Modern Slavery: People for Sale

Human Trafficking a Global Problem

Former Secretary of State Collin Powell addressing human trafficking
Powell Discusses 'The Trafficking In Persons'. Matthew Cavanaugh / Getty Images

During the year 2001, at least 700,000 and potentially as many as 4 million men, women and children worldwide were bought, sold, transported and held against their will in slave-like conditions, according to the U.S. Department of State.

In its Second Annual Trafficking in Persons Report, the Department of State finds that modern slave traders or "person-traffickers" use threats, intimidation, and violence to force victims to engage in sex acts or to work under conditions comparable to slavery for the traffickers’ financial gain.

Who are the Victims?

According to the report, women and children make up the overwhelming majority of victims, typically being sold into the international sex trade for prostitution, sex tourism, and other commercial sexual service. Many are forced into labor situations in sweatshops, construction sites, and agricultural settings. In other forms of servitude, children are abducted and forced to fight for government military forces or rebel armies. Others are forced to act as domestic servants and street beggars.

"Traffickers prey on the most vulnerable members of our human family, violating their most basic rights, subjecting them to degradation and misery," stated then Secretary of State Colin Powell in presenting the report he said displayed "the resolve of the entire U.S. Government to stop this appalling assault on the dignity of men, women, and children."

A Global Problem

While the report focuses on person trafficking in eighty-nine other countries, Secretary Powell reported that some 50,000 women and children are trafficked annually for sexual exploitation into the United States. "Here and abroad," said Powell, "the victims of trafficking toil under inhuman conditions -- in brothels, sweatshops, fields and even in private homes."

Once traffickers move them from their homes to other locations – within their country or to foreign countries – victims typically find themselves isolated and unable to speak the language or understand the culture. The victims rarely have immigration papers or have been given fraudulent identification documents by the traffickers. Victims also may be exposed to a range of health concerns, including domestic violence, alcoholism, psychological problems, HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.

Causes of Person Trafficking

Countries suffering from depressed economies and unstable governments are more likely to become havens for person-traffickers. Promises of better pay and working conditions in foreign countries are powerful lures. In some countries, civil wars and natural disasters tend to disorient and displace people, increasing their vulnerability. Certain cultural or social practices also contribute to trafficking.

How the Traffickers Operate

Traffickers tempt their victims by advertising good jobs for high pay in exciting cities or by setting up bogus employment, travel, modeling and matchmaking agencies to lure unsuspecting young men and women into the trafficking networks. In many cases, traffickers trick parents into believing their children will be taught a useful skill or trade once removed from the home. The children, of course, end up enslaved. In the most violent cases, victims are forcefully kidnapped or abducted.

What is Being Done to Stop This?

Secretary of State Powell reported that under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, President George W. Bush had, "directed all relevant United States agencies to combine forces to eradicate trafficking and help rehabilitate its victims."

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act was enacted in October 2000, to "combat trafficking of persons, especially into the sex trade, slavery, and slavery-like conditions in the United States and countries around the world through prevention, through prosecution and enforcement against traffickers, and through protection and assistance to victims of trafficking."  The Act defined new crimes, strengthened criminal penalties, and afforded new protections and benefits to trafficking victims. The Act also requires several federal government agencies, including the Departments of State, Justice, Labor, Health and Human Services and the U.S. Agency for International Development to work in any way possible to fight person-trafficking. The State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons assists in the coordination of anti-trafficking efforts.

"Countries that make a serious effort to address the problem will find a partner in the United States, ready to help them design and implement effective programs," said Secretary of State Powell. "Countries that do not make such an effort, however, will be subject to sanctions under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act beginning next year."

What is Being Done Today?

Today, “person trafficking” is known as “human trafficking” and many of the federal government’s efforts to combat human trafficking have shifted to the massive Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

In 2014, the DHS launched its Blue Campaign as a unified, cooperative effort to combat human trafficking. Through the Blue Campaign, DHS teams with other federal agencies, law enforcement officials, private-sector organizations, and the general public to share resources and information to identify cases of human trafficking, apprehend the violators, and assist the victims.

How to Report Human Trafficking

To report suspected cases of human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) toll-free hotline at 1-888-373-7888: Call Specialists are available 24/7 to take reports of potential human trafficking. All reports are confidential and you may remain anonymous. Interpreters are available.