On Point

Modern Slavery

by Austin Bay
June 7, 2005

The March 2001 voyage of the coastal ferry Etireno briefly raised international eyebrows and consciousness.

The Etireno's West African cruise through the Gulf of Guinea was a voyage of the damned, for the Etireno carried slaves. Human slaves.

I wrote a column about the Etireno in April 2001. The story puts sad flesh and bones on the U.S. State Department's 2005 "Trafficking in Persons" (TIP) report, which was released last week.

"On March 30 (2001) the Etireno left Benin's port of Cotonou, followed by reports that her cargo consisted of 200 children destined for 'domestic service' in more prosperous West African nations. Human rights organizations pushed Benin's government for more information."

With international attention focused on the ship, Gabon -- the Etireno 's original destination -- refused to let the Etireno dock. "On April 17, the Etireno limped back into Cotonou. Upon examining the ship, local authorities said it was "uncertain" if slaves had been aboard. Realists wondered if an even greater evil had occurred, with the human evidence drowned at sea."

Slavery in the 21st century is as real as it is morally repugnant. Though "human trafficking" may strike some as a bureaucratic euphemism, U.S. Secretary of State Condi Rice didn't equivocate in her condemnation: "Trafficking in human beings is nothing less than a modern form of slavery."

Woman and children are modern slavery's most common victims.

"Sex slavery" occasionally draws tabloid headlines. Contemporary sex slavery is more large-scale than the buying and selling of prostitutes. It includes the "forced hiring" of child sex workers and often involves shipping prostitutes and children across international borders. "The Balkan Corridor" is one of the more notorious routes for this hideous trade. Women from Eastern Europe and Central Asia are smuggled to Western Europe through the former Yugoslavian states and Albania.

U.S. Ambassador John Miller, State's senior advisor for the TIP report, provided this gruesome vignette: "Svetlana was a young woman living in Belarus, looking for a job. She came upon some Turkish men who promised her a well-paying job in Istanbul, and once Svetlana crossed the border, the men seized her money, her papers, her passport. ... They forced her into prostitution. ... They farmed her out to two businessmen, just like a commodity. Desperate, Svetlana jumped out of a window and fell six stories to a sidewalk. According to Turkish court documents, the so-called customers went down, found her on the sidewalk and instead of calling the police, called the traffickers, who killed her."

"Forced laborers" are another class of modern slaves. The Etireno's lost children were certainly in that category. The children are "rented out" to West African plantations.

In war zones, abducted children often become "child soldiers." Uganda's sociopathic rebel movement, The Lord's Resistance Army, has employed this evil recruitment tool for the last 15 years, but it has been a vicious feature of many Sub-Saharan Africa wars. Sudan, Burundi and the Congo (DRC) come to mind.

The State Department report fingers 14 nations as "poor performers" in thwarting human trafficking. State's tough document names names, including these U.S. Middle Eastern allies: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

The others are an interesting mix of poverty and tyranny: Bolivia, Cambodia, Cuba, Ecuador, Jamaica, Myanmar, North Korea, Sudan, Togo and Venezuela.

State estimates at least 800,000 people per year are bought and sold.

Does the United States have a problem? Yes. The TIP report documents several cases of Mexican women and girls smuggled into the United States and forced into prostitution. "Forced labor slavery" may not be as prevalent in the United States, but it occurs.

What is to be done? The Department of Justice has successfully prosecuted a number of sex slavery cases. The State Department has implemented a multi-pronged "anti-trafficking" initiative that includes non-governmental organizations and piggybacks on Homeland Security and intelligence agency counter-smuggling efforts.

But as for effective international economic and political sanctions? If they work, they work slowly. Meanwhile, the evil trade continues.

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