Human Trafficking Poses ‘Strategic Threat’ to U.S. National Security: Report

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Illustration by Leena Kejriwal via Flickr

Human trafficking poses a growing threat to U.S. national security, says the Council on Foreign Relations.

In a special report released this week, the Council called on President Joe Biden’s administration to step up existing anti-trafficking efforts to curb a global practice that reaps an estimated $150 billion for traffickers—making it “one of the world’s most profitable crimes.”

“Not only is human trafficking a grave violation of human rights, but it also poses a strategic threat to U.S. interests in national security by bankrolling operations for transnational crime syndicates and extremist groups,” said the report, written by Jamille Bigio and Rachel B. Vogelstein.

Trafficking practices ranging from forced labor migration to sexual exploitation of women undermine economic growth and impede sustainable development by “retard­ing human potential,” the authors said.

According to the International Labor Organization (ILO) there are 25 million victims of forced labor and sexual exploitation worldwide; but this is likely an underestimate, says the report, noting that “ only a small fraction of (the) victims are reported to authorities.”

The U.S. and its allies have sponsored a series of measures over the past two decades to combat the trade, including the Palermo Protocol, a supplement to the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, and the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act, enacted in 2000.

But these have not gone far enough to deter the sophisticated, high-tech crime groups that are responsible for much of the trade, the report says.

Human trafficking not only crosses borders, but knits together a wide variety of criminal activities.

“Victims of trafficking are used in many capacities, from combatants and spies to cooks and messengers,” said the report.

For example, in Mexico, several large trafficking syndicates have split into smaller groups to focus on particular types of crime, ranging from the illicit narcotics trade to the smuggling of would-be immigrants, rendering them more resistant to enforcement efforts.

In the economic sphere, human trafficking undermines “the stability of global financial systems by fueling illegal and unregulated markets, putting legally compliant private-sector actors at a disadvantage and eliminating tax revenue from the government,” said the report.

The White House has announced new anti-trafficking measures as part of its efforts to curb the flow of undocumented immigrants to the U.S.

But the report argues it needs to do much more.

The authors offered a multi-pronged set of recommendations for what they described as a “21st Century” approach to the fight against human trafficking.

The recommendations included:

      • Expand the U.S. National Action Plan announced by the previous administration in October 2020 to create a coordinated approach to preventing forced labor involving all government agencies;
      • Enact immigration reform to combat the exploitation of migrant workers, including reform of the temporary work-visa system;
      • Require corporations to take responsibility for the use of forced labor in their global supply chains, including prohibiting the trade of goods made with forced labor;
      • Strengthen cybercrime-fighting strategies to combat sex trafficking.

The lack of a coordinated and consistent approach in the U.S. against human trafficking mirrors the failure of other countries to address the problem, the authors acknowledged.

That’s one reason stepped-up U.S. involvement is critical, they declared, calling on the federal government to “lead on the global stage.”

“The Joe Biden administration and Congress should enlist leaders in the private, security, and global development sectors to propose innovative and robust prevention and enforcement initia­tives,” the authors wrote.

The initiatives will add “critical tools to the arsenal of human rights–based and prosecutorial approaches that have been underenforced globally and produced far too little progress to date.”

Jamille Bigio is senior fellow for the Women and Foreign Policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Rachel Vogelstein is Douglas Dillon senior fellow and director of the Women and Foreign Policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations,

The full report can be accessed here.

This summary was prepared by TCR Justice Reporting intern Gabriela Felitto

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