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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?

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"I think information is good," says Bridgette Carr, who directs the Human Trafficking Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School in Ann Arbor. "But I worry ... that sound bites are harmful. They don't portray everything. If we're only talking about sex trafficking of children, we're not talking about the adults. If we're talking about sex trafficking, we're not talking about forced labor."

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She tries to use the attention on sex trafficking as a way to educate people about the wider array of human-trafficking crimes, but she recognizes that there is a long way to go.

Although the number of US human-trafficking prosecutions has increased, the majority of those cases are focused on underage sex trafficking. Only 1 in 10 incidents of suspected human trafficking is labor trafficking, according to the Department of Justice Bureau of Labor Statistics. And some critics have claimed that too few of the new visas designed as an incentive to get human-trafficking victims to work with law enforcement have been issued. The State Department reported that these "T visas" were granted to 557 victims in fiscal year 2011.

And funding is diverted, too. The US State Department distributed tens of millions of dollars to support nonprofits working with domestic sex-trafficking victims, but the federal government in 2010 suspended a federal program to reunify human-trafficking victims with their families abroad. And while there has been an increase in private and government funds to help sex-trafficking victims, advocacy groups say prevention gets short shrift: Children most at risk of becoming trafficked – runaways and homeless – have difficulty getting help.

"Another issue throwing trafficking protections off balance is the [US] policy which focuses government trafficking efforts on eradicating prostitution, which it conflates with sex trafficking," said the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children, a humanitarian group associated with the International Rescue Committee, in the 2007 report "The U.S. Response to Human Trafficking: An Unbalanced Approach." "Efforts at addressing contributing factors to trafficking are laudable but should not be pursued to the exclusion of other efforts. There is a need for immigration and labor reform that would yield dramatic results in protections for trafficked and exploited persons in the informal economy."

For Mr. MacBride, the prosecutor of the Virginia gang leader, though, the debate of which sort of harm is worse, and which deserves more attention, is beside the point. He sees both forms of trafficking as law enforcement priorities. "All crime is bad, but I think [human trafficking] is particularly heinous, with traumatic implications for victims."

Not all law enforcement officials have taken the same position. There has been a shift to federal prosecution of sex trafficking – with a focus on pimps as the main criminals rather than prostitutes or even johns. But many local law enforcement vice squads still approach commercial sex crimes with the long-standard approach of raids and sweeps, where everyone involved is arrested as a criminal.

Advocates say substantial changes in the way underage prostitutes are treated in the US – whether they're called trafficking victims or not – will take more than celebrity campaigns. It will require getting closer to the source problems of poverty, vulnerability, and demand, and will require changing attitudes and behaviors.

"A lot of people are talking about it, and some states are passing good laws," Ms. Carr says. "But it's going to take more than that to overcome decades of criminalizing prostitutes. We're not seeing fundamental shifts in the way people who are being sold for sex are treated."

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