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Human trafficking wasn't always a crime

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Human trafficking wasn't always a crime

How 30 years of grassroots advocacy and bipartisan cooperation helped governments around the world declare modern slavery illegal.


By Nate King, National Director of US Advocacy and Mobilization

In this new year, American elected officials in Washington have begun the process of determining the U.S. federal budget for the next fiscal year. If you're an American citizen, you have a stake in how the U.S. federal budget is allocated. And as someone who cares about fighting human trafficking, you can even have an impact in advocating for your tax dollars to protect the most vulnerable.

Each year, Congress goes through a budgeting process for the federal government. About two-thirds of that budget goes towards mandatory spending, like Social Security, Medicare or interest on the national debt. The remaining one-third of the spending is “discretionary”, meaning Congress can decide what that money is used for.

A small investment with a life changing impact

You might know that the U.S. spends less than 1% of the federal budget on international assistance – meaning the budget for combating human trafficking is just a tiny sliver of less than 1% of the federal budget. But that seemingly minuscule investment has made, and continues to make, a significant impact in the global effort to end human trafficking.

In 2000, Congress passed a groundbreaking law called the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), the first comprehensive federal law to address human trafficking. In twenty years since, the passage of the TVPA has brought forth much progress, especially through the creation of the U.S. government’s nerve center in the fight against trafficking – the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (TIP Office).

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How the U.S. became a leader in the fight against trafficking

The passage of the TVPA created the TIP Office within the State Department to take on the issue of trafficking. But even before 2000, in the late 1990s, Congress, NGOs and private citizens began to come together to bring the dawn of a new day to push back against this human rights abuse.

In 1994, Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act, the first comprehensive federal law to address sexual assault and violence against women. In 1997, IJM was founded to address violence against people in poverty. Working as a lawyer at the Department of Justice and as the United Nations’ Investigator in Charge in the wake of the Rwandan genocide, Gary Haugen was struck not only by the senseless tragedy, but also by the lack of resources to combat violence against people living in poverty around the world.

This incredible progress would never have happened unless concerned Americans like you stood up, spoke up and reached out to your representatives.

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In 1998, President Bill Clinton issued an executive order directing the U.S. government to increase its efforts to combat violence and trafficking of women and girls within the United States; and in partnership with other countries, to match the increased sophistication and scope of worldwide trafficking as a crime and human rights abuse. President Clinton also directed the Secretary of State to work with countries around the world to develop anti-trafficking strategies.

All these developments pushed a burgeoning movement forward, but it wasn’t until 2000 that political will fully developed for the passage of legislation like the TVPA. This would not have happened without the help of advocates like you who engaged with Congress as they crafted the law.

A bipartisan movement to end trafficking

In our current moment of political division, it might be hard to imagine senators from both major parties coming together around any particular piece of legislation. But in the case of the TVPA, that’s exactly what happened.

The legislators who championed the Senate version of the TVPA from both parties were moved by the stories and experiences of victims of trafficking. Senator Paul Wellstone (D-MN) was influenced by his wife, Sheila, who advocated for his leadership on the issue after learning about a local D.C. case in which Russian and Ukrainian women had been trafficked to work in a massage parlor without pay. Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) was moved to action by a visit to Nepal, where he visited a shelter and met teenage girls who had been exploited in India – girls who were the same age as his own daughters.

Without the partnership of Senators Wellstone and Brownback, the TIP Office and its transformative programming might not have become reality.

The global power of the TIP Office and its programs

Today, the TIP Office administers programming that is central to the U.S. government’s fight against trafficking around the world. The TIP Office funds efforts to protect victims, prosecute traffickers and prevent trafficking from occurring altogether. Your advocacy over the years has significantly increased the available funding for anti-trafficking programming around the world. In its first year, the TIP Office managed about $9 million in funding. In FY2019, the TIP Office was responsible for a budget of more than $61 million.

The TIP Office is also responsible for the annual creation of the TIP Report, a powerful diplomatic tool that sheds light on a countries’ progress – or lack thereof – in meeting the minimum standards established in the TVPA.

The TVPA codified the protections of victims of trafficking and expanded statutes to hold traffickers accountable. Since then, all 50 U.S. states have passed legislation to combat trafficking. Globally, 168 governments have passed legislation to criminalize trafficking and provide services to survivors.

Trafficking may now be a crime, but our work lays in enforcing the laws

In "Freedom First”, the State Department’s 20th anniversary report on the fight against trafficking, Ambassador-at-Large John Richmond wrote about the work that lies before the anti-trafficking movement in the years to come, saying:

"In this relatively new century, we have been given the task of delivering on the promise of laws and building on the efforts of those who came before us. While laws are foundationally important for this work, we must also ensure that governments implement those laws. Parchment promises alone are of little benefit to victims around the world. Governments must turn words into deeds and ink into action by investing in effective delivery systems of justice and protection."

At IJM, we are committed to walking alongside government partners to make the protection of all citizens under the rule of law reality for people living in poverty. But as it has since the passage of the TVPA in 2000, the U.S. government must continue to lead this right around the world. As Ambassador Richmond wrote,

"We must stop trafficking at its source and hold traffickers accountable; we must urge governments to implement their laws by building effective delivery systems of justice and protection; and we must proactively identify and provide needed services to survivors. If we are to accomplish all of these things, we must continue to refine our efforts and focus on impact."

Tell Congress that anti-slavery initiatives matter to you.

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