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Background Briefing 
International Trafficking of Women and Children

Testimony before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs, February 22, 2000
Women's Rights Division
Testimony before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs
by Regan E. Ralph, Executive Director
Women's Rights Division, Human Rights Watch
International Trafficking of Women and Children

February 22, 2000

My name is Regan Ralph, and I am the Executive Director of the Women's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. It is a pleasure to be here today, and I appreciate the attention this committee is devoting to the growing human rights problem of trafficking in persons.

Trafficking in persons -- the illegal and highly profitable transport and sale of human beings for the purpose of exploiting their labor -- is a slavery-like practice that must be eliminated. Human Rights Watch has been involved in documenting and monitoring this serious human rights violation for many years. We have reported on the trafficking of women and girls from Bangladesh to Pakistan (Double Jeopardy), from Burma to Thailand (Modern Form of Slavery), and from Nepal to India (Rape for Profit). We have also conducted extensive research regarding other incidences of trafficking, including the trafficking of women from Thailand to Japan and from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union to Bosnia. Reports resulting from these investigations are forthcoming.

The number of persons trafficked each year is impossible to determine, but it is clearly a large-scale problem, with estimates ranging from hundreds of thousands to millions of victims worldwide. The State Department estimates that each year, 50,000-100,000 women and children are trafficked into the United States alone, approximately half of whom are trafficked into bonded sweatshop labor or domestic servitude. Trafficking is also a truly global phenomenon. The International Organization for Migration has reported on cases of trafficking in Southeast Asia, East Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, South America, Central America, and North America. And press reports in the past year have included accounts of persons trafficked into the United States from a wide variety of countries. In August 1999, a trafficking ring was broken up in Atlanta, Georgia that authorities believe was responsible for transporting up to 1000 women from several Asian countries into the United States and forcing them to work in brothels across the country. Four months later, a man pleaded guilty to keeping five Latvian women in involuntary servitude in Chicago. He had recruited the women from Latvia with promises of $60,000-a-year wages. But when they arrived, he pocketed most of their earnings and forced them to work by confiscating their passports, keeping them under constant surveillance, and threatening to kill them and have their families murdered if they disobeyed him.

Trafficking patterns

In Human Rights Watch's documentation of trafficking in women, we have found that while the problem varies according to the context, certain consistent patterns emerge. Furthermore, while our research has focused on the trafficking of women and children into the sex industry, reporting from numerous credible sources shows similar patterns in the trafficking of women, men, and children into forced marriage, bonded sweatshop labor, and other kinds of work. In all cases, the coercive tactics of traffickers, including deception, fraud, intimidation, isolation, threat and use of physical force, and/or debt bondage, are at the core of the problem and must be at the center of any effort to address it.

In a typical case, a woman is recruited with promises of a good job in another country or province, and lacking better options at home, she agrees to migrate. There are also cases in which women are lured with false marriage offers or vacation invitations, in which children are bartered by their parents for a cash advance and/or promises of future earnings, or in which victims are abducted outright. Next an agent makes arrangements for the woman's travel and job placement, obtaining the necessary travel documentation, contacting employers or job brokers, and hiring an escort to accompany the woman on her trip. Once the arrangements have been made, the woman is escorted to her destination and delivered to an employer or to another intermediary who brokers her employment. The woman has no control over the nature or place of work, or the terms or conditions of her employment. Many women learn they have been deceived about the nature of the work they will do, most have been lied to about the financial arrangements and conditions of their employment, and all find themselves in coercive and abusive situations from which escape is both difficult and dangerous.

The most common form of coercion Human Rights Watch has documented is debt bondage. Women are told that they must work without wages until they have repaid the purchase price advanced by their employers, an amount far exceeding the cost of their travel expenses. Even for those women who knew they would be in debt, this amount is invariably higher than they expected and is routinely augmented with arbitrary fines and dishonest account keeping. Employers also maintain their power to "resell" indebted women into renewed levels of debt. In some cases, women find that their debts only increase and can never be fully repaid. Other women are eventually released from debt, but only after months or years of coercive and abusive labor. To prevent escape, employers take full advantage of the women's vulnerable position as migrants: they do not speak the local language, are unfamiliar with their surroundings, and fear of arrest and mistreatment by local law enforcement authorities. These factors are compounded by a range of coercive tactics, including constant surveillance, isolation, threats of retaliation against the woman and/or her family members at home, and confiscation of passports and other documentation.

Government efforts to combat trafficking in persons have been entirely inadequate. In many cases, corrupt officials in countries of origin and destination actively facilitate trafficking abuses by providing false documents to trafficking agents, turning a blind eye to immigration violations, and accepting bribes from trafficked women's employers to ignore abuses. We have even documented numerous cases in which police patronized brothels where trafficked women worked, despite their awareness of the coercive conditions of employment. And in every case we have documented, officials' indifference to the human rights violations involved in trafficking has allowed this practice to persist with impunity. Trafficked women may be freed from their employers in police raids, but they are given no access to services or redress and instead face further mistreatment at the hands of authorities. Even when confronted with clear evidence of trafficking and forced labor, officials focus on violations of their immigration regulations and anti-prostitution laws, rather than on violations of the trafficking victims' human rights. Thus the women are targeted as undocumented migrants and/or prostitutes, and the traffickers either escape entirely, or else face minor penalties for their involvement in illegal migration or businesses of prostitution.

These policies and practices are not only inappropriate, they are ineffective. By making the victims of trafficking the target of law enforcement efforts, governments only exacerbate victims' vulnerability to abuse and deter them from turning to law enforcement officials for assistance. By allowing traffickers to engage in slavery-like practices without penalty, governments allow the abuses to continue with impunity.

Trafficking in Women: Case Studies

Drawing on Human Rights Watch research, I will provide a few specific examples that illustrate the pattern outlined above. I will then offer recommendations for measures the U.S. government can take to combat this modern form of slavery and provide redress for its victims.

Thailand to Japan

From 1994 to 1999, Human Rights Watch carried out an extensive investigation of the trafficking of women from Thailand into Japan's sex industry. We will be publishing a report on trafficking into Japan later this year. We interviewed numerous trafficking victims directly, and received information regarding many more cases from local advocates and shelter staff in Japan and Thailand. Our findings indicate that thousands of Thai women are trafficked into forced labor in Japan each year, their rights violated with impunity as the Japanese and Thai governments fail to respond adequately to the problem.

Statements by the Thai and Japanese governments have made clear that they are well aware of these abuses. However, this has not been translated into effective measures to provide women with the means to protect themselves from abuse or to seek redress for violations. When Japanese authorities raid establishments that employ trafficked women, the women are arrested, detained in immigration facilities, and summarily deported with a five-year ban on reentering the country. This punitive treatment is applied regardless of the conditions under which the women migrated and worked in Japan, and even when there is clear evidence of trafficking and/or forced labor. Trafficking victims have no opportunity to seek compensation or redress, and no resources are provided to ensure their access to medical care and other critical services. Moreover, their traffickers and employers face little fear of punishment. If arrested at all, they are charged only with minor offenses for violations of immigration, prostitution, or entertainment business regulations.

The Thai government has adopted laws and policies aimed to combat trafficking in Thai women and assist victims in returning home. However, law enforcement efforts have so far proved ineffective, and women's vulnerability to trafficking persists. Many women continue to lack viable employment opportunities at home, and, at the same time, have no information about how to protect their rights overseas. In addition, the government has adopted overly broad policies aimed to prevent "potential" trafficking victims from traveling abroad. For example, the passport applications of women and girls ages fourteen to thirty-six are subjected to special scrutiny, and if investigators suspect that a woman may be going abroad for commercial sexual purposes, her application is rejected. This policy, however well-intended, trades one human rights problem for another by discriminating against women seeking to travel and limiting their freedom of movement. It also makes women who want to migrate even more dependent on the services of trafficking agents, because it is difficult for women to obtain travel documents by themselves. Finally, the Thai government makes no effort to assist trafficked women in seeking redress.

The women we interviewed described the shock, horror and, often, powerlessness they felt when they discovered that contrary to their promises of lucrative jobs, they were saddled with enormous "debts" and would not receive any wages until these amounts were repaid. This would require months -- or even years -- of unpaid work under highly coercive and abusive conditions. Those who had been promised jobs in factories or restaurants faced an additional blow when they learned from their employers or coworkers that their debt had to be repaid through sex work.

The women had been recruited for work in Japan by friends, relatives, or other acquaintances, who told them about high-paying overseas employment opportunities. The recruiters introduced them to agents who handled their travel arrangements and hired escorts to accompany the women to Japan. In some cases, the women became suspicious about their job offers during -- or even before -- their travel overseas, but once their agent had initiated the arrangements, they were closely supervised and felt they could not safely change their minds. Upon their arrival in Japan, the women were delivered to brokers who sold them into debt bondage in the sex industry. Most worked as bar "hostesses," entertaining customers at the bar and accompanying customers to nearby hotels to provide sexual services. While in debt, they could not refuse any customers or customers' requests without their employers' permission, and they often endured violence and other abusive treatment at the hands of both customers and employers. The women were also subjected to excessive work hours and dangerous health risks -- including the risk of contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

Excerpts from a few of their stories provide an idea of the slavery-like conditions they endured. In Thailand, Lee(1) had an alcoholic and abusive husband and three young children she was struggling to feed. When a recruiter offered to find her a job as a sex worker in Japan, she agreed. She told us, "I knew there would be some debt for the airplane ticket and all, but I was never told how much." She found out after she arrived in Japan and was taken to a room by a broker to be sold. In her words, "There were lots of women and people came to choose women and buy them. I was bought on the third day, and told that my price" -- and therefore her debt -- "was 380 bai [approximately US$30,000]. After three or four days of working at the bar, I realized how much 380 bai was. The other girls said to me, 'That's a lot of debt and you're old. You'll never pay it off.' Then I prayed that it would only take six or seven months to pay it off, and I went with all of the clients I could."

Human Rights Watch also interviewed a woman who was promised a job in a Thai restaurant in Japan, but instead was taken to a bar where the other Thai "hostesses" told her she would have to work as a prostitute. She recalled, "They told me there was no way out and I would just have to accept my fate. I knew then what had happened to me. That first night I had to take several men, and after that I had to have at least one client every night."

Another woman we interviewed was released from debt after eight months of grueling, unpaid labor. According to Khai, "I had calculated that I must have paid it back long ago, but the [bar manager] kept lying to me and said she didn't have the same records as I did. During these eight months, I had to take every client that wanted me and had to work everyday, even during my menstruation." Despite the terrible and coercive conditions, including physically abusive clients, Khai did not try to escape. Her manager had threatened to resell her and double her debt if she "made any trouble," and forbade her from going outside without supervision. The manager had also confiscated her passport, and, Khai explained, "Without my documents I was sure I would be arrested and jailed by the police."

Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union to Bosnia

In March 1999, Human Rights Watch traveled to Bosnia to document the incidence of trafficking in women from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. We interviewed trafficking victims, local and international officials, and local advocates. We also looked through police and court records and went to Ukraine to interview staff from La Strada, an NGO which has assisted many women returning from Bosnia. Our research indicated that since the end of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, thousands of women had been trafficked into Bosnia for forced prostitution.

At the time of our investigation, Bosnia was under the authority of a combination of local and international agencies. Our conversations with local police, representatives from the Joint Commission Observers, and members of the International Police Task Force indicated that all of these officials were well aware of the trafficking problem. They knew that foreign women were working in slave-like conditions across Bosnia, unable to leave the brothels. Nonetheless, little was done to prevent the trafficking of women into forced prostitution, or to provide redress or protection for victims. We even found evidence that some officials were actively complicit in these abuses, participating in the trafficking and forced employment of the women and/or patronizing the brothels.

The women had traveled from Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine, Romania, and Hungary, lured by promises of legal work and safe passage. When the women arrived in Bosnia, brothel owners seized their passports and subjected them to slavery-like practices. They were treated like chattel, often resold from brothel owner to brothel owner, and the promises of good incomes turned out to be lies: instead of being able to remit money home to their families and children, the women found themselves forced to work without wages. As Vika told Human Rights Watch, "They tricked me. Everything was fine at first. But when we wanted to leave, the owner sold us for 1500 DM [approximately US$900]. The new owner told us that we had to work off three more months. He said he would sell us to another man." Most of the women had agreed to jobs in the sex industry, but when brothel owners refused to pay them, some women refused to work, incurring violent punishment. According to one woman interviewed by Human Rights Watch, "Every time I refused to work, they beat me."

When authorities encountered trafficked women during brothel raids, they treated them like criminals, compounding the human rights abuses they had endured at the hands of their traffickers. The women were arrested, fined for their illegal immigration status and their illegal work as prostitutes, and then deported. And in early 1999, "deportation" in the Bosnian context -- a country without an immigration law -- translated into being dumped across a border. From the Federation, women found themselves dumped in Republika Srpska. And vice versa. This pseudo-deportation scheme only facilitated the trafficking cycle. Women dumped across the internal borders could be quickly picked up and re-sold.

Burma to Thailand

Trafficking in persons is not a new phenomenon, and research conducted by Human Rights Watch in the early 1990s revealed similar patterns of human rights abuses, as well as similar levels of indifference -- and even outright complicity -- on the part of law enforcement officials.

More than six years ago, Human Rights Watch reported on the trafficking in Burmese women and girls into brothels in Thailand. We interviewed thirty trafficking victims in Thailand, and obtained many additional interview transcripts from a local NGO. Nyi Nyi's case was typical: She was recruited from Burma at age seventeen by a friend who had worked in Thailand. She had no idea what type of work she would do, but she agreed to go. When she met the agent, he gave her 15,000 baht (approximately US$600), which she gave to her sister. Then the agent sent Nyi Nyi to a brothel in northern Thailand, in a truck driven by a police officer. When Nyi Nyi arrived, she learned that the 15,000 baht from the agent was a "debt," which she would have to repay through prostitution. Nyi Nyi could not speak Thai, did not know where she was in Bangkok, and was always afraid of being arrested by the police. She never dared to talk to anyone, and she was relieved that the police who came to the brothel as customers never chose her. After about a year of working almost every day, she was told that she had repaid her debt, but did not have enough money to pay for a return trip to Burma. So she continued to work, and a short time later she was arrested during a brothel raid. The police initially promised that she would be taken back to Burma in a few days, but instead Nyi Nyi was sent to a reformatory for prostitutes, where she was confined for the next six months.

Nepal to India

In 1995, Human Rights Watch released another report on trafficking in persons, this one based on interviews with women and girls who had been trafficked from Nepal to India. Some were tricked by fraudulent marriage offers, others were sold by relatives, and a few were abducted. All ended up in the hands of trafficking agents who brought them to brothels and sold them into debt bondage. One of the women we interviewed explained that her husband had left her, and when a neighbor told her about an Indian man who wanted to marry her, she agreed. A meeting was arranged, but instead of eloping, her "fiancé" drugged her and took her to a brothel in India. At the brothel, she was told that she had to work to pay off her purchase price of Rs.20,000 (approximately US$666). Each day she was forced to sit in a room in the brothel with the other women, and when a customer chose her, she could not refuse; those who tried were beaten and verbally abused. After working for ten years, serving nine or ten customers a day, she was still in "debt." She told us, "Nobody was allowed to leave after four years like people say they are." Finally she met a Nepali man at the brothel, and with his help, she managed to escape.

U.S. Policy -- Recommendations

Human Rights Watch commends the U.S. government for prioritizing trafficking in persons as a domestic and foreign policy concern. Senator Paul Wellstone has played a key role in mobilizing government efforts to combat trafficking in persons in a way that promotes and protects the rights of women and particularly trafficking victims. His leadership led to new legislation requiring the Department of State to increase and improve its reporting on trafficking in its annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. We hope that additional attention to this issue will help to close the gaps in the U.S. State Department's reporting on this subject. The report on Japan released last year, for example, alluded to the mistreatment of illegal workers, but trafficking and debt bondage were not mentioned, and the report asserted that "there are presently no known cases of forced or bonded labor" in Japan.

In 1998, President Clinton identified trafficking in women and girls as a "fundamental human rights violation," and tasked the President's Interagency Council on Women with the challenging task of developing and coordinating government policy on this issue. Currently, the U.S. government is involved in several important initiatives. These include participation in the negotiation of a protocol on trafficking supplementing the Convention against Transnational Organized Crime; implementation of foreign aid programs designed to prevent trafficking, assist victims, and prosecute traffickers; and consideration of legislation in the U.S. Congress against trafficking in persons.

As it participates in efforts to design and implement multilateral approaches to combating trafficking in persons, Human Rights Watch urges the U.S. government to promote human rights, and especially women's human rights, as the cornerstone of such efforts. This is of crucial importance in the negotiations for a protocol against trafficking in persons supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime. The final shape of this protocol will have significant implications for the effectiveness of multinational efforts to prevent and prosecute trafficking abuses, as well as for the protection and redress available to trafficking victims.

The United States is also involved in a number of other important discussions that will strongly influence the ways in which governments respond to trafficking in persons. In March of this year, the United States is co-hosting the Asian Regional Initiative Against Trafficking in Women and Children (ARIAT) in Manila, where Asian and Pacific nations will discuss national action plans and develop a regional strategy. At the G8 summit in Okinawa in July, the Group of Eight will have the opportunity to continue their discussions about joint efforts to combat trafficking in persons. Last month, Human Rights Watch sent an observer to a symposium on trafficking in persons in Tokyo that the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs sponsored in preparation for the G8 discussions. We hope that President Clinton, in his public and private remarks at the Okinawa summit, will stigmatize governments that are complicit in trafficking or tolerate trafficking. He should also use this opportunity revisit the plan of action to combat trafficking in persons adopted by the G8 Ministerial Meeting in Moscow last October, encouraging governments to enact domestic legislation necessary for the effective investigation and prosecution of those involved in trafficking and pressing for the inclusion of concrete measures to protect the rights of all trafficking victims.

The United States should take advantage of all channels and opportunities to promote a human rights approach to trafficking based on the following recommendations:

  • Defining "trafficking" to encompass trafficking into all forms of forced labor and servitude -- in any occupation or labor sector -- including trafficking into forced marriage. The definition should also be limited to situations involving coercion, in recognition of men and women's ability to make voluntary decisions about their migration and employment, with coercion understood to include a full range of abusive tactics used to extract work or service.
  • Actively investigating, prosecuting, and punishing those involved in the trafficking of persons in countries of origin and destination, and imposing penalties appropriate for the grave nature of the abuses they have committed. Particular attention should be paid to evidence of collaboration by government officials in the facilitation of trafficking abuses.
  • Exempting trafficking victims from prosecution for any immigration violations or other offenses that have occurred as a result of their being trafficked.
  • Ensuring that trafficking victims have the opportunity to seek remedies and redress for the human rights violations they have suffered, including compensation for damages, unpaid wages, and restitution. This requires guaranteeing victims' access to legal assistance, interpretation services, and information regarding their rights, and allowing all trafficked persons to remain in the country during the duration of any proceedings related to legal claims they have filed.
  • Taking strong precautions to ensure the physical safety of trafficked persons. This includes witness protection measures for those who cooperate with law enforcement efforts and asylum opportunities for those who fear retaliation in their countries of origin. Countries of origin, transit, and destination must also cooperate to ensure the safe repatriation of trafficked persons, working together with non-governmental organizations to facilitate their return home.
  • Protecting women's rights and addressing the inequality in status and opportunity that makes women vulnerable to trafficking and other abuses. States should support policies and programs that promote equal access to education and employment for women and girls. They should also provide women with information about their rights as workers and how to protect these rights overseas. Programs should be designed and implemented with the cooperation of local non-governmental organizations.

There is increasing evidence that trafficking is on the rise in the United States as well. To effectively respond to the trafficking of persons into this country, we urge the U.S. government to enact domestic legislation that incorporates the standards outlined above. We welcome recent indications that law enforcement officials are increasingly charging traffickers with offenses appropriate to the serious nature of their crimes, but much remains to be done to improve the protections and services available to trafficked persons. Such measures are crucial for upholding the rights of victims and for encouraging them to cooperate in the investigation and prosecution of traffickers. In particular, we hope that such legislation will address this issue by:

  • Banning all forms of involuntary servitude and debt bondage as forced labor. U.S. statutory proscriptions on peonage and involuntary servitude have been narrowly interpreted to include only those situations in which victims are made to work through force of law or actual or threatened physical force. This excludes many of the slavery-like practices that Human Rights Watch has found common in cases of trafficking, in which labor is extracted through non-physical means such as debt bondage, blackmail, fraud, deceit, isolation, and/or psychological pressure.
  • Providing victims of trafficking with access to legal assistance, translation services, shelter, and health services, and ensuring that all trafficked persons are allowed to remain in the United States throughout the duration of any civil or criminal proceedings against their abusers.
  • Preventing the further victimization of trafficked persons by guaranteeing their immunity from prosecution for immigration violations or other crimes related to their having been trafficked, and taking adequate measures to ensure the protection of their physical safety. Such measures should include opportunities for all trafficking victims who fear retaliation upon return to their home country to apply for permanent settlement on that basis.

Trafficking in persons is a profound human rights abuse, and women are particularly vulnerable to this practice due to the persistent inequalities they face in status and opportunity. It is time for governments to take this problem seriously. Concrete steps are needed to prevent trafficking, punish traffickers and the corrupt officials who facilitate their crimes, and provide protection and redress for victims. This is a crucial moment in the fight against trafficking, with efforts underway in domestic, regional, and international fora to define appropriate state actions. It is imperative that the United States take advantage of this moment to demonstrate its leadership on this critical human rights issue.

1. All names of traffficking victims have been changed.