U.S. Government Funding Helps Victims of Slavery and Human Trafficking

The funding for the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) may face substantial cut. Photo: Associated Press

By Guest Columinist, Matt Friedman

Bankok, October 19, 2011 - Anti-trafficking programs, both domestic and international, are at risk. The Senate Judiciary Committee on October 13 proposed substantial cuts to appropriations for the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), from $191 million per year to $130 million per year for the next five years. On Friday, October 28, Congress will vote on this measure. If they vote to cut funding, thousands of at-risk individuals around the world will lose significant protective support.

Those who enslave other human beings are today often called human traffickers. They used to be called slave traders or white slavers. When my grandmother, a young immigrant to America, arrived alone in Chicago, she nearly fell into the hands of a white slaver. Unaccompanied, uncertain of where to go, and unable to ask for help in English, she was vulnerable. White slavers and human traffickers alike recognize vulnerability in others and prey on people, such as my grandmother. It was only thanks to the help of good-hearted people that she escaped what would certainly have been sexual slavery.

This is just one example, a personal story, of one person who was saved from slavery. Today, there are somewhere between 12 million and 27 million people who are forced into human bondage. It can take the form of forced labor, where people are forced to work in fields, factories, or fishing vessels, unable to escape the grasp of unscrupulous employers. It can take the form of sexual slavery, where people, mostly girls and women, are forced into the sex trade. They are coerced or kidnapped into the trade, young and full of hope and life. After years of unimaginable horror and degradation, they are withered and diseased and thrown into the streets to die.

American funding to anti-slavery projects helps save people from the wretchedness of slavery and human trafficking. Over the many years that I have worked in the frontlines in countries all over the world, and now in Thailand for the UN Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP), I’ve seen firsthand how much American funding helps.

In part thanks to U.S. Government funding, UNIAP has achieved unprecedented progress in the key Asian sub-region of the Mekong (Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam) applying sentinel surveillance methods to examine broker-trafficker networks (including financial transactions, debts, and deception), and to determine numbers of trafficking victims in different labor industries. From this research, police have targeted and jailed brokers and traffickers, NGOs and governments haved assisted more victims, and governments have consolidated their resources into hotspots where we know trafficking is rife.

With funding from the U.S. Government, UNIAP has been able to carry out cutting-edge research and support to pilot projects and special projects. We now have good regional data that clearly shows us where, by location and industry, trafficking prevalence is highest. This data serves as a critical reference for measuring the impact of collective anti-trafficking efforts.

UNIAP’s anti-trafficking projects have led to a more widespread understanding of the root causes of human trafficking among local anti-trafficking responders, going well beyond outdated notions of vulnerability based on general poverty and lack of education alone. Clearer understanding of how the networks operate have enabled UNIAP to assist in the effective targeting of millions of dollars worth of trafficking prevention and safe migration efforts.

U.S. Government funding has made it possible for UNIAP to identify under-served “invisible” victims of trafficking , such as the thousands of Cambodian, Myanmar, and Thai men trafficked onto fishing boats and now languishing in detention centers as immigration violators rather than trafficked persons. These previously under-served victims are now getting the help they need from existing government victim protection programs and mechanisms.

U.S. Government support is being used by UNIAP to fund a Burmese-language hotline in Thailand. The hotline provides information to people from Burma in Thailand about the migrant registration process, as well as a way to report trafficking and exploitation. Since its establishment, the Burmese hotline has received approximately 130 calls a month, and generates an average of ten serious labor exploitation cases and three complex cross-border trafficking cases every month, as well as exploitation-related murders of foreign migrants. Cases are referred to partner NGOs where appropriate in order to provide assistance as required. The most urgent cases are routed to the appropriate law enforcement agencies. This effort allows people who are vulnerable to exploitation to seek help from someone who speaks their language and understands their problems.

With funding support from the U.S. Government, UNIAP’s Vietnam Shelter Improvement Project is working closely with the staff of eight national human trafficking shelters to significantly improve the services available to trafficked persons. The objectives of this project have been to measurably improve the victim support services offered by shelters, build the capacity of shelter staff to maintain uniform standards for victim care, and build a sustainable network of victim service providers to improve services and referral mechanisms. Working together as a team, shelter managers and counselors have been able to improve the development of personal plans for victims of trafficking, incorporate more empowering approaches by engaging victims in the design of shelter activities, and improve counseling and listening skills to build stronger trusting relationships with victims of trafficking. The ultimate outcome of this work has been that trafficking victims now receive much better care to address their personal issues so they can safely move on with their lives, from bondage, to freedom.

The worldwide illegal trade in human beings generates around $32 billion a year. It is second only to the illicit trade in narcotics. Compared to the $15 billion the U.S. Government spent last year on the war on drugs, $191 million seems tiny. Cutting it further would be catastrophic to the millions of trafficking victims who hope for freedom.


Mr. Matthew S. Friedman is a Regional Project Manager at UN Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking in Bangkok, Thailand



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Youngbee Dale

Youngbee Dale graduated from Regent University with Master’s degree in International Politics in 2009. While at Regent, she interned at World Bank and co-contributed to a human trafficking publication, “Setting the Captives Free” by Olivia McDonald (2007). She also worked with migrant workers and human trafficking victims in South Korea. Currently, she stays home with her three-month-old son to exercise the divine rights to mother and breastfeed him. 

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