The 2010 version of the U.S. State Department’s Trafficking In Persons(TIP) Report was published last week. This is the annual review by the U.S. government of every country’s effort to combat human trafficking, which it has issued since the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) was made law in 2000. This year, for the first time, the U.S. government includes an assessment of its own efforts, as a response to the frequent criticism it has faced for not evaluating itself by the same standards it uses to measure other countries. In its latest review, the U.S. places itself in Tier 1. Countries ranked in Tier 1 are defined as those whose governments “fully comply with the TVPA’s minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.”
In some ways, this is a fair assessment, but for one huge exception: the government’s dismal efforts to identify and protect sexually exploited children. Children who are used in the sex industry suffer horrific physical and mental cruelty. Their bodies are bought and sold as if they are nothing more than commodities. Pimps, traffickers, and sex exploiters rule their young worlds. During the period of life when they are developing physically, spiritually and emotionally, at time when they should be offered the opportunity to dream, to learn and to shape their own world, they are instead abandoned to an industry that uses them as nothing more than meat to feed the demand for sex services.
To the extent that a society can measure its level of civility by its willingness and ability to protect children from some of the worst possible abuse, the TIP report offers one opportunity to do so. Yet, this year, when the U.S. government reports on its own efforts, it dispassionately informs us that in 2009 it rescued 306 children from prostitution and offered 50 “letters of eligibility” to international child trafficking victims. (A “letter of eligibility” is the means by which a child trafficked to the U.S. is officially defined as a victim of sex trafficking.) Meanwhile, in 2008, the latest year for which numbers are available, the U.S. reports that 849 children were arrested for prostitution and commercialized vice. In effect, the U.S. says that almost three times as many children were arrested and processed through the criminal justice system, as were offered protection and assistance. This is probably an undercount since it is likely that many children originally arrested for prostitution were ultimately charged with a lesser offense. And yet, the U.S. government places itself in the top tier of countries in combating human trafficking.
On the plus side, the U.S. government report states that it “funded three demonstration projects to provide comprehensive services to U.S. citizen child victims of labor or sex trafficking, two projects for case management assistance to children found in prostitution, and one training and technical assistance project….” It mentions that all 50 states have laws that make it a crime to sexually exploit children, so law enforcement officials could arrest pimps and
traffickers instead of the sexually exploited children, if they chose to do so. It convicted 151 traffickers under its federal Innocence Lost Initiative, “a collaboration of federal and state law enforcement authorities and victim assistance providers focused on combating the prostitution of children.” This is all good news.
The U.S. government admits that, though there are runaway and homeless youth programs and programs for at-risk youth, “it is not clear to what extent these programs identify and assist child trafficking victims among the children they serve.” It is gratifying that the report gives the NGO point of view, despite how mildly it states it, that “these programs and agencies require training to better identify and work with trafficking victims.”
Prevention is one of the areas where the U.S. government applauds its own work, although most of the prevention work focuses on labor trafficking. As for reducing the demand for sexual exploitation, there is apparently not much to report. Though the report says, “[s]tate and local jurisdictions engaged in a number of efforts to reduce demand for commercial sex,” in fact very little has been done. There are no data and no meaningful attempt to address why certain children are more vulnerable, why there is such significant demand for sexually exploited children or what programs are needed to stop such abuses of children before they occur.
The U.S. government report is critical of other countries’ inability to combat child sex tourism, using it throughout the report as one of the benchmarks for assessing countries’ tier ranking. As for its own success, the U.S. “made 11 criminal arrests, brought five indictments, and obtained 10 convictions in child sex tourism cases in FY 2009.” There is a discernible commitment by the U.S. government to investigate most American child sex tourism cases that come to its attention. But there is virtually no effort by the U.S. government to raise awareness and educate its own population about laws against child sex tourism. There are no public awareness campaigns, and only one large company in the U.S., Carlson Companies, has signed the Code of Conduct for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation in Travel and Tourism. So when the U.S. government report says that Belize or Barbados, for example, has an emerging child sex tourism problem, it is just as much a problem that can be counted against U.S. efforts as it is against the governments of the destination countries. .
In the whole human trafficking field, reliable statistics are very difficult to come by. But every expert accepts that there are at the very least 100,000 sexually exploited children in the U.S. (and probably many, many more than that) and that Americans represent large percentages of the sex tourists traveling abroad to sexually exploit other country’s children. Yet last year we arrested many more children than we helped in the U.S. and we convicted ten sex tourists.
The U.S. has set itself up as a world leader in the fight against human trafficking. To be a true leader it has to act forcefully and methodically to clean up its own house. This is an urgent fight for the lives of children. ECPAT-USA would be so proud if the U.S. government truly picked up the torch of leadership for the protection of every child’s right to grow up free from sexual exploitation. While we see some efforts, and some limited successes, the children deserve much, much more.