By Allison Hollabaugh,
Headlines in the United States last week were filled with the horrific tragedy in San Antonio, Texas, where at 10 lives were lost and 20 others hospitalized with heat stroke after dozens of migrants were trapped inside the stifling trailer of a truck. More would have died on their road to a new life if someone from the truck had not bravely sought water from Walmart employees.
Newspapers and some officials across the country were quick to headline the tragedy as a “human trafficking crime”—but soon corrected “trafficking” to “smuggling.” Why? Smuggling and trafficking are different crimes requiring different responses. (There are not yet enough facts available in this case to determine if any of the migrants also were victims of trafficking.)
Confusing the terms does the vast majority of trafficking victims no favors, and in fact makes it more likely that trafficking victims in need of rescue will be overlooked.
Smuggling vs. Trafficking
The defining characteristic of human smuggling is transportation and is generally defined by the Department of Homeland Security as “importation of people into the United States involving deliberate evasion of immigration laws,” including moving irregular migrants across national borders as well as “unlawful transportation and harboring” of irregular migrants already in the United States.
By contrast, while transportation does occur in many human trafficking cases, human trafficking does not require movement. The defining characteristic of human trafficking centers on commercial exploitation akin to slavery. Specifically, human trafficking is defined in U.S. law as:
Sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age; or
Recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage or slavery.
The Palermo Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, which has been ratified by all of the Participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), echoes the “exploitation” focus above, specifically stating that “Trafficking in Persons” means the following:
[T]he recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs[.]
Irregular migrants are particularly vulnerable due to their undocumented status, and may suffer human trafficking en route to or after arrival in the destination country. Some smuggling networks overlap with trafficking networks or deliver irregular migrants to traffickers. Migrants who voluntarily enter a country outside regular channels are sometimes saddled with huge “debts” by the smugglers, who then force them into debt bondage—a form of human trafficking.
As the Special Representative on Human Trafficking Issues to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, Rep. Chris Smith, noted in his recent report to the annual session, the overlap of smuggling and trafficking networks in OSCE region is particularly notable among migrants originating in African countries. He noted that the International Organization for Migration reported last year that 80% of arrivals from Nigeria may have been victims of sex trafficking, forced labor, and/or trafficking for the purpose of organ removal. Gambians, Ghanaians, Guineans, and Ivorians—especially the youth—also had strong indicators of human trafficking.
Identification and Protection of Trafficking Victims
The difficulty for border guards and law enforcement is discerning who among irregular migrants actually needs rescue from a trafficker and access to rehabilitative services. The United States and many other OSCE participating states conduct special anti-trafficking training for border guards. Given the current influx of migrants into the OSCE region and resulting expansion of law enforcement contacts with irregular migrants, the Special Representative and Co-ordinator to Combat Trafficking in Human Beings for the OSCE, Amb. Medina Jarbussynova, has initiated and implemented a special Extra Budgetary Project to train law enforcement who come in contact with irregular migrants how to identify trafficking victims.
In the United States, a foreign national who is likely a victim of human trafficking is offered the same level of care and services that is offered to refugees. Likely victims are also offered temporary legal status and the opportunity to apply for a T non-immigrant visa.
The number of these visas, as well as the funding for assistance is limited—underscoring the need to identify among irregular migrant populations which individuals are in need of special services.
However, the vast majority of trafficking victims found in the United States are not irregular migrants, or otherwise foreign nationals. In 2016, the United States identified nearly 800 foreign nationals in need of special assistance due to suspected trafficking in the United States. This is in contrast to the 3,732 U.S. citizens and Legal Permanent Residents who received special services as trafficking victims.
The disparity in numbers may be because it is more difficult to find foreign national victims. However, it is more likely due to the persistent truth that trafficking victims are just as likely, if not more likely, to be citizens, or otherwise legally present, in the country in which they live.
At the beginning of the anti-trafficking movement about 20 years ago, advocates and law enforcement were looking for enslaved irregular migrants. It gradually became apparent that the trafficking suffered by foreign nationals was also happening to citizens, it was just called something different, like “child prostitution” or a “labor violation.” Law enforcement began to see, and respond appropriately, to domestic human trafficking.
Anti-trafficking advocates still struggle to educate policy makers, police, prosecutors, judges, social welfare agencies, and communities to recognize human trafficking in all its forms. The manifestations of exploitation are many and constantly changing; it can look like a child begging on a corner, a woman unable to leave the home where she is a domestic servant, a young girl forced to participate in the making of pornography, a foster kid engaged in survival sex on the street, the busboy at a restaurant, a woman working in a nail salon, a door to door salesman, a legal visa holder advertised as an escort online—or an irregular migrant smuggled not to freedom but into trafficking.
Focusing primarily on exploitation rather than origin or movement as the core feature of human trafficking will ensure that the United States and OSCE Participating States continue to correctly identify and help more trafficking victims become survivors every year.