printable banner

U.S. Department of State - Great Seal

U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

The Journey to Freedom

Luis CdeBaca
Ambassador-at-Large, Office To Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons
The Asia Foundation
Washington, DC
November 1, 2010


Good evening, and thank you to the Asia Foundation’s Carol Yost for that kind welcome. This week, Secretary Clinton is in Asia, meeting with key partners. One of the issues that she is raising is that of human trafficking–of modern slavery. Some have asked, “Why does America care about whether someone is held in servitude in another country?” “Why is this foreign policy?” or even “How dare America issue an annual report analyzing what other countries are doing on this issue–isn’t such unilateralism presumptuous?” Well, it may be that in this administration we are trying to move away from a world in which things that happen to men are confronted as foreign policy and things that happen to women are accepted as cultural practices. But I’d submit also that the American interest in the issue of human trafficking is driven by–indeed demanded by–our American journey. A journey toward freedom.

Right now we are just miles from where, in 1848, 77 people walked quietly through the darkened streets of Washington, clandestinely making their way to the waterfront to board a small ship, The Pearl, which was to take them North, away from their bondage. Sadly, they didn’t make it to freedom, but were interdicted in the Chesapeake Bay. Their story electrified the nation, especially the plight of the sisters who were to be sold into prostitution after their recapture. From their journey, an abolitionist movement was energized that would change the world. In the darkness of the night, those people were fleeing from something. No matter what it was called–a “peculiar institution,” “servants,” “staff,” even “our Southern way of life”–it was slavery. What they were fleeing toward, was freedom.

No matter where or when, one thing remains constant: people continue to seek their freedom. Somewhere in the world, a young girl awakens bound by the chains of force, fraud, and coercion, but turns her head to the window and dreams of a better place. Instead of setting off for school this morning, a boy picks up a gun–longer than he is–and goes to war. But his childhood can be restored.

Tonight, someone will be forced to beg or peddle trinkets late into the night instead of resting in the safe confines of a home. A man will look up from the deck of a fishing boat on which he is held captive and not only see the same stars as his children do back home, he will see the same stars as us. The same hopes, dreams, and possibilities. Those people are not “over there”–they are our shared responsibility.

In Cambodia yesterday, Secretary Clinton met with a group of students and said,

This is a modern form of slavery and it affects millions of people around the world. And it is something that is just horrible. I mean, I look at all of you; I see these very bright and attractive young people, young men and young women. And the idea that somebody might come and snatch you off the street or kidnap you and put you in forced labor or put you in the sex trade would be heartbreaking to your family and to anyone who knows you. And so we all need to do more to prevent that… Every government has to be held accountable, including my own. Every government has to be held to a high standard, including my own.

Now human trafficking is a term that can mean different things to different audiences and in different languages, but it affects us all. No matter what euphemism we use to describe it (debt bondage, servitude, sex trafficking, labor trafficking, forced labor, or enslavement) as Secretary Clinton said earlier this year, “Let’s call it what it really is.”

And while our American history with this evil practice may be unique, the struggle against it spans time and region. For as long as people of every community, culture, and country in the world are enslaved, our work and efforts must go on, and we cannot meaningfully address this issue without focusing on Asia.

According to ILO data, the prevalence of forced labor and sexual servitude is highest in Asia, with almost 3 in every 1,000 inhabitants falling victim to trafficking. Also, IOM and World Bank data show that the majority of the over 200 million transnational migrants in the world are from Asia. Within the growing pool of Asian migrants–reflecting greater labor mobility in the region and the world–is a huge population of people who are victims of sex trafficking and forced labor.

The fact that Secretary Clinton’s first trip as Secretary of State was to Asia was no accident; neither is the United States’ continued focus on combating human trafficking–both at home, and abroad. Sometimes this has to take the form of tough discussions with friends. As Secretary Clinton said recently, “[E]ven where we disagree with the actions of a country or of a government, we don’t stop talking and we don’t stop working and we don’t stop looking for areas of agreement. Because it is important that you constantly keep the lines of communication open…”

That’s fundamentally what the annual Trafficking in Persons Report is about. A merging of what President Obama calls an era of engagement and an era of responsibility. And by adding the United States to the report this year, we’ve taken that responsibility and are highlighting our successes and our failures. It’s a responsibility that our history as a nation impels us to assume.

Because, frankly, America has struggled with what we now term “human trafficking” since 1619, when the first 20 slaves were brought from Angola into what became the United States. The early years of indentured servitude changed within a few decades to full-out legal ownership for life and into subsequent generations. The first halting anti-slavery laws in the 1680s were simply enacted to try to halt a rash of anonymous murders of both chattel slaves and indentured servants (whose prospect of eventual freedom did not lessen their suffering).

Since then, we have had such successes as passage of the Slave Trade Act, Emancipation, and the updating of the Civil War era anti-slavery laws through the 2000 Trafficking Victims Protection Act.

And we have had such failures as the Fugitive Slave Act, the Kansas/Nebraska Act which overturned the Missouri Compromise, and the Chinese Exclusion Act in which debt peonage among Chinese immigrants was not used to a call to save the victims, but rather as an excuse to curtail immigration from Asia for almost a century. The callousness of that Asian exclusion is felt in the Ninth Circuit’s decision in 1904 to overturn a judge who had blocked the deportation of a Chinese woman who had escaped from sex slavery. That opinion took 96 years to remedy, with the creation of the T-visa and modern victim protections in the anti-trafficking Act of 2000. The lost promise of those 96 years should shame us and spur us to action.

Our response has been imperfect and continues to be–but as last year’s first-ever ranking in the Trafficking in Persons report demonstrates, we believe that our global response to combating this scourge can only be aided by sharing both what has worked for us and what hasn’t. To leave ourselves open to criticism but also to be open to the solutions that stem from it.

Just as America struggles with finding our victims, prosecuting their traffickers and addressing those systems that contribute to human trafficking, best practices and formidable challenges continue on the other side of the Pacific as well. Many governments lack adequate laws, and more have failed to produce significant convictions of trafficking offenders. The 2010 TIP Report depicts decreasing anti-trafficking efforts in the region in recent years. The number of countries downgraded last year is greater than the number upgraded–a situation at odds with a global trend of improvement.

Part of that is perhaps explained by a lack of political commitment to partnerships with the international community on human trafficking–for instance, none of the countries in South Asia has ratified the decade-old UN Palermo Protocol. While some countries in Asia have passed legislation to prohibit trafficking, Governments as a whole have not yet shown the political will to hold traffickers to the fullest account, in the form of sentencing reflective of the severity of the crimes they commit.

I firmly believe that one should quote their boss as often as possible, and once again, Secretary Clinton has said it best: 

[The annual Trafficking Report] has very specific recommendations. Countries come to us and ask very forcefully not to be dropped in their category and we hear them out and we tell them … the kinds of things that we would look to that would demonstrate the commitment that we think would make a difference, to talk about best practices, to share stories. And some countries have listened and the results speak for themselves. Others have not.

Now this is a process that is fraught with all kinds of feelings and I recognize that, but the easiest way to get out of the tier three and get off the watch list is to really act. And we had some real friends, friends–countries that are friends on so many important issues, and they were very upset when we told them that they were not going to progress and, in fact, were in danger of regressing. And then they said, "Well, what can we do?" And we said, "Well, we’ve pointed this out, we point it out again, and we will stand ready to help you."

Friends help each other–not just with convenient facts, but sometimes with inconvenient truths. I certainly hope that you all would tell me if I had spinach in my teeth. And in the anti-trafficking world, that kind of friendship means honesty about the problems that we are seeing.

For instance, in the past several years, we have learned a lot about the forced labor of Burmese migrant workers in the shrimp industry. The ILO found that 75% of Burmese in the Thai seafood sector have had their identity documents (without which they are vulnerable to arrest and deportation) confiscated by their employers to purposefully restrict their movement.

We know that there are tens, and possibly hundreds of thousands of foreign migrant workers, most of whom are Burmese, who face additional conditions of restricted movement, unpaid wages, debts that sometimes amount to years of labor, and an inability to seek legal recourse–all conditions that amount to human trafficking.

While this problem is widespread, the Royal Thai Government has only convicted two offenders for the forced labor of foreign workers in the industry–both of whom were released on bail after conviction, pending their appeal. It is Malaysia, determined to turn the corner after being on Tier 3 of the Report, that has begun to police the fishing fleet and punish those abusive captains who would hold others in servitude.

Farther north, Vietnam reported to us that last year, they did not criminally prosecute any labor trafficking offenders, but they fined 98 recruitment companies a total of $10,900 and revoked the firms of two licenses. That’s a start, but is an average of only a $111 fine per firm. What an executive would spend on a dinner and a good bottle of wine.

Indeed, a lack of avenues for legal redress of forced labor complaints by foreign migrants in labor destination countries like Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and Japan denies victims justice and a chance of effective recovery. It also fails in providing a deterrent through tough criminal sanctions to traffickers. Clearly, we have to elevate the ramifications for this type of exploitation above the cost of doing business.

In Cambodia, structures are being put in place, with the assistance of the Asia Foundation and other partners. But endemic corruption hampers the efforts, and it is time for the Government of Cambodia to take responsibility for victim protection, rather than simply outsource it to non-governmental organizations. Governments must take responsibility to address this crime problem.

The reality is that enforcement regimes in many Asian countries are woefully inadequate. Resource constraints, corruption, and a lack of political will have created an enabling environment in which sex slavery and forced labor thrives and exploiters rarely face meaningful penalties.

While this modern slavery is often accompanied by a story of migration, its solution is not best found by addressing the movement that may or may not be involved in a trafficking case. Instead, we advocate strategies that focus on the exploitation of the persons. To hear the stories involved. To understand the people involved.

Here’s one such story:

Seventeen year-old Khansee left his village in southern Laos to find work in a border town. He had very little education, could barely read or write, and was supporting his mother and grandmother. Another young man told Khansee he could earn $170 a month working at a garment factory in Thailand. Khansee trusted him because he was a fellow Lao, but he never made it to the garment factory. They crossed the river at night and boarded a van that took them to the coast of Thailand. When Khansee stepped out of the van, he was immediately led onto a fishing trawler under the watchful eyes of men with guns. For two years, Khansee worked day and night, heaving nets of fish without a rest or break. He ate and slept little on a crowded deck with 40 other men. He was beaten on a regular basis. Once, Khansee watched his traffickers beat a fellow worker until the man was unconscious. After two years of forced servitude, Khansee managed to escape when the boat was docked.

Khansee’s story, in and of itself, is unfathomable, but worsened by the reality that in many Asian countries, if he had escaped into the arms of the authorities, he would have likely been further victimized by the system established to protect him. Too often the existing protocol for handling trafficking victims involves being detained in a government “shelter” for months, or even in some cases for years, where they are unable to work or earn income, and are basically “on hold” until they are forced to give testimony against their traffickers. Basically, after being rescued from prostitution, instead of being helped and cared for, women and girls are put behind a new set of bars. After being warehoused, and after the trial (if any actually happens) is over, they are deported to their home country and effectively disempowered.

Warehousing is not restoration or rehabilitation. Jail is not a shelter.

Equally harmful to the cause is official denial by countries who continue to refute the existence of a trafficking problem. This is often true of more developed nations. For example, in one small but developed Asian country, the denial of a problem has prevented effective victim identification or assistance efforts, and resulted in the mass arrest and deportation of over seven thousand women and girls in prostitution last year. Among this population, only one individual was officially identified by the government as a trafficking victim. Again: one victim in seven thousand people who were identified as foreign prostitutes. Think about how likely that is…

And enforcement aside, when it comes to victim protection, policies and practices are all too often at best unhelpful, and at worst harmful. You may have heard of the internationally recognized “3P Paradigm” of prosecution, prevention, and protection. But in the failure of many countries to adequately protect victims of modern slavery, a new alliterative paradigm emerges; the “3Ds” of victim mis-protection–Detention, Deportation and Disempowerment–as countries jail and repatriate victims without screening or protection.

Yet clear successes are being registered. While ranked Tier 2 Watch List just a few years ago, Taiwan is now Tier 1–thanks to its political commitment to carrying out a series of tough anti-trafficking reforms. Now, foreign victims of trafficking in Taiwan stand a much greater chance of being identified and subsequently provided assistance to get back on their feet, and gain legitimate employment with legal immigration status.

Similarly, Malaysia–which continues to witness several highly-prevalent TIP problems–has taken nascent steps to form an inter-ministerial task force to address human trafficking and has started registering its first trafficking prosecutions under a new 2008 anti-trafficking law.

We want to encourage other Asian countries to embark on similar courses. We stand ready to help, as appropriate, either through bilateral channels, by supporting NGOs, or in partnership with international organizations such as the UN’s vibrant intel program, UNIAP.

Our office works to share the message that a truly effective response to trafficking-in-persons means victim-centered policies that recognize and reinstate the power of the survivor, including counseling, legal services, educational and economic opportunities as well as a partnership with law enforcement and service providers, not just to win the case, but to share the responsibility of letting the survivors’ voices be heard.

I’m proud of the progress we’ve made as a young office in a young nation. The journey to freedom must be taken. With Asian governments, with groups like the Asia Foundation, working together we can act in tribute to the bravery of the African-Americans who sought to make it north in The Pearl so long ago, and the courage of survivors like Khansee, who finally made it off of his ship. For, as President Obama said to Asian leaders in Tokyo last fall, we must take that journey together, to put “a stop to this scourge of modern-day slavery once and for all.” Thank you.

Back to Top

Do you already have an account on one of these sites? Click the logo to sign in and create your own customized State Department page. Want to learn more? Check out our FAQ!

OpenID is a service that allows you to sign in to many different websites using a single identity. Find out more about OpenID and how to get an OpenID-enabled account.