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Indigenous & Latina Women & Children's Human Rights News from the Americas 


Latin America
Women & Children at Risk
Title:  Trafficking Policy Scrutinized
Publisher:  (c) 2005 New York Newsday - newsday.com
Author:  Anthony M. DeStefano
Publish Date:  2005-07-24

Mix sex with the Bush administration and controversy is bound to follow.

Such is the case with the emotional issue of human trafficking - the migration of people to work in forced or fraudulent labor conditions often involving prostitution, or as farm and domestic workers.

The United States has been at the forefront of anti-trafficking efforts since the passage of a federal law in the closing days of the Clinton administration in 2000. Since then, American prosecutors have initiated scores of criminal cases in New York City and elsewhere. Tens of millions of dollars have been spent to address what many human-rights advocates see as modern-day slavery.

Earlier this month, the Department of State started the clock ticking on 14 nations, including allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which have until Oct. 1 to do more to combat trafficking as defined under American law or lose certain U.S. aid.

But critics believe the administration is using worldwide concern about trafficking to push a misguided effort aimed at abolishing prostitution to curry favor with conservative religious elements in the United States. That effort is based on half-baked research or no research at all, the critics maintain. The result, according to some human-rights activists, has been too much attention on sex trafficking and not enough on labor trafficking.

In a telephone interview with Newsday, Ambassador John Miller, head of the Department of State's office to monitor trafficking, agreed that trafficking is not just sex work. But he also believes that where sex trafficking is found, it is "inextricably linked with prostitution."

"We have to acknowledge that," Miller said of the professed trafficking-prostitution link. "To pretend otherwise is unrealistic."

That posture has been taken to task by a number of human rights experts and attorneys active in anti-trafficking efforts.

In an April 21 letter to Miller, a group of rights advocates said a Department of State fact sheet linking prostitution and sex trafficking contained statements that "are unsupported or unproven by valid research methods and data." Sources used in the government document failed to prove that prostitution in itself is a cause of trafficking, the letter stated. They cited other research showing a lack of labor protection fostered trafficking.

Miller acknowledged in the interview that because trafficking is a criminal activity data has been difficult to compile.

In a written response to the critics, Miller said he believed the estimate that 80 percent of the 600,000 to 800,000 people trafficked globally each year are female and that 70 percent of them are involved in commercial sex "correctly points out how a disproportionate burden of modern-day slavery falls on women and children."

Miller told Newsday that, while estimates of the number of U.S. trafficking victims have dropped from 50,000 a year in 1999 to about 17,000 in 2004, it was because of refined calculations and not because trafficking is waning.

The latest U.S. global report on trafficking mentions labor exploitation and in particular child camel jockeys in the Mideast, as well as the practice of bonded labor in South Asia, where people are obligated to work off debts that never decrease.

Still, the key U.S. debate over sex work and trafficking is expected to continue. Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) of the House Government Reform Committee wrote to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales in April voicing concern over the wisdom and legality of a Bush administration policy requiring foreign groups working with AIDS and trafficking victims to explicitly oppose prostitution before getting federal grants.

Waxman echoed the concerns of many in the HIV/AIDS health world that such a policy will make it harder to work with vulnerable populations.