The Black Market in Human Beings

Police recently broke up a sex-smuggling ring that had enslaved dozens of Korean women for brothels throughout the Northeastern U.S. Wasn't slavery wiped out long ago?

How widespread is slavery?

Though outlawed around the world, slavery has made a disturbing comeback. The slave trade is now the third largest type of illegal trade in the world, after drugs and weapons, according to the U.S. State Department. Between 600,000 and 800,000 people are trafficked across national borders each year, the State Department reports, with up to 17,500 of them entering the U.S. The International Labor Organization estimates that slave trading generates $31 billion annually. The traders seem to be getting increasingly brazen: In June, British authorities announced that "slave auctions" were being held in public places in airports, with brothel keepers bidding on women arriving, under duress, from Eastern Europe. "This is a new area," says Vernon Coaker, Britain's top domestic security official. "It's something five, 10 years ago perhaps, people very rarely talked of."

Who are the victims?

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They encompass a broad range of ages, backgrounds, and nationalities. "Nikkie," for instance, once lived in an impoverished Thai village; she was just 14 when her father sold her to a pimp who took her to Australia, where she was forced to service dozens of men a day. Olena Popik, 21, of Ukraine, was pimped across five countries over the course of three years and was still being rented out at Bosnian truck stops even while she was dying from AIDS. Advocates say there are tens of thousands of victims like Nikkie and Olena, caught up in a shadowy international trade stretching from the farthest reaches of the undeveloped world to sweatshops, massage parlors, and the private homes of the wealthy in the U.S. and other Western nations.

Why is human trafficking flourishing?

Experts point to several factors, including the end of the Cold War. The economic shocks that accompanied the demise of the Soviet system thrust millions of Eastern Europeans into desperate poverty and resulted in an explosion of criminal rings capable of selling women into slavery. Globalization expanded that phenomenon worldwide. In a world with increasingly porous borders, the poor are willing to leave their homelands in search of jobs. "Olga," a single mother from Moldova, is a typical case. She answered an ad in a newspaper that offered to send locals abroad ostensibly to care for senior citizens for $1,000 a month. Instead, a trafficker kidnapped her to a bar in Kosovo, where she was severely beaten and forced to have sex with patrons. With the help of a fellow victim, she finally escaped. An aid group is helping to arrange for surgery to repair her two severely damaged retinas.

What's being done to stop slavery?

The world is starting to take action, though victims' advocates say far more needs to happen. Countries with the worst records—including China, Laos, Saudi Arabia, and Mexico—say they are cracking down on smugglers, while the U.S. has put diplomatic pressure on such supply-side states to do more. In 2000, Congress set stiff new penalties for human trafficking. But few malefactors have been prosecuted: In the last five years, the Justice Department has tried just 91 cases. "This offense is so serious, so pervasive, and so dynamic," said Mohammed Ibn Chambas, executive secretary of the Economic Community of West African States, "that only a coordinated effort of all states will be able to address it successfully."

Are slaves used only for sex?

No, but most are. The Human Rights Center at the University of California at Berkeley found that 46 percent of enslaved people in the U.S. are pressed into some form of prostitution. Domestic service accounts for another 27 percent; agriculture, 10 percent; sweatshop or factory labor, 5 percent; and hotel and restaurant work, 4 percent. "There are so many faces on this," said Carole Angel, a former attorney for the women's rights advocacy group Legal Momentum. "It happens in rural communities, big cities. It spans all education levels, different countries, different races."

Do the victims ever escape?

Rarely. The captors usually manage to keep their victims under control by beating them and threatening them with death. In most cases, only outside intervention—by authorities or a good Samaritan—can free the captives. In one poignant case, a waitress who was tricked into leaving Albania in 2002 was slaving as a prostitute in Italy when a man from her old neighborhood recognized her. When he saw her wasted frame, bruises, and purple cheekbones, he bought her a fake passport and a ticket to Chicago, where he had friends. "I had no other choice," he later explained. "I decided to help her as if she was my own sister."

Does everyone agree about the scope of the problem?

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