Smuggling and trafficking in human beings is on the rise, and with that rise has come an increase in victims’ suffering. Throughout the world, they are treated simply as commodities, often in ways that are physically and psychologically brutal. Although there are differences between smuggling and trafficking, the distinction can be shadowy. What begins as smuggling, with the consent of the persons being smuggled, for instance, may end up as trafficking, if the smuggled people are subsequently denied their freedom and held hostage in some form of debt bondage.
While both smuggling and trafficking involve men, women and children, trafficking tends to focus on the latter two groups--often for sexual exploitation or sweatshop work. Smugglers, on the other hand, differ from traffickers in that they work on an almost contractual basis with those who pay them for passage across country boundaries. Almost always, whether the issue is smuggling or trafficking, the movement is from a poor country to a wealthy one. An outstanding example of smuggling today can be seen at the border between Mexico and the United States. With the post-9/11 laws, undocumented immigrants have found it increasingly difficult to reach U.S. territory. Their efforts--to be reunited with family members here, or to earn enough to send money home--have also been made more desperate by the increased number of federal Border Patrol officers. This has led to rising death tolls among those attempting to cross deserts and frigid mountain areas.
As for trafficking in women and children, the United Nations has described this as the third-largest criminal business in the world, after drug and weapons trafficking. Its roots are in global poverty and the lack of education--especially in countries where families tend to favor education for boys rather than girls. Trafficking begins with deliberate deception. An Asia Watch report on Burmese victims describes how recruiters from Thailand travel to poor areas of Burma and promise young women and girls employment as waitresses. Once in Thailand or other countries, however, they are frequently funneled into brothels. Forced to pay for food, clothing and lodging, they find themselves in a state of near-permanent bondage, frequently with the collusion of officials. In Thailand, the sex industry generates $3 billion a year.
Sex trafficking is known in the United States too, even in big-city neighborhoods, where trafficked women are held in bondage. The State Department has estimated that annually up to 20,000 people are trafficked into the United States, out of 800,000 people trafficked worldwide. Many are children between the ages of 12 and 17, who are trafficked here and elsewhere for the sex trade. The figure of 20,000, however, is considered low by the Migration and Refugee Service of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Nor does trafficking involve girls and women only. Mary Ellen Dougherty, S.S.N.D., of the bishops’ refugee service office, pointed out to America that men too are trafficked for purposes of forced labor. A recent notorious case involved 53 men from India, who had been brought to work at the John Pickle Company in Tulsa, Okla., which makes oil pipelines. Once in Tulsa, the men’s passports were taken from them and they became virtual prisoners. A report on the situation by Catholic Charities USA notes that they were forced to work 12 to 16 hours a day for an hourly wage of less than $3. From these substandard earnings, the company took what it claimed was the cost of the laborers’ room and board.
Eventually their plight came to the attention of advocates, who were able to obtain for the workers so-called "T" visas. This type of visa, established by Congress as one of the components of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000, was created specifically for the benefit of trafficking victims. With this visa a person may remain in the United States for renewable three-year periods, with work authorization and the possibility of applying for permanent residency. The problem is that only a few hundred persons have been certified as victims eligible for this visa. While this may partly be the result of inadequate outreach on the part of local officials, Sister Dougherty pointed out that fear and intimidation prevent many victims from coming forward: "They’ve been brainwashed, and are terrified because they know they are in danger."
The long-range response to trafficking and smuggling lies less in laws than in systemic changes that would provide educational and economic opportunities in the poor countries of the world. As the U.S. and Mexican bishops observed in Strangers No Longer (2003), "persons have the right to find opportunities in their homeland...that provide a just, living wage." In the meantime, however, strengthening laws that protect victims and curtail the activities of traffickers and smugglers must become a stronger priority.