Human Trafficking as a Social Issue

Human trafficking has increased tremendously since the inception of the global market economy (Kara 2009). This increase has been the direct consequence of globalization coupled with poverty, gender bias, and ethnic differences. Globalization opened the gates for free trade, including the illegal trade of humans. In 2001, the United States passed the first human trafficking law, the Trafficking of Victims Protections Act (TVPA). Human trafficking is defined by the United States and the United Nations’ Protocol on Human Trafficking as follows:

“Trafficking in persons” shall mean the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.

(Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2000, Article 3a)

Analyzing the definition of human trafficking, as well as the social structures that maintain it and the policies that address it, is important work for ethicists. From Kantian ideas about human dignity and autonomy, to Iris Marion Young’s (1988) discussion of exploitation as a “face” of oppression, to Susan Brison’s (2003) view of agency as the continuation of one’s narrative after the disruption of sexual assault, to Ann Cudd’s (2006) overarching theory of oppression, philosophers have had something to say about all the definitional components of human trafficking. Philosophers should also examine how race, the commodification of bodies, exploitation, and gender violence contribute to the experiences of human trafficking victims (Davis 1981; Crenshaw 1994; Collins 2008).

However, being engaged in this issue as a philosopher means much more than examining concepts and the fundamental reasons why human trafficking is immoral and unjust. Although, as a philosopher, I can contribute conceptual analysis and apply ethical frameworks, when working with victims, practitioners, and the public, I also contribute my skill as an educator. This does not always mean analyzing the deepest sources of human dignity—it may also mean contributing to solving problems about how the state administers its human services.

Moreover, there is significant philosophical depth in the question of which cases involve human trafficking, and issues of agency and identity contribute to the murkiness in identifying the victims of trafficking. Indeed, the philosophical problems related to human trafficking go beyond ethics to include the metaphysics of agency, philosophy of psychology', political philosophy, and many others. The contribution of philosophers to identifying the causes, structures, and implications of human trafficking, and how human trafficking intersects economic and social systems, is relevant to the TVPA’s mandate to address human trafficking in a comprehensive way.

The TVPA recommended that three areas be addressed: Prosecution, Protection, and Prevention (US Department of State, 2000). This is sometimes referred to as the “3P Paradigm.” The US Department of State’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (TIP Office) recommended a fourth “P”—Partnership—which “serves as a complementary means to achieve progress across the 3Ps and enlist all segments of society in the fight against modem slavery” (US Department of State 2000).

Prosecution and Protection involve coordinating effective criminal justice responses, including proper legislation and resources for investigation. The Palermo Protocol proposed by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights adds the needs of victims, advocating for their protection with “full respect for their human rights” (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2000). It addresses the importance of having a victim-centered approach in working with victims of human trafficking. This requires the assistance of advocates, NGOs, and healthcare providers, as well as a commitment to the healing process of victims, which can take years (Clawson et al. 2008).

Prevention tackles human trafficking by addressing social issues that leave people vulnerable. Reaching out to at-risk communities is one way to prevent victimization. Among the ways that we can help address vulnerable populations is Partnership with their communities: investing in children and youth, especially those who are at risk; supporting adults to find jobs and to meet basic needs for themselves and their children; fundraising for local programs and creating programs for inmates to transition back to society.2

As an educator, my involvement has been mostly on the prevention side of the 4P paradigm, but it has become evident to me that there is much more that I could be doing. The next section outlines my activities engaging the community and my ideas for extending my engagement.

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