family and kept as a household slave. Up for Sale is a concise introduction to trafficking in its many forms, suitable for young adult and adult readers. What Slaveholders Think provides insight into the power dynamics and cultural factors that allow modern slavery to continue. For a slightly older but still useful overview, check out this article from the CQ Researcher database.
While this is an overwhelming and disturbing problem, there are things we can do. We can become informed about the dangers faced by both immigrant and native-born members of our community. We can make informed decisions when purchasing items that may be products of forced labor. We may even be in a position to make a report to the National Human Trafficking Hotline if we suspect this type of abuse. These small acts of awareness can make a difference for someone.
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Do you have a link to add as a resource for making "informed decisions when purchasing items that may be products of forced labor"? I'm probably not the only reader that would click that link.
Great question, and my apologies for not replying sooner. The Fair Labor Association has a great map and listing of participating companies that can be a good starting point for more ethical shopping. Fairtrade America (I'll also add this link to the blog post) has everything from background information to news articles to product lists. In general, you can look for the "fair trade" designation while shopping (Whole Foods often has products with this designation), or search for local shops that only carry fair trade goods, to increase your support of workers worldwide.
Thank you for this beautiful post. I think very few people realize that modern slavery still exists. This is a well-written reminder to step outside our personal bubble and research. To quote the great Martin Luther King Jr.,
"Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity."