By Micheline R. Millar
HUMAN TRAFFICKING today is a multi-billion dollar industry and a major human rights concern that requires the collective effort of the global community to be successfully eradicated, according to a senior official of the United Nations Development Fund for Women.
“The U.S. Justice Department ranks human trafficking as the third largest criminal enterprise worldwide, generating an estimated $9.5 billion per year in terms of profit,” the fund’s Executive Director Noeleen Heyzer said during a recent lecture on gender, migration and human trafficking, hosted by the Asian Development Bank.
Trafficking of persons includes prostitution, debt bondage, forced labor and slavery, and exploitation of children as workers, soldiers or sex slaves, said Heyzer. Data from the International Labor Organization show that the migrant population currently stands at 120 million, of which around 12.3 million are enslaved in forced or bonded labor or sexual servitude at any one time, she said.
The magnitude of the human trafficking problem facing the world today has prompted the Group of 8 countries to issue a communiqué identifying the phenomenon as the dark side of globalization, she said.
“Population movements, whether voluntary or forced, are not new. What has changed in our world today is the regulation, as national borders and their control are tightening. Those who fail to meet entry criteria become illegal, giving rise to people smuggling and trafficking. And this has in turn increased the involvement of organized crime,” she said.
Heyzer traced the dramatic growth in migration and trafficking flows to so-called “push and pull” factors. Push factors would include uneven economic growth, war and armed conflict, natural disasters, high levels of gender inequality, and family violence. Prosperity and stability in medium and high growth countries and regions act as pull factors creating increased demand for imported labor in what Heyzer termed as the “global workplace.”
Migrant workers are cast under two categories: highly skilled professionals demanded by the new global economy and technologies; and the much larger group composed of semi-skilled and unskilled workers willing to take low wages, insecurity and dangerous work, said Heyzer.
“We need to understand and realize that many people are not sharing in the benefits of globalization,” she said, noting that despite the expanding global economy, the concentration of wealth remains with a few. “The figures I have is that the richest 2% of the global adult population today owns half of global wealth, whilst the bottom half of the world’s population in fact owns barely 1%,” she lamented.
The Asia Pacific region is an example of such lopsided distribution of resources, said Heyzer. The region includes countries with some of the world’s highest growth and some of the worst poverty, the highest human development with some of the deepest and greatest exploitation and deprivation, she pointed out.
While the number of people in the region who live on less than $1 a day had fallen from 31% to 20% from 1990 to 2001, the decline masks significant difference among subregions and in the local setting, said Heyzer. China and India account for much of the region’s economic expansion, but they also harbor deep pockets of poverty and regional differences, she said.
“Globalization has obviously opened up new opportunities for those with skills, with capital, but at the same time, it has also shut down employment and livelihood options for those without them, especially in some of the poorer countries and in the rural areas that have failed to compete in the global marketplace,” said Heyzer.
Despite the dismal circumstances often facing migrants in the global marketplace, Heyzer noted that the wages and conditions that are substandard in rich and middle-income nations still prove alluring compared to those in poorer countries. This is especially true in the case of trafficked women, who continue to persevere despite suffering from human rights violations as they see themselves as able to solve some of the urgent economic problems faced by their families back home.
“In today’s world, we do not need to have this situation, and it is not acceptable, to have a crisis of survival where the only way out for a family to survive is by trafficking their daughters,” said Heyzer.
As long as capital but not labor can move freely across borders, illegal migration and trafficking will remain rampant. International norms and standards have been established in the past in an effort to arrest such a trend. “But if rights are to be meaningful they must be claimed by those who hold them. In other words people should know that they have these rights, and very often you find that people who are supposed to have rights did not know that they have these rights,” she said.
Heyzer proposed several measures to help mitigate human trafficking. One is to make it difficult for traffickers to operate with impunity by raising their cost to operate. “It’s unfortunate that there’s still a lot of impunity over such crimes especially with some of the local corruption of officials and high placed government personalities,” she said.
Another measure is to raise public awareness of this form of human rights violation and create public outrage so that people will be discouraged from using goods and services provided by traffickers and recruiters, said Heyzer. The same way as sex abusers of children are identified, so too should human traffickers, even if such a measure may be deemed controversial by some sectors, she said.
“Many of the people are trafficked because they are provided with basically false information. They are promised a different kind of work and they end up with something else,” said Heyzer. “Ultimately, the problems created by the global phenomena, such as migration and trafficking, require a global solution. And in an age that has been marked by a huge upsurge of rhetoric about human rights and women’s rights, a global solution must match this with implementation and with accountability. We need to accelerate seriously this work to end discrimination and gender inequality.”
Trafficking of persons includes prostitution, debt bondage, forced labor, slavery, and exploitation of children as workers, soldiers or sex slaves.
© 2007 Asian Development Bank