WASHINGTON, DC— The battle against modern day slavery was the focus of a bipartisan congressional hearing held by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), co-chairman of Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission along with Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), Wednesday on Capitol Hill.
The main U.S. weapon in the fight to save lives and bring justice to traffickers who ensnare victims of sex and labor trafficking—the landmark Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA), was front-and center today.
“This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the Trafficking Victims’ Protection Act (TVPA), and the occasion provides an opportunity for reflection and assessment of the TVPA’s efficacy, accomplishments and limitations,” said Congressman Smith, who wrote the original TVPA and four other anti-trafficking laws, and founded the congressional Human Trafficking Caucus. “It also provides us with an opportunity to think about future challenges, many of which could not have been anticipated twenty years ago, such as how ever-evolving technology is being utilized by both traffickers, for their nefarious purposes, and also law enforcement, as it seeks to protect the vulnerable and exploited.” Click here to read Smith’s opening remarks.
Signed into law 20 years ago in 2000, the TVPA is a groundbreaking piece of legislation that has impacted many countries’ approaches to human trafficking. With its annual tier ranking of countries based on their efforts at prosecution, protection and prevention of human trafficking, the State Department has become the lead agency in encouraging other countries to adopt best practices. Subsequent updates of the law have renewed and expanded the anti-trafficking mandate and have broadened efforts at prevention, including an education component that was part of the Frederick Douglass Trafficking Victims Prevention and Protection Reauthorization Act of 2018, also authored by Smith and enacted in the last Congress.
Testifying at the Jan. 15 hearing were key leaders in the State Department and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), as well as advocacy groups. John Cotton Richmond, Ambassador-at-Large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (TIP) at the State Department, and Katherine Chon, Director of the Office of Trafficking in Persons and Senior Advisor on Human Trafficking at HHS, led the witnesses.
“The Trafficking Victims Protection Act included a number of ‘sea change’ criminal code reforms including treating as a victim—and not a perpetrator of a crime—anyone exploited by a commercial sex act who had not attained the age of 18 and anyone older where there was an element of force, fraud or coercion. The TVPA radically reformed the US criminal code to authorize asset confiscation and jail sentences of up to life imprisonment,” Smith said.
Ambassador Richmond, the top official at State Department’s TIP office, said, 2020 is a noteworthy year for the U.S. Government’s fight to combat trafficking in persons. “The enactment of the TVPA in 2000 was transformational to the U.S. legal framework and our ability to combat all forms of human trafficking. At the same time, passage of the TVPA ensured that this issue would be an integrated part of our foreign policy and diplomatic engagement.” Richmond singled out the drop in prosecutions as a concern: “Human trafficking is a high reward-low risk crime, and traffickers know it. According to the TIP Report, the leading global source of information about victim identification and prosecutions, there has been a 42% drop in global prosecutions since 2015. Deemphasizing criminal accountability only allows traffickers to operate with impunity.” Click here to read Richmond’s opening testimony.
Director Chon, head of the TIP office at HHS, said HHS seeks to both prevent human trafficking and protect victims of its diverse forms of exploitation: “Human trafficking is a violent crime, a grave human rights abuse, and a public health problem that disrupts the well-being of individuals, families, and communities. HHS addresses social determinants of health intersecting with human trafficking by integrating anti-trafficking responses across multiple systems serving populations at high risk to trafficking, including patients served by federally qualified health centers and individuals supported through child welfare, runaway and homeless youth, domestic violence victims, refugees, unaccompanied alien children, and Native American communities.” Click here to read Chon’s opening remark..
Witnesses included anti-human trafficking advocacy groups, including:
Liat Shetret, Co-Founder of Elliptic, a provider of cryptocurrency anti-money laundering tools, told the commission human traffickers use a variety of techniques to mask activity when engaging in transactions. He said, “These include the use of online payments, prepaid cards, informal banking systems, anonymous shell companies and real estate transactions. Human trafficking is an agile criminal enterprise, constantly adapting to the regulatory environment, the capabilities of law enforcement and the new technologies at their disposal. Over the past few years, cryptocurrency has been one of the new technologies that human traffickers have begun to exploit. Cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin can be thought of as digital cash. Like cash they have properties that make them attractive to criminals – such as the lack of a central authority that can block transactions or seize funds. There is also the perception that cryptocurrency transactions are anonymous and untraceable… .” Click here to read Shetret’s opening statement.
Lori L. Cohen, Executive Director of ECPAT-USA, testified that solid progress has been made since Smith authored the TVPA twenty years ago, but noted that future laws must keep a focus on online threats to children. Cohen said, “As traffickers—which not only include pimps and brothel owners, but also buyers—continue to evolve and expand their online presence, we must continue to ensure that the next reauthorization of the TVPA provides the necessary laws and funding to thwart anyone who would dare to sexually abuse our youngest citizens and the future of our nation.” Click here to read Cohen’s testimony.
Neha Misra, Senior Specialist, Migration and Human Trafficking, Solidarity Center, lauded progress of the past two decades, and noted human trafficking and forced labor both involve violations of worker rights and lack of labor standards and protections for workers. Misra said, “As we reflect on the past 20 years of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), there is much to laud in terms of progress that has been made to address this horrific human rights abuse. There are significantly more resources dedicated to combating the problem from the public and private sectors. We have a much more clear definition of human trafficking and understanding of the scope of the issue. The U.S. government and governments around the world have passed more laws to combat human trafficking. We are much more knowledgeable about the underlying root causes of and vulnerabilities to human trafficking.” Click here to read Misra’s testimony.
Limnyuy Konglim, Head of U.S. Liaison Office, International Catholic Migration Commission, said it was inspiring to participate in a hearing with governmental, non-governmental and faith actors all committed to a single cause- combatting human trafficking. She said, “The Trafficking Victims Protection Act has provided a policy framework that prioritizes the protection of those who have been unjustly exploited. It is within this same spirit that faith-based actors are invaluable partners in these efforts. Churches and other religious institutions are stalwarts within communities. They embody community and remain present… . Churches are safe havens for individuals and often times the first place that victims seek protection and support.” Click here Konglim’s opening statement.