There are roughly 6,000 trafficking prosecutions globally every year. Six thousand – when our best estimate on a number of victims worldwide is 20 million. This abysmal gap is intolerable and we must do everything we can to bridge it. We have to increase our efforts: robust victim identification and assistance, along with aggressive investigation and prosecution of traffickers.
In the United States, our federal laws regarding human trafficking have evolved over the past decade. We know that we need to address the more subtle forms of coercion used by traffickers in both sex trafficking and labor trafficking cases, and to prohibit conspiracy and attempts to violate criminal human trafficking laws and obstruct their enforcement. Penalties related to these crimes have also been strengthened.
The victim-centered approach seeks to both minimize the re-traumatization that can be associated with the criminal justice process and aid in the prosecution of traffickers. In the context of the criminal justice system, there are special considerations for the protection of victims who cooperate in the investigation and prosecution of their trafficker, such as protecting the confidentiality of victim information, as appropriate, and providing victim services and support by funding of non-governmental organizations.
Prosecutions, however, cannot take place without first identifying the victims. Training for law-enforcement and first responders is thus a necessary first step, as are effective referral mechanisms for protecting and assisting victims and protocols for cooperation between victim service providers and criminal justice agencies.
One factor that complicates the prosecution of these cases is that individuals may not self-identify as victims of trafficking; they may not ask for help or even understand they are victims of a crime. Other hurdles include that victims may experience physical or psychological trauma, or may feel powerless due to debts incurred as a result of their trafficking situation. In many cases, victims are forced to participate in criminal activities and may therefore be afraid of law enforcement. In other cases, a background of extreme poverty, cultural vulnerabilities, including language barriers, or the absence of family support leaves these individuals particularly at risk.
Finally, mandatory restitution and compensation provisions are meant to attack the traffickers’ profit-based motivation and put them – and sometimes an entire network – out of business. Making victims aware of and facilitating their access to these remedies is a powerful tool to restore their human dignity and to help them rebuild their lives. Moreover, it is what they are rightfully owed.