DENVER – With an estimated 27 million people enslaved around the world, academics at a recent international conference on human trafficking explored ways they could help end the shameful practice.
Professors, students, nongovernmental organizations and others gathered at the Conference on Religion, Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery, held at the University of Denver, to share information about human trafficking in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, the Middle East and the United States.
They brainstormed ways that universities and individuals can help fight human trafficking, including forming anti-slavery societies on campuses, incorporating the topic into a wide range of courses, buying products from companies that don’t use slave labor and making more people aware of the problem.
“This is the imperative for our time, just as civil rights were for the ’60s,” says Dr. James Brewer Stewart, founder of the group Historians Against Slavery.
According to panelists, human trafficking reaps big profits, collectively exceeding those of most corporations, and has been part of the history of many societies. Trafficking has grown alongside free trade, globalization and other economic and social trends, they said. But hard data are difficult to collect, and many people regard the problem as too overwhelming and distant for them to confront. Victims are often abducted, lured with false job offers, sold by relatives or sometimes enter into slavery voluntarily to help their families.
According to several conference speakers, most modern slaves are unaware of their rights, fearful of everyone and humiliated by what happened to them. In many cases, they wind up in foreign countries where they do not speak the language and are cut off from those who can help.
During the United States’ slavery era, the price of a human being was roughly $40,000 in inflation-adjusted dollars. Today, it is anywhere from $30 to $1,000, according to Patrick Soch, a panelist and graduate student at DU’s Iliff School of Theology.
“People can be purchased for less than a pair of shoes,” he said.
Globally, there are only about 4,000 prosecutions a year for trafficking, and even harsh penalties are not a deterrent for slavers, said Jonathan Todres, an associate law professor at Georgia State University. He suggested improving coordination among anti-trafficking agencies. Millions of children are not registered at birth, making it harder to know if they’ve been trafficked, Todres said.
Prevention is key, and some efforts, such as “john schools” in San Francisco—where prostitutes’ clients meet someone who has been sexually exploited—have shown promise, he said.
As the panelists explained, slave trafficking comes in a staggering array of forms around the world, with slaves engaging in the sex trade, agriculture, construction, domestic work and factory work, among others. While the problem remains difficult to eradicate, there have been some bright spots.
In Africa, Dana Vaughn-Mgunda came up with her own awareness campaign in 2007 while working at a refugee camp in Dowa, Malawi, that had been targeted by traffickers. She had no particular training for it but did what she thought would work. Vaughn-Mgunda, who now serves as program director for gender violence education at DU, said she hung up hundreds of posters from nongovernmental organizations warning about traffickers and encouraging people to explore the problem in drama and song. The next time traffickers came around, the refugees knew what to do, she said.
The Rev. Heidi McGinness, a U.S. representative of Christian Solidarity International, said her group used donations to buy and free slaves on cattle farms in southern Sudan in the 1980s. Individuals could be purchased for $50 worth of a cattle vaccine.
In Colombia, striking sugar cane workers won significant concessions from plantation owners with the help of human rights lawyers and the local community, said Louis Edgar Esparza, a lecturer at DU’s Korbel School of International Studies. The 8,000 workers in Cauca and Valle de Cauca worked virtually every day, all day, under brutal conditions for scanty wages, said Esparza, who spent 10 months in the country. Many local stores were company owned. The workers had been on strike before, but this one, lasting two months in 2008, succeeded because of good preparation and by stressing the human rights angle, Esparza said. Lawyers advised the workers, merchants gave them credit, priests went to them to give Mass and fire stations provided drinking water.
By contrast, Peruvian shepherds who essentially were indentured servants in Wyoming found themselves isolated as a result of their work and their language, Quechua, said Alison Krogel, a DU assistant professor of Spanish. She knows the language and did research on the Peruvians’ plight in 2006 and 2007.
Among other control mechanisms, the shepherds, who worked in remote areas, were forbidden by their rancher employers to attend a Peruvian independence day celebration in Wyoming, where they might have been able to meet other countrymen, she said.
In Asia, slavery is often an international affair.
Cambodians are routinely transported into Vietnam to work in construction, agriculture, fishing or as domestics, said Ami Angell, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technical University.
Thai women and girls are taken to Malaysia, the Middle East and South Africa to work as prostitutes. Rural children are taken into cities to be used in the sex trade. Slaves in Singapore hail from Thailand, Myanmar, the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and other Asian nations.
In Indonesia, which has a national coalition to address trafficking, victims from across the country are transported to tourist destinations in Malaysia and Singapore.
Meanwhile, in the Middle East, panelists said, exploitation includes thousands of children transported from Yemen to Saudi Arabia to beg—often with their left hands cut off to make them more pitiful. In Egypt, children toil as laborers. Indonesian girls serve as domestic workers in the United Arab Emirates. In Mecca, stranded pilgrims are preyed upon by traffickers. In Casablanca, Morocco, children are forced to have sex with tourists from America and Europe.
Several panelists noted that, although Islamic law rejects slavery and that the Koran supports the emancipation of slaves, the laws and religious teachings are often ignored.
Media, education and popular consensus might pave the way for local imams to directly confront the slavery issue, said Bernard Freamon, professor of law at Seton Hall Law School and director of the Zanzibar Intersession Program on Modern Day Slavery and Human Trafficking.
Mohamed Mattar, a senior research professor of international law at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, said human trafficking should be talked about in mosques.
“If you go to a mosque, they should be talking about human exploitation—not jihad,” he said. “We want fatwas on slavery and exploitation,” he said.
Dr. David Batstone, a professor at the University of San Francisco and co-founder of Not for Sale, a movement to end slavery, said tackling human trafficking requires “smart activists grounded in good data.”
He encouraged academics to join the cause. It needs “the best and the brightest” minds coming out of universities, he said. “What is the purpose of universities? To change hearts and minds and change the world.”
Human trafficking cuts across virtually all subject areas, and students and faculty members would be invigorated by studying it and working against it, added Stewart of Historians Against Slavery.
A retired history professor at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., Stewart said colleges and universities could become centers of an abolitionist movement that he says is missing today. Many agencies are working as abolitionists, but there’s no overall movement to support them, he said.