Testimony of Elisa Massimino: Senate Foreign Relations Hearing on Ending Modern Slavery: Building on Success


Hearing on Ending Modern Slavery: Building on Success

Before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee

February 15, 2017

I. Introduction: The Problem of Human Trafficking

Chairman Corker, Ranking Member Cardin, and Members of the Committee: thank you for the invitation to be here today to discuss strategies for ending modern slavery. The scope and gravity of this problem demands our attention. We are deeply grateful, Mr. Chairman, for your outstanding leadership in raising the profile of this often-hidden crime and your persistence in ensuring that our country does all it can to end it.

The United States abolished slavery with the ratification of the 13th Amendment over 150 years ago. Yet the International Labor Organization reports there are more than 20 million people enslaved today—about double the number in bondage during the transatlantic slave trade.  Slavery is a devastating assault on human dignity. Fundamentally, it is about exploitation of vulnerable people for profit.

This is a pressing global problem that both affects—and implicates—the United States. It involves multi-national supply chains and global criminal enterprises. It tests our country’s willingness to uphold fundamental rights at home and to challenge other governments to do the same.

The United States is both a source and destination country for human trafficking victims. Traffickers earn an estimated $150 billion annually in illicit profits, while NGOs and governments worldwide spend only about $124 million each year to combat it. That’s not a fair fight. Meanwhile, American workers are forced to compete against free labor as companies take advantage of the global failure to enforce anti- slavery laws.

Increasingly, organized crime rings and international terror organizations traffic in human beings to accumulate wealth and power. Congress and the new administration must continue their commitment to addressing the problem of slavery, both for its moral and economic implications, and also because of the national security risks associated with corruption, terrorism, and organized crime.

This committee has done important work in this regard, and I want to thank Senators Corker and Cardin for your continued leadership on this issue.

As you said at this hearing last year, Senator Corker, the stark reality of modern slavery is unconscionable, and it demands that we make a commitment to end it for good.

At Human Rights First, our mission is to foster American global leadership on human rights. We believe that standing up for the human rights of all people is not only a moral obligation; it is a vital national interest. Our country is strongest when our policies and actions match our ideals. For nearly 40 years, we have worked to ensure that the United States acts as a beacon on human rights in a world that sorely needs American leadership.

American efforts to end modern slavery are critical, not only to eliminate human trafficking here at home, but to ensure that the United States sets an example for other nations.  We need to make sure we are doing everything we can to eliminate slave labor from the supply chains of U.S. companies, and that our powerful federal law enforcement capabilities, which have deep experience and expertise in prosecuting cross-border organized crime, turn their attention to the crime of human trafficking.

To that end, we have supported anti-trafficking legislation and increased funding for anti-trafficking programs, both at home and abroad.  And we have spotlighted how traffickers and their enablers worldwide, including in the United States, too often operate with impunity.

According to the State Department’s most recent annual Trafficking in Persons report, in 2015 there were just over 6,600 convictions globally, and only 297 convictions for human trafficking here in the United States. That may seem like a lot, but when you consider that there are nearly 21 million people enslaved around the world today, it is pitifully few. We have to do better.

These statistics also show that the people trafficked for labor have been especially neglected. An estimated 68% of trafficking victims worldwide are trafficked for labor, yet only 7% of convictions worldwide, and only 4% of human trafficking-related convictions in the United States, are labor trafficking cases.

Boosting domestic prosecution of human trafficking is critical, both to eliminating the problem here in the United States and to setting an example for other countries on how it can be done.

Human Trafficking and Refugees

Traffickers are opportunistic and ruthless, and they are drawn like a magnet to vulnerable people. Because refugees are separated from their economic and social support structures and have limited ways to provide for their families, they are particularly vulnerable to exploitation by traffickers. This is especially true for unaccompanied minors and women and girls.

Those who fall victim to human trafficking are among the most vulnerable people in the world, such as the nearly 5 million refugees who have fled Syria.  About three-quarters of these refugees are women and children. A third of them are under 12 years old.  These people are in grave danger of falling prey to human traffickers.  Human Rights First has been assisting refugees seeking asylum in the United States, and encouraging global adherence to the international refugee convention, since our founding in 1978.  As you said recently, Mr. Chairman: “[T]he United States is at its best when it leads. And that leadership is particularly important in a crisis.” We could not agree more.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has described the current situation as the “biggest humanitarian and refugee crisis of our time.” Host countries’ infrastructures are buckling under the strain, forcing refugees to rely on smugglers and treacherous migrant routes and border crossings as they search for protection. Even if they finally land in a refugee camp, these people remain at high risk for being trafficked. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has stated 10% of the world’s refugee population is in need of resettlement, yet less than 1% are resettled.

As the US State Department explained in its 2016 TIP report:

Camps for refugees and internally displaced persons are prime targets for traffickers. The concentration of vulnerable, displaced people, combined with a lack of security, services, and oversight typically found in such camps, make them ideal locations for traffickers to operate. In long-standing camps, traffickers are able to build relationships with corrupt camp officials and establish trafficking rings. Human trafficking is frequently overlooked in crises and omitted from formulations of humanitarian and emergency response policies. Trafficking operations can flourish amidst international reconstruction efforts where there are few government institutions or rule of law. The international community and individual countries must recognize labor and sex trafficking as a common occurrence during conflict and include anti-trafficking strategies in humanitarian responses.

We must recognize the close link between human trafficking and the refugee crisis. If we want to end modern slavery, we should be doing everything we can to reduce the vulnerability of the refugee population.


Published on February 14, 2017


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