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Half-truths about human trafficking

By Carey Roberts
web posted July 17, 2006

Raman was forced to work as a brick-maker to pay off a debt incurred years before by his grandfather. For years, he was paid three rupees (two cents) for a bag of bricks. If he didn't work hard enough and long enough, he was beaten with a stick.

Michael, 15, was kidnapped to serve as a combatant in the Ugandan Lord's Resistance Army. During that that time, he was forced to kill another boy, and on another occasion was forced to watch as a boy was hacked to death.

Over the last 10 years, globalization has triggered an unprecedented demand for unskilled and low-skilled laborers. Employers from countries with booming economies in Europe, Asia, and the Near East scour the globe in search of willing bodies to work in construction, manufacturing, agriculture, and domestic work.

Because working conditions are often grim, employers often tap the most vulnerable segments of the population. In some cases, women and girls are caught up in prostitution rings.

In its worst form, a desperate parent sells a child into modern-day slavery. Like young Nayla of Azerbeijan, ransomed by her mother to traffickers, who was then shipped to Dubai to work as a club prostitute.

No one knows the extent to which human trafficking exists around the world, but many believe able-bodied males represent the most vulnerable group. A recent United Nations report, Trafficking in Persons: Global Patterns, noted, "it is men especially who might be expected to be trafficked for forced labor purposes."

A report issued last month by the U.S. State Department notes that in several parts of the world, boys are forced into pick-pocketing gangs. In West African countries, men posing as Muslim scholars lure young boys away from their parents with the promise of teaching them the Koran. Once removed from the custody of their parents, the boys are turned into common street beggers.

In the Middle East, 2,000 young boys from Bangladesh have been taken away from their families to become camel jockeys in the Persian Gulf states. These boys are highly sought-after because they are the lightest possible riders for races. And when civil conflicts flare up in Africa and Latin America, boys as young as 12 years old find themselves pressed into military combat.

There are those who would have us believe that the misfortunes of women are somehow more compelling, and therefore they are more deserving of human rights protections.

That became apparent in 2000 when the United Nations passed its Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children. What about men?

That bias is also found in the legislation of many countries. According to the Trafficking in Persons report, "In many countries, the laws relevant to human trafficking are restricted in their application solely to women. . . In addition, many service providers limit their support and protection only to female and child victims. Thus, exploitation through forced labor is often quite unlikely to come to the attention of those dealing with victims."

Once human trafficking is defined as a crime that only affects women, statistics become meaningless. U.S. authorities have stated that up to two million women and children are trafficked each year across international borders.

But a 2002 report from the Washington, DC-based Migration Policy Institute exposed the flaw behind that claim: These "numbers are widely regarded as very conservative because they do not including trafficking within countries, nor do they take into account the trafficking of men."

Gender bias persists to this day.

Recently Janice Shaw Crouse wrote an article for National Review titled "No Tolerance for Human Trafficking." Despite its high-minded invocation of the human rights issue, Crouse's article does not devote a single word to the male victims of human trafficking.

Crouse's crusade is to curb prostitution, a human vice that is demeaning to women and men alike. But in the process, she tries to smear the entire military establishment: "It's a given that prostitution coexists with military bases and installations. Where there are military forces, you'll find brothels."

Mrs. Crouse makes no mention of the laborers with calloused hands and broken hearts whose passports are removed by their employers and told to work ever harder. No comment about the men who are ordered to never report the abuses being perpetrated against them. Nothing of the millions of Ramans and Michaels around the world who are forced into lives of destitution and involuntary servitude.

It is high irony that some segments of a movement that purports to advance human rights would deem half the world's population as less worthy of attention and concern. That stance, morally repugnant and intellectually indefensible, undermines the very notion of human rights for all.

Carey Roberts is a Staff Writer for The New Media Alliance. The New Media Alliance is a non-profit (501c3) national coalition of writers, journalists and grass-roots media outlets.

Other related essays:

  • Slavery in our time by Kimberley Jane Wilson (February 14, 2000)
    Slavery wasn't invented in the United States, writes Kimberley Jane Wilson, and nor has it ended around the world

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