CW: This article discusses human trafficking. Please refer to the end of the article for on and off-campus resources.
Human trafficking is fundamentally modern slavery and deserves greater public awareness, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbates the crisis, panelists said at a Sept. 20 virtual event.
At the event, titled “Human Trafficking: The Deafening Silence over Modern Slavery,” human trafficking experts and activists shed light on the current state of human trafficking worldwide. The event was co-hosted by the Free Speech Project, a Georgetown University research initiative that documents threats to free speech, and the Future of the Humanities Project at Georgetown, which gathers scholars to discuss current interdisciplinary issues.
The United Nations defines human trafficking as the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of people through force, fraud or deception, with the aim of exploiting them for profit. In public discourse, human trafficking is widely referred to as “modern slavery.”
While some may disagree with this nomenclature, the title of modern slavery is fitting for human trafficking because of the common principle of forced labor, according to panelist EleSondra DeRomano. DeRomano is a sex trafficking survivor and the founder of Standing Together Against Real Slavery (STARS), an organization dedicated to supporting young women who have experienced or are at high risk for sex trafficking.
“To me, it is slavery,” DeRomano said at the event. “It’s slavery. And slavery is supposed to be abolished.”
As another parallel, human trafficking patterns are reminiscent of historic slave trade routes, according to panelist Lisa Hsin, an Oxford University researcher.
“There’s certainly trade routes for trafficking victims,” Hsin said at the event. “I would say southeast Asia to places like the more affluent Taiwan or China. You can locate how they’re trafficked over there, and you can essentially follow the footsteps of trafficking victims.”
In 2020, nearly 25 million people worldwide were estimated to be the victims of human trafficking, according to the U.S. Department of State. However, human trafficking is vastly underreported, and the majority of cases go undetected, according to the National Institute of Justice.
Human trafficking is onerous to prosecute because of its international network and underground nature, according to Pippa Hockton, founder of Street Talk, an organization that provides counseling to female victims of human trafficking.
“It’s organized crime. It’s all very international. It’s highly organized. It’s very, very difficult to catch,” Hockton said at the event. “They are very well-informed and know the loopholes in the law.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the number of individuals at risk for human trafficking, according to Christina Bain, the former director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Program on Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery.
“And especially now with the pandemic,” Bain said at the event. “I think there is the fear that this crime has also been exacerbated by certain circumstances around the pandemic including economic vulnerabilities. So, I think we still have a long road ahead.”
Reduced wages and job loss during the pandemic have made people more vulnerable to exploitation by human traffickers, according to a 2021 report by the U.S. Department of State. Additionally, COVID-19 stay-at-home orders increased rates of gender-based violence, substance abuse, and mental health issues, all of which put people at greater risk of exploitation, according to the report.
Current anti-trafficking programs fall short in ensuring long-term wellbeing for survivors, according to Hockton.
“I feel as though there’s a willful neglect on the part of services,” Hockton said. “These people don’t have services. They don’t matter. And services are not for the purpose of looking after these people from childhood on up.”
Despite mounting challenges, increased awareness around the issue of human trafficking can help prevent more people from falling victim to human traffickers, according to DeRomano.
“I believe that there are changes being made, and I’m very optimistic and happy about that,” DeRomano said. “Even if it’s two lives we save, that’s two lives that we’ve saved.”
Please refer to the online version of this story for on and off-campus resources.
Resources: On-campus resources include Health Education Services (202-687-8949) and Counseling and Psychiatric Services (202-687-6985). Additional off-campus resources include the Crisis Text Line (text 741741).