Human trafficking is a booming business. The recent arrest of Jeffrey Epstein in the US on charges of trafficking and sexual exploitation of girls is just one example of an urgent problem that claims an alarming number of victims around the world.
The International Labour Organization estimates that worldwide about 16 million people are exploited for labour, and five million are currently being subjected to forced sexual exploitation, the overwhelming majority of them women and girls.
We have met many survivors of trafficking. In March, Human Rights Watch documented the flow of women and girls from northern Myanmar to China. Traffickers lure them with promises of work, then sell them from about $3,000 to $13,000 to Chinese families struggling, due to China's large gender imbalance, to find brides for their sons. In the coming weeks, Human Rights Watch will issue a report documenting the journeys of Nigerian women promised well-paid work, often in Europe, then sexually exploited and brutally abused by traffickers.
We know from our research that armed conflict often amplifies existing trafficking practices, and exacerbates women's and girls' vulnerability to exploitation by increasing economic desperation, weakening the rule of law, and decreasing the availability of social services and family support.
In northern Nigeria, for example, there has been nearly a decade-long conflict between Boko Haram insurgents and government forces. The armed group abducts women and girls and forces them to marry its members, confining them to a life of domestic servitude, forced labour and sex slavery.
Stopping trafficking of women and girls, and providing victims with the right protection and services, seems to be a low priority for many governments. Effective responses to cross-border trafficking demand effective international cooperation by both law enforcement and service providers, and many governments fail at this.
They are immobilised by coordination challenges, logistical difficulties, language barriers, political dynamics, corruption and apathy about violence against women. During armed conflicts, when resources are thinly stretched and humanitarian needs are many, trafficking survivors are often left out of the scope of available assistance.
Life is extremely hard for trafficking survivors. Women and girls who escape abuse return home to the same desperate circumstances that made them vulnerable in the first place, but now bearing additional burdens. They frequently face stigma or are blamed for coming home penniless. They have often experienced devastating physical injuries, and mental trauma that can haunt them forever.
Human Rights Watch interviewed a 50-year-old woman who was trafficked from Myanmar to China as a bride in 1986 at the age of 15 and held for a year. She said after escaping she was deeply distressed and almost died twice because she was so depressed she stopped eating. We asked her how long the symptoms continued. “Until now,” she replied. "I still feel fear and shock - it's the trauma."
Trafficking survivors may need urgent medical care for problems ranging from injuries due to abuse to sexual and reproductive health needs, including abortion for unplanned pregnancies resulting from rape. They need shelter as sometimes they cannot return to families that were complicit in their trafficking. They need legal assistance to ensure that the justice system - which too often lets trafficking victims down - is responsive to their needs for accountability and compensation. Many need financial assistance.
These services are rarely available or adequate where they exist. We have also seen harmful government responses, including treating victims as immigration violators, jailing and deporting them. In some cases, officials confine survivors in locked shelters, forcing them to undergo invasive questioning or examinations, and policymakers make no distinction between trafficking victims and sex workers.
But in Myanmar and Nigeria, we have also seen local groups struggling heroically to assist survivors of trafficking and their families, with painfully few resources. Donors and governments should support groups already making a difference.
There has been increased attention to human trafficking in recent years, with some governments and donors pledging to do more. But trafficking survivors need more than pledges. Governments and donors need to take concrete action and make significant investments to meet the needs of survivors and respect their dignity and rights.