The dawn of globalisation and the subsequent interconnectivity in the aftermath of World War 2 has ushered in an era of unprecedented transfer of ideas, doctrines, cultural values and people. Advances in technology, telecommunication systems and transportation have done away with distances and turned the world into a global village. This interconnectivity, on the one hand, has evaporated the barriers that separated humankind for the millennium. And on the other, it has opened new vistas of organised crime and illegal cartels. Of all threats facing the world today, human trafficking and related trade have the worst humanitarian implications. Unabated – and perhaps unattended – modern slavery in a time when inalienable human rights take a central position in statesmanship is a big question mark on the already long flouted international humanitarian tenets and regimes. Human trade and trafficking have emerged as a lucrative market with invaluable dividends for organised mafias operating nationally, regionally and in the international arena.
There are multiple heinous purposes behind human trafficking. Sexual exploitation, begging, forced and bonded labour work and removal of organs are prominent factors behind this ghastly trade. Since 79 percent of trafficking is that for sexual exploitation, 55-60 percent of victims globally make up women and together girls and women account for around 75 percent of human trafficking. North America, Europe and Central Asia witness the highest prevalence of trafficking for sexual exploitation. Trafficking for forced labour accounts for 36 percent with the Middle East, Africa and Pacific regions yielding the highest detected cases. Begging accounts for around 1.5 percent of total trafficked victims. Organ removal has also caused human trafficking detected in over 16 countries. Regionally, the Middle East has the highest reported trafficked victims. Meanwhile Central and Western Europe have the highest number of victims as the regions of their origin.
In 2000, the “Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children,” supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, a landmark agreement, was signed globally. It precisely defined the heinous crime of human trafficking and warranted states to criminalise the same. The protocol along with the United Nations Conventions against Organized Crimes define human trafficking as “the recruitment, transport, transfer, harbouring or receipt of a person by such means as threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, abduction, fraud or deception for exploitation.” The United States in the same year passed the Trafficking Victim Protection Act 2000 and other nations followed suit, enacting similar legislation. However, two decades on, the trafficking continues unabated. Organised trafficking networks or individuals use fake recruitment agencies and, sometimes, violence to trick and coerce vulnerable and disadvantaged victims into the trafficking trap. Given its ubiquitous presence and global prevalence, almost every nation is afflicted by this ghastly trade. Countries can be the destination, origin or transit of the trafficked victims – or even the combination of all. By now, sexual exploitation and forced labour afflict around 25 million people worldwide. Human trafficking and forced labour annually generate an estimated $150 Billion and hence makes it one of the most lucrative criminal undertakings.
Several interconnected structural factors contribute to the trafficking: including social stratification, economic marginalisation, abject poverty, inequality, joblessness, flaws in judicial systems and terrorism. Displacement and migration resulting from conflicts and economic uncertainty generated by the COVID-19 pandemic increase the incidence of labour trafficking. The World Bank estimates 70 million people to be driven by poverty in the pandemic’s wake. Amidst this penury, desperate people are likely to look for even high-risk income sources and end up being trapped by the exploitative and trafficking groups.
Apart from being a merely human rights issue, human trafficking threatens human security and the sustainability of socio-economic growth and development. It breeds criminal gangs, promotes abusive regimes, strengthens corruption, bolsters terrorists and armed groups, erodes trade and supply chain and impedes the governance system. For instance, Boko Haram in West Africa and ISIS (also called ISIL) in Syria and Iraq used human trafficking not only for bonded labour and financial dividends but also for coercing and subjugating the locals in the submission. The middle- and low-income societies suffer the dearest from this menace, since it obstructs sustainable social development. The affected families face illiteracy, poor somatic and psychological health, malnourishment and abject poverty for forthcoming generations.
It is time stakeholders across the world recognise it as a global threat with serious socio-economic, political and strategic repercussions, rather than merely treating it as a crime against the destitute and underprivileged individuals. Governments need to invest in and implement the global and national anti-trafficking laws in their respective territories. Adopting new tools and techniques to identify, trace and apprehend the trafficking mafias, ensuring forced labour-free global supply chain and halting the financial transactions of human traffickers would go a long way in doing away with heinous crime against the lives and dignity of humankind.