Neuroscience has confirmed what most of us already know — humans are terrible at understanding big numbers. This limitation likely contributed to challenges in how the American public perceived and grappled with COVID. Two neuroscientists explained it this way, “Numbers are a useful, clear and efficient way to summarize [harms], but … the brain simply can’t understand what it means that a million people have died.”
In a similar way, most people struggle to process this even bigger number: 28 million people are trapped in human trafficking situations globally, including 3.3 million children. To make better sense of this number, I’ll convert it into units that are more familiar — 28 million people would fill Chicago’s Wrigley Field 672 times. Twenty-eight million also represents the population of DC, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and North Carolina, combined.
Since 2000, when the international community came together to organize global anti-trafficking efforts and the U.S. passed the landmark Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), much effort has gone into addressing human trafficking. Unfortunately, the problem is getting worse. Significantly more people are experiencing exploitation for both commercial sex and labor (two types of “human trafficking” or “modern slavery”) since the International Labor Organization last studied the issue six years ago. Agreement is nearly unanimous: progress has stalled on achieving UN Sustainable Development Goal 8.7 to end modern slavery among children by 2025, and universally by 2030.
Engagement by governments in recent years to combat this massive human rights crime has been inconsistent at best. In this country, the adoption of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, a law prohibiting goods from the Xinjiang region of China where forced labor is widespread from entering U.S. markets, and the announcement by the U.S. Trade Representative of a new strategy to combat forced labor, signal forward progress. On the other hand, Congress failed to reauthorize the TVPA last year and partisan gridlock continues to regularly derail commonsense policies to support survivors and fund critical anti-trafficking programs.
To make meaningful progress reducing human trafficking and to demonstrate much-needed global leadership, the U.S. should pass legislation to support human trafficking survivors, clean up global supply chains, and provide funding to help dismantle the systems that allow human trafficking to flourish.
Every member of Congress and their staff must be educated on the root causes of human trafficking and some simple, but critically important, definitions. Let’s start with human trafficking and smuggling. They are NOT the same thing. One is a crime against a person, a human rights violation (human trafficking) and the other is a crime against a border (smuggling). One involves crossing a border without authorization (smuggling); the other need not include movement at all (human trafficking). Individuals smuggled into the U.S. are not necessarily human trafficking victims.
Relatedly, as the U.S. grapples with how to best protect our national security, policymakers must resist calls to enact punitive immigration policies. Such measures will not reduce human trafficking. Instead, hostile anti-immigrant policies increase vulnerabilities to human trafficking and undermine trafficking victims’ rights
Instead, to actually support human trafficking victims, Congress should pass legislation to allow for the vacatur of non-violent convictions for crimes committed by human trafficking survivors while they were in trafficking situations. Having criminal convictions on their record makes it extremely difficult for trafficking victims to rebuild their lives.
In addition to supporting survivors in their recovery, Congress could help prevent forced labor by enlisting companies to better understand and clean up supply chains. In line with international efforts, the U.S. could require companies to incorporate human rights standards into business activities throughout supply chains to detect and remediate forced labor.
Finally, in this current moment of political polarization, it is helpful to remember that combatting human trafficking is one of the few issues that can cut through partisanship. Driven by a shared a commitment to freedom, liberty, justice, and security for all, the 118th Congress must work in a bipartisan fashion to capitalize on this moment to make meaningful progress to prevent and end human trafficking. The 28 million people trapped in human trafficking situations deserve action.
Kristen Abrams is senior director of Combatting Human Trafficking at the McCain Institute.