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More Than Meets the Eye: The Immense Web of Human Trafficking and Its Vast Implications

PBJ Learning Advisory Board Member Adam Zarnowski
Advisory Board Member Adam Zarnowski

“The existing social order is a swindle and its cherished beliefs mostly delusions.” – George Orwell 

Human trafficking is an issue that takes many forms and typologies across the world and society. Traditionally, human trafficking is thought of as falling into one of two categories: sex trafficking, trafficking in persons for commercial sexual exploitation, or labor trafficking, in which a person is trafficked for the purpose of forced labor. Indeed, this dichotomy is even reflected in the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, with “severe forms of trafficking” defined as either sex trafficking or trafficking for the procurement of “labor or services” (22 U.S.C. § 1702 (11)). Despite this narrow legal definition, many other forms of human trafficking occur which pose unique harms to victims as well as national security and public health threats. Due to the diversity of the threat posed by human trafficking, each typology must be addressed and remedied in its own unique way. In this research paper, I will examine sex trafficking and labor trafficking in addition to the trafficking of child soldiers, trafficking for organ harvesting, and trafficking for child labor, each of which pose their own unique challenges and complications. Additionally, I will address the ways each of these forms of trafficking impact their victims, the threats to public health they pose, underline any national security risks, as well as examine ways to reduce or mitigate each type of trafficking. 

Sex trafficking is one of the more prevalent forms of human trafficking and is often what most individuals think of when they hear the term, “human trafficking.” Indeed, scholars have noted that anti-trafficking legislation has often been skewed heavily towards sex trafficking and away from other forms of trafficking. In this regard, it is worth noting how New York’s 2007 anti-trafficking law came to focus on sex trafficking as discussed in Hepburn and Simon’s 2013 work, Human Trafficking Around the World. Due to media coverage and differences in moral prerogatives among the anti-trafficking community, sex trafficking gets an inordinate amount of attention compared to other forms of trafficking that may be even more commonplace than – and just as exploitative as – sex trafficking, such as labor trafficking (Sai LLC, 2018; Hepburn & Simon, 2013). This is then reflected in law, such as the aforementioned 2007 New York law: while sex trafficking is a Class B felony punishable by up to 25 years in prison, labor trafficking is merely a Class D felony, punishable by only up to 7 years in prison (Hepburn & Simon, 2013). 

In similar form we find the conflation between ordinary prostitution and sex trafficking codified into law, which many advocates claim is not only erroneous, but dangerous to the anti-trafficking cause (Hepburn & Simon, 2013). However, this is certainly not to say that there are not extensive similarities between sex trafficking and prostitution, nor widespread overlap between the two phenomena. In fact, a meta-analysis revealed that approximately 80% of female prostitutes in the United States were coerced or forced into prostitution by a trafficker (Shively, et al., 2008; see also Whitney, 2017) while approximately 90% of prostitutes in Las Vegas are under the control of a pimp/trafficker (Rebecca Bender Initiative, 2017). Likewise, the similarity in psychology between the two groups speaks volumes: in one of the most comprehensive studies ever done on prostitutes across nine different countries, it was revealed that 60-75% had been raped, 70-95% were physically assaulted, and 68% met the criteria for PTSD with symptoms as severe as treatment-seeking combat veterans and survivors of state-sanctioned torture (Barry, 1996), with psychological profiles and diagnoses between consensual prostitutes and trafficking victims being identical (Stop Modern Day Slavery, 2021). Further, trafficking victims are statistically much more likely to engage in sex-for-money schemes than non-trafficked individuals are (Whitney, 2017). 

Yet despite these remarkable similarities, we must remember that these are two distinct, separate phenomena – 80% overlap is not 100% overlap, after all. The result of the conflation between the two is that it ignores victims of trafficking that are not being sexually exploited or who are male and does not fundamentally address the root causes of violence against women (Hepburn & Simon, 2013). Human trafficking, it must then be understood, is a topic of great nuance, not sweeping, one-size-fits-all policies as has been shown again and again through failed policy after failed policy (see Albert, et. al, 2021). 

Clearly, as the data pertaining to the rape, physical assault, and PTSD diagnosis of sex trafficking victims shows, individuals who are subject to this form of trafficking suffer greatly. However, society as a whole suffers from the perpetuation of sex trafficking as well. The profits from sex trafficking frequently find their way back to foreign countries, transnational criminal organizations, and terrorist organizations, posing a grave national security risk for countries where sex trafficking is prevalent. In Afghanistan, the Taliban sweeps homes for young women and girls as young as 12 to force into sexual slavery, prostitution, and arranged marriages for their fighters (Morrell & Basham, 2021) while serving as brokers for the exchange of women and children as sex slaves throughout the region, transporting Iranian women and children to Pakistan and Pakistani women and children to Iran (Zarnowski, 2022). This is eerily similar to the crimes of Da’esh in Iraq and Syria, which made massive profits to fund its wars and terrorist campaigns by similarly selling Yazidi women and girls to its fighters as brides and sex slaves (O’Connor, 2017).

Likewise, too must nations and authorities be concerned by the public health impacts that sex trafficking poses for their respective jurisdictions. Among these concerns include the lasting impact of psychological trauma, with the per-victim lifetime cost average of rape estimated at $122,461 according to the CDC (DeGue, 2018) alongside the total economic burden of PTSD in the United States alone in 2018 which was estimated at $19,630 per individual, or approximately $232.2 billion (Davis, et. Al., 2022). This doesn’t even begin to address the spread of physical disease and sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV, which drastically reduces the lifespan of those working in the sex industry normally and those who are sex trafficked exponentially (Shelley, 2010). One theory of mitigating sex trafficking is that of demand reduction or reducing the demand for commercial sex. One of the most popular methods of demand reduction is the “reverse sting” used by local police departments wherein a law enforcement officer or confederate poses as a decoy to lure in sex buyers and then arrest them (McGough, 2014). The programs have been judged a good success, but the sheer levels of demand for commercial success have not dropped. 

Labor trafficking, the other form of human trafficking specifically identified as a “severe form of human trafficking” in federal law and which includes debt bondage, involuntary servitude, peonage, and slavery within its definition (22 U.S.C. § 1702 (11)) is perhaps the most common form of human trafficking in the world today despite being significantly de-emphasized in comparison to sex trafficking. One study examined human trafficking in San Diego, California, long considered to be a hotbed of sex trafficking, and found there to be approximately 8,830 to 11,773 victims of sex trafficking in the county annually (Sai LLC, 2018). By comparison, 38,458 estimated annual victims of labor trafficking, more than four times the amount of sex trafficking victims, were estimated to exist in the county in the same time period. However, perhaps due to many of the reasons described previously, this finding was not as emphasized in the report as the findings on sex trafficking victims in the region. Further, the role of corporations and politics must be addressed, as extensive lobbying by the agricultural industry has been identified as playing a significant role in the de-prioritization of the identification, prosecution, and penalization of labor trafficking, such as in the 2007 New York anti-trafficking law (Hepburn & Simon, 2013).  

Additionally, many aspects of labor trafficking are misunderstood or go by different names hence making policing it difficult. For instance, one common form of labor trafficking is often called “wage theft,” and is a popular reason why employers prefer to employ migrant workers: it makes for this practice to become easier to implement (Office for Victims of Crime, 2020). Such practices disproportionately affect women and individuals of color and go hand-in-hand with discrimination cases (UCLA Labor Center, 2015) while reflecting overall ethnic patterns seen in human trafficking (Paiz & Van Schooneveld, 2022). Keeping in mind that wage theft is merely one form of labor trafficking, it is important to note that while the International Labor Organization has recently estimated the profits from labor trafficking for 2021 at roughly $50 billion worldwide, wage theft in the United States in 2017 was estimated at $40 billion alone (Robinson, 2017). This raises even further questions as to the accuracy of the statistics and estimates surrounding modern slavery, with much evidence suggesting they are vast underestimates (Zarnowski, 2022a). 

Labor trafficking is atrociously exploitative to its victims and perpetuates continual cycles of poverty, despite popular misconceptions that labor trafficking is not as “severe” as sex trafficking (Hepburn & Simon, 2013). The health consequences of labor trafficking are particularly egregious, with many victims developing a host of psychological and psychiatric conditions similar to those who experience sex trafficking, such as depression, PTSD, phobias, panic attacks, and depression (Office of Trafficking in Persons). Similarly on the physical front victims may suffer from disfiguring scars, hearing loss, headaches, cardiovascular and respiratory problems, and even limb amputation, all of which lends to shortened lifespans for victims who tend to die prematurely (Shelley, 2010). The costs of treatment for these conditions are then passed on to society, as has been previously discussed (Davis, et. Al., 2022).

Labor trafficking poses a grave national security risk as it is increasingly tied to organized crime networks. In Afghanistan for instance, laborers are forced to toil for long hours in Taliban poppy fields or work in industrial drug labs, producing three-fourths of the world’s opioids and flooding the market with amphetamines (Zarnowski, 2022). This directly contributes to the opioid crisis in the United States, a major public health issue, and the violence of the narcocartels in Mexico and Latin America. Labor trafficking is also innately related to border security and crime reduction, both due to the number of migrants that are often illegally smuggled to serve as cheap, exploitable labor for employers as well as the fact that labor trafficking is highly correlated to offender recidivism (Cox, 2019). Employers are known for frequently taking advantage of employees with criminal records or who are on parole in labor trafficking or debt bondage scenarios, as having and maintaining a job is a requirement for many probation agreements. Thus, for the parolees, the coercive threat of termination carries a similar implication as it would for a guest worker (Zarnowski, 2022b). 

The cyclical nature of trafficking thus becomes very important to understand at this juncture: criminalization of victimhood through outdated laws leads to trafficking victims having criminal records. For instance, a sex trafficking victim may be arrested for prostitution, only to be labor trafficked as a condition of her probation, and thus may return to her original sex trafficker just to make ends meet and have food in the fridge (Rebecca Bender Initiative, 2017). It must be noted that the author wishes this was just a hypothetical scenario, but the reality is that four out of five survivors recovered from brothels are re-trafficked within one to three months due to dynamics such as this (Berg, 2021) and the fact that victims of human trafficking can be subject to more than one kind of trafficking at the same time. A simple solution to combat labor trafficking in the United States would be to increase the staffing at the Department of Labor, which has the same number of investigators for wage violations in 2021 as it did in 1938 despite the workforce expanding sixfold from 22 million to 135 million (One Fair Wage, 2021). As it stands now, 83% of employees who have had a court-backed claim to unpaid wages never recover a penny due to a lack of enforcement (UCLA Labor Center, 2015). 

Organ trafficking is a particularly gruesome form of human trafficking that is on the rise across the world. Under normal circumstances, those eligible for receiving an organ transplant go onto a waiting list until a properly matched donor organ becomes available. Unfortunately, lengthy queues and the fact that organs do not always become available when they are needed the most by potential recipients creates demand for illegal, trafficked organs. And where there is demand, there will always be supply. 

It is a well-documented tactic of traffickers to prey upon their victims’ unique needs and vulnerabilities with crushing poverty/economic need is the most common vulnerability that trafficking survivors report having exploited (Nikkel & Tennis, 2021). Indeed, it is so common that it dwarfs all other factors by comparison. Across Northern Africa and the Near East, the problem is fueling an epidemic of organ trafficking. In Syria, refugees desperate to escape nearly a decade of war and genocide are tricked and lured into selling an eye or a kidney in exchange for supposedly safe passage to Europe – passage that doesn’t always come once they part with their organ (Mis, 2017). In Egypt, migrants face similar prospects, where a kidney goes for as little as $3,000, with victims seeing little if any of the money, having often been locked in and forced to undergo surgery (Columb, 2019). 

In Libya however, the trafficking is more of a bloody harvest, with African migrants being kept in dog cages until their eyes, kidneys, and even lungs are harvested to supply the European organ market, a process the migrants don’t often survive (Uchechukwu, 2021). This practice bears similarity to the butchery practiced in China, where both legitimate prisoners and political dissidents are executed and subsequently harvested for their organs (Gutmann, 2014). The organs then make their way to the United States, infiltrating the donor supply and where wealthy buyers also procure them to skip long donor lines (Shelley, 2010). 

The cost to victims of organ trafficking is obvious and horrendous: even if they survive the procedure, they are scarred for life and suffer both a reduced quality of life and a reduced life expectancy. However, the costs to society are just as grave. Trafficked organs are not subject to the same protective and screening protocols as donated organs and serve as a potent disease vector – including for infectious disease. Subsequently, this poses not just a public health risk but a national security one, as well. Moreover, there is no matching trafficked organs to their recipients in the way that donated organs are, increasing the risks that the trafficked organ, once transplanted, will be rejected by the recipient’s body. Thus, the risk for the buyer of the organ is increased as well. Likewise, the issue of organ trafficking cannot be disconnected from its ties to organized crime, the funding of terrorism, and the genocide of ethnic minorities such as the Uyghur population in China and the Hazara of Afghanistan (Gutmann, 2014; Hasrat, 2019). Evidence indicates that an international, legally binding agreement that criminalizes organ trafficking would “be a step forward to bring a change in the global picture of organ trafficking and transplant tourism” (Bagheri & Delmonico, 2013).

Another barbaric yet surprisingly common form of human trafficking that does not receive as much attention in the literature as sex or labor trafficking is the trafficking of minors for the purposes of providing child soldiers. A common misconception about the child soldier phenomenon is that it only occurs in remote, underdeveloped regions such as Latin America, Africa, or the Middle East (Rinaldi). However, this couldn’t be further from the truth, and the reality of the presence of child soldiers in the United States has been recognized from journalistic organizations as diverse as The Nation to The Washington Times, albeit for starkly different reasons and in service of vastly different agendas (Jones, 2013; Garfinkel, 2016). 

Admittedly, the phenomenon of child soldiers is vast and complex, and cannot be properly done justice in this limited space. What is clear, however, is the harm caused to child soldiers. Even if they survive the armed and violent conflicts they are forced to fight in, they may have injuries that permanently disable them for the rest of their lives. The psychological damage is just as if not more debilitating, with violent traumatization and exposure to combat and war likely to cause PTSD, major depression, and a host of anxiety disorders in young victims (D’Allesandra). Further, girls who become child soldiers, who are estimated to make up anywhere from between 25-50% of all child soldiers, are often sexually abused and compelled into forced marriages with their commanders, and male child soldiers are similarly violently sexually abused as well (D’Allesandra). 

This becomes pertinent due to a 1998 study which revealed that particularly traumatic experienced in childhood, known as adverse childhood experiences, resulted in extensive future problems in one’s life (Felleti, et. al., 1998). The resulting literature has revealed the immense consequences and implications childhood trauma has for individuals, public health, national security, and criminal justice policies across the board. One critical finding that impacts all of these areas is that there exists a stronger correlational link between childhood trauma and addiction than exists between diabetes and obesity (Swan, 1998). The link between childhood trauma and addiction is in fact so strong that over two-thirds of addicts report trauma meeting one or more categories as defined in Felleti, et. al., 1998 (Swan, 1998). As to criminal justice and national security, criminal offenders have four times the rate of childhood trauma as non-offenders do (Reavis, et. al., 2013). Specifically, prison populations report child abuse alone at twice the rate of the general population, and victims of childhood abuse or neglect are nine times more likely to engage in criminal behavior than their peers (Harlow, 1999). As if this were not enough, the trauma child soldiers are exposed to increases their risk to be trafficked again later in life. Childhood sexual abuse alone increases the chances that a girl will be trafficked by 2.52 times and a boy by 8.21 times (Reid, et. al., 2017), again highlighting the cyclical nature of trafficking.

The implications for policing and criminal justice reform are staggering, especially when one considers that America’s street gang problem can be, and has been, thought of as a child soldier issue (Kerig, et. al., 2013; Jones, 2013; Garfinkel, 2016). Indeed, as revealed through Utah’s Victor Rax case in which Rax groomed and molested teen immigrant youth while forcing them to serve in a drug distribution street gang truly demonstrates how much of the street gang issue is a matter of trafficking and forced criminality, not willful youth misconduct as has traditionally been understood (Anderson & Strong, 2021). The potential of this paradigm shift is enormous when it comes to criminal justice reform, yet it reveals enormous promise for the tackling of street gangs and other instances of child soldiers in America (Kerig, et. al., 2013). For instance, the United States Armed Forces is one of the few militaries in the world to actively and openly recruit and sign minors into its forces in direct conflict with UN guidance and the very definition of a child (Jones, 2013; Rinaldi; D’Allesandra). 

Of course, child soldiers are not unique to America, and a wide variety of global consequences are posed through this unique form of trafficking. In Uganda and the Congo, child soldiers are commonly associated with rebel movements and were also widely used by the terrorist organization FARC when it was active in Columbia (D’Allesandra). During and after the NATO presence in Afghanistan, it was well understood yet seldom talked about that the majority of targeted assassinations and suicide bombings were carried out by child soldiers recruited and groomed by the Taliban or their Pakistani allies. Young boys who were kidnapped or captured by the Taliban would first be subject to Bacha Bazi, or “boy play,” sexual slavery and made to become dependent on drugs, a common tactic of traffickers across the world. When the boys got “too old” for sexual relations, they were given more drugs as well as orders to become martyrs for the cause (Zarnowski, 2022). 

Last up for examination is the topic of child trafficking for labor. Child labor trafficking continues throughout much of the world due to overwhelming poverty in regions that drive families to send their children to work, from Haiti to Helmand Province. Similarly, crisis and political opportunity often contributes to the problem: in 2021 the conservative Prime Minister of Australia Scott Morrison proposed to draft sixteen-year-olds into the workforce specifically to operate heavy forklifts due to the perceived “labor shortage” facing the country (Butler, 2022). Despite Morrison’s seriousness about the idea, the proposal was officially rebuffed due to its legal infeasibility and the inherent dangers of forklift operation. Nonetheless, child labor trafficking remains a serious issue in the developed world, with children as young as 13 having recently been found working in a joint Hyundai and Kia auto parts factory in Alabama (Rosenburg, Schneyer, & Cooke, 2022).

In Haiti, children are often subject to being indentured under the Restavek system simply to survive the harsh reality of crippling poverty and lack of in the country. In this system, a child is essentially sold by their parents to another family that is seen as “wealthier” from a cultural standpoint, and thus capable of supporting the child, as a Restavek, for the family to do as they like with the child – without pay or rights (Abrams, 2010). Children are subject to horrific conditions in the Restavek system, and experience atrocious physical and sexual abuse. The Haitian government, itself riddled with debt and which is the result of longstanding foreign exploitation of the country, has largely refused to intervene, although it is a fair question of whether the government has actually refused to intervene or simply does not have the resources to do anything about the problem (Abrams, 2010).

The situation in Haiti is similar to that in Afghanistan, where at least a quarter of Afghan children between the ages of 5 and 14 work in the dangerous conditions found in brick kilns, carpet factories, salt and coal mines, welding works, and more (IOM, 2003). In total, over 50% of children are laborers of some sort in Afghanistan, with many working more than 12 hours a day, every day. Since the Taliban have returned to power, the situation has only gotten much worse. Save the Children estimates that over a million more children have been forced to become laborers just to survive increasing poverty and famine, with an estimated 60,000 child laborers existing in Kabul alone (Zarnowski, 2022). 

Victims of child labor trafficking experience a widespread assortment of both mental, social, and physical health problems as a result of their trafficking that appears to be a combination of that experienced by adult labor trafficking victims and victims of the child soldier phenomenon (Ibrahim, et. al., 2019; see also D’Allesandra; Office on Trafficking in Persons). In addition to physical injuries obtained from their harsh work environments and the development of PTSD, anxiety, and chronic depressive disorders (Ibrahim, et. al., 2019), child laborers’ social and emotional development is strictly limited as they are not able to spend time with families or play with others their own age as healthy children do (International Labor Rights Forum, 2011). 

This strongly correlates with their exposure to adverse childhood experiences (Felleti, 1998) in passing future costs on to society (Swan, 1999) as well as predisposing to future criminal activity (Harlow, 1999; Reavis, et. al., 2013) which endangers national security while also uniquely predisposing these child victims to further trafficking later on in life (Reid, et. al., 2017). Child laborers are often at worse risk for respiratory diseases than their peers (International Labor Rights Forum, 2011) and are often so malnourished that they never reach their full height, have poorly formed or rotting teeth, and experience later reproductive problems in addition to experiencing a lack of social functioning and a dearth of even the most rudimentary education (Ibrahim, et. al., 2019; Office on Trafficking in Persons; International Labor Rights Forum, 2011). Child labor trafficking is a complex issue driven by a multitude of factors and no single method of reduction; instead, the predominant theme in the literature as to mitigation is to address the underlying causes that lead to children seeking employment over education, such as poverty and the creation of a social safety net (Moore, 2022), with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal often cited as an example of how to best accomplish this.

In conclusion, trafficking in persons happens in many forms across the world. Not only does it leave lasting traumatic impacts on victims, but this trauma is then forced upon the rest of society, causing untold damage in the global spheres of economics, public health, and national (and world) security. Each form of trafficking requires a unique approach to eliminate, increasing the complexity of the problem. Ultimately, understanding this complexity remains crucial to eliminating slavery in the modern world, and work must be done to better identify the dynamics of trafficking as they exist within the full social, cultural, economic, historic, technological, and even political structures and systems of society in order to make a lasting impact in this area.

More Than Meets the Eye: The Immense Web of Human Trafficking and Its Vast Implications3
"More Than Meets the Eye: The Immense Web of Human Trafficking and Its Vast Implications" Digital Painting ©2022 by Billy Joe Cain


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