Born Free

How to Prevent Human Trafficking

A picture is seen on the roof of a house in Medellín as part of an initiative to prevent the recruitment of children by illegal groups, January 30, 2012. Albeiro Lopera / Courtesy Reuters

The buying and selling of humans is big business -- and an enormous development challenge. It is estimated to generate anywhere from $32 billion to $150 billion a year and affect tens of millions of people: the International Labor Organization believes that nearly 21 million men, women, and children are currently victims of some form of slavery, forced labor, or human trafficking. The Global Slavery Index puts the number at 29.8 million, which, if accurate, is over twice the number of Africans enslaved between 1525 and 1866, according to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database. Of course, real numbers are difficult to come by; governments have different ways of keeping records, and many do not keep them at all. Since 2008, when the U.S. State Department began tallying numbers on identified victims, it has found only 246,798 trafficking victims worldwide, and since 2006, it has found an average of only about 6,675 prosecutions of human traffickers worldwide annually, with an average of fewer than 4,000 convictions.

With so much money being made and so many people involved, it is surprising that the movement to end slavery has not reached the sort of tipping point one finds with other causes and campaigns; think of the global movement to fight AIDS or the campaign in the United States to advance the rights of the LGBT community. To be sure, on occasion, the world pays attention to those enslaved. Most recently, a wave of protest followed a Boko Haram raid in Nigeria in which the group captured 276 schoolgirls and purportedly sold them into slavery. In 2012, Kony 2012, a film about the Lord’s Resistance Army, which uses child soldiers, generated a similar reaction.

Before too long, however, public interest inevitably shifts to something else. This summer has been no exception, with an especially crowded array of horrors: the Ebola virus, beheadings of journalists and aid workers, the shooting down of a civilian airliner, which disintegrated into a million pieces midair. Put crudely, when it comes to generating public attention and outrage, the buying and selling of people

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