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Cover Story

Human trafficking: a misunderstood global scourge

Sex trafficking has become an American cause célèbre. But does it divert attention from the broader human trafficking issue of modern-day slavery?

By Correspondent / September 9, 2012

Global human trafficking, what the State Department calls "modern day slavery," sometimes gets overlooked in the outrage about the smaller domestic sex trafficking problem. This article is the cover story of The Christian Science Monitor weekly magazine issue of Sept. 10, 2012.

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During a diplomatic visit to Calcutta, India, in May, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton stopped at a shelter for young women and girls. It was not an ordinary shelter, but one with a specific mission – a mission Ms. Clinton wanted reporters to broadcast to Americans back home. It was a shelter established to help victims of human trafficking, an international crime that Clinton and other international players have called one of the world's largest and most pressing human rights concerns. It was also, primarily, helping girls who'd been trafficked for sex.

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This is a key cause for Clinton. In recent years, she and other international figures – from United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to British Prime Minister David Cameron – have raised the alarm about human trafficking, a practice involving forced labor, from mining to domestic work to prostitution.

"These victims of modern slavery ... their stories remind us of what kind of inhumane treatment we are still capable of as human beings,"

Clinton said in June upon the release of the annual State Department report on global human trafficking. "Traffickers prey on the hopes and dreams of those seeking a better life, and our goal should be to put those hopes and dreams back within reach."

Moreover, Clinton and others have said regularly, human trafficking is also an American problem. It doesn't just take place in the sweatshops of impoverished Indian villages or in Thai brothels, but on US streets from San Francisco to New York. The federal government has estimated the number of domestic trafficking victims to be in the tens of thousands annually. Victims range from Southeast Asian indentured nail salon manicurists to Mexican agricultural workers to underage American prostitutes.

Many advocates say this last group, made up of American girls – and a relatively small number of boys – victimized in America, is the primary trafficking problem in the United States. "Sex trafficking," as this particular strain of human trafficking is called, has become a national human rights crisis, they say, and deserves a huge public outcry.

Indeed, domestic sex trafficking has become a high-profile cause. Celebrities from Jada Pinkett Smith and Salma Hayek to former couple Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore have picked up the bullhorn of the anti-trafficking movement, with a focus on sex trafficking.

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