By Agata Chmiel~

President Obama proclaimed January to be the US Human Trafficking Awareness Month, proving that the issue, not only in Americas but internationally, is on the rise. Throughout the last decade of economic and migration crises occurring across the globe, human trafficking in itself seems to have been off the main headlines. There could be two reasons for this. Firstly, it is a reoccurring issue without a concrete beginning and certainly no vision for an end. Secondly, it seems that in the 21 st century society as a whole has been taking the notion of “personal freedom” for granted. At the same time, various international organizations, such as Interpol or Europol, are continuously alarming of the actuality of the issue. That is why it is worth to use the Human Trafficking Awareness Month as the “pretext” to take a look on how this transboundary organized crime evolved in the past decade and what threats to human security it poses today.

The New Millennium for human trafficking victims opened with the ‘United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime’, further supported by three Protocols (aka ‘Palermo Protocols’), among which the ‘Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children’. Not only was the Protocol a landmark international guideline on how to prevent and combat the issue, but it also brought a (somewhat) universally acknowledged definition of it:

“Trafficking in persons” shall mean the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation (…)”

It is worth to add that “exploitation” refers not only to sexual profiteering, which is the most popular form, but also to forced labour or removal of organs. This is a significant point because more and more trafficked persons are abused in a manner other than sexual. In the end, it is up to an individual state’s criminal code to determine what constitutes as “human trafficking”. International guidance as the Protocol, however, is an invaluable benchmark for policymakers. Necessary to remark here is that the UN Convention calls upon mutual cooperation and legal assistance among the states.

On the one hand, it can be argued that there has been great improvement in this area in the past 16 years. On the other hand, hesitance of sharing information between domestic law enforcement agencies remains an issue . Interpol and Europol together are the main transnational agencies that aim at changing this situation and supporting domestic law enforcement to act as quickly as possible when the illegal trafficking occurs. There are numerous measures taken against this issue, including “[law enforcement] training, (…) intelligence gathering, victim identification, planning and executing victim rescue and suspect-arrest operations, and the securing and preservation of trafficking-related evidence.”

Even though those measures have evolved from the time when the Protocol came to force (2003), there is still a high level of uncertainty when it comes to statistics on traffickers and victims. More and more often they are being called a “hidden population” , which makes it difficult to provide a valid estimate of how many ‘modern slaves’ exist today exactly. As of 2014, the International Labour Organization reported an estimate of 21 million victims, of which over 14 million involved forced labour, another 4.5 million based on sexual exploitation and over 2 million concerned so – called “state – imposed labour”. Overall, 55% victims are women and 45% men, of which collectively 26% are individuals under 18 years old. The ‘business value’ of human trafficking, at least reported officially, oscillates around 150 billion US dollars on a yearly basis. To have a grasp on how large this sum is, Facebook’s total revenue for 2014 was 12.46 billion .

As the mere statistic shows, the response to this highly complex issue relies on several interrelated factors, such as socio- economic background of victims and offenders, relevant domestic legislation, level of corruption in law enforcement or even level of mental health within particular community.

In turbulent times like these, it is difficult to determine a future perspective for the eradication of human trafficking. Perhaps, when in 1865 Abraham Lincoln was signing the 13 th Amendment to the US Constitution abolishing slavery, he was barely aware that 152 years later the issue would not have been resolved. It can be argued that, today, anyone coming from any socio-economic background and of any race, could fall a victim of illegal trafficking and exploitation. Modern slavery is far from being a myth, which perhaps does not pose a threat to states in traditional sense, but certainly generates a danger to the security of individuals. Scholarly theories of “human security” refer to this kind of understanding of a “threat” and is of particular relevance here as it focuses on the protection of the “vulnerable” members of society. In consideration with such a theory, it can be said that human trafficking, being one of the four fastest growing organized criminal activities , is a threat that cannot be ignored.

Following activist organizations that help victims of human trafficking, there is one conclusion that matters. It is crucial to understand that none of the innovative and hi-tech based measures used by the UN policymakers, Interpol or Europol altogether will ever substitute for a human instinct. Cautious observation of the world around us and empathy that is used to understand it might help thousands of undiscovered victims of human trafficking.

As a start, you can have a look on how many slaves work ‘for you’ right here: