Posted by on January 23, 2023 10:46 pm
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Human trafficking is one of the biggest crises of our time. How do we fight It? 

In a speech last year announcing the release of the latest Trafficking In Persons Report, U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken cited a startling statistic: right now, nearly 25-million individuals around the world are being forced into labor or the sex trade against their will.   

Pause for a moment on that number: 25 million.  

It’s a staggering sum—too large to visualize except in the abstract, and heartbreaking when considered as an aggregate of real-life mothers, daughters, fathers, and sons. All told, it is more than the populations of New Zealand, Singapore, Kuwait, Uruguay, and the Republic of Congo, combined. Yet the victims of human trafficking aren’t isolated to a single country or region. They can be found in every nation and every city in across the globe. As Blinken correctly noted, “the scale of the problem is vast.” 

It’s also deeply alarming, particularly because signs indicate the crisis is worsening.   

In December, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) concluded that the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War alone has put 17.7 million people in dire straits financially, with 5.6 million individuals displaced internally. Out of Ukraine’s pre-war population of 44 million, more than 8 million have fled the country since the outbreak of the conflict. Tens of thousands of these are unaccompanied or separated children.  

Then there is climate change—a threat multiplier for modern slavery due to its disruptive impact on economies and communities. In India, prolonged droughts and flooding linked to melting Himalayan glaciers are forcing minority groups and women to seek income in cities, where they fall prey to trafficking intermediaries and agents who then sell them to illegal placement agencies. Without further action, more than 216 million individuals are expected to migrate within Asia, North Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe by 2050 as a result of global warming, according to World Bank estimates.  

Even efforts to mitigate climate change can exacerbate the problem. Take the projected growth of the electric-vehicle market as an example. As consumer demand grows, the world will look to the Democratic Republic of Congo for the cobalt needed to build lithium-ion batteries, but the risks of extraction won’t necessarily be incurred willingly.   

“Some of that cobalt is mined by children, who are then pushed into work through coercion, through fraud, through force,” Blinken said. 

Mapping money flows 

When global leaders recommended in 2018 that the United Nations launch a consultation on how banks and other institutions could help fight human trafficking, the role that financial intelligence could play was not yet fully understood. A year later, the commission tasked with conducting the consultation released its findings: A Blueprint for Mobilizing Finance Against Slavery and Trafficking.  

Alongside similar calls by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the Blueprint may prove to be a watershed in the fight against modern slavery. Both the FAST initiative, which advises on the implementation of the Blueprint, and FATF outline a clear path to better leveraging anti-money laundering (AML) controls to map illicit financial flows linked to trafficking groups.  

But such efforts must be multipronged if they are to be truly effective. The anti-financial crime (AFC) compliance sector will need to develop tools that can analyze an array of transactional activity related to modern slavery, from money laundering by international sex-trafficking rings operating in large and sophisticated economies to localized debt-bondage and domestic-servitude schemes in developing nations.  

More than that, financial institutions and governmental officials alike will need to step up their efforts to learn from trafficking survivors and engage in public-private partnerships with key stakeholders, including advocacy groups. Such partnerships can serve an array of purposes, bringing organizations together to collaborate on a single investigation or establishing critical lines of communication to address human trafficking more broadly over the long term. 

Stronger communication between governments and the financial sector would also bolster efforts to implement and enforce sanctions targeting slavers, thereby increasing the likelihood that such illicit funds are discovered, frozen, and ultimately confiscated by authorities.  

These efforts will require something of a balancing act too. Regulators and institutions must accomplish such steps without unduly forcing vulnerable populations out of the formal financial sector and into the arms of traffickers posing as their would-be saviors.  

Setting priorities  

For the last 13 years, the United States has acknowledged the severity of this growing crisis with the observance of National Human Trafficking Prevention Month every January. While the observance is commendable, it’s not enough. For trafficking victims, modern slavery is the living nightmare that they sleep and wake to each day of the year.  

To effectuate real change, we will need to come together in lasting and impactful ways. Law enforcement, regulators, financial institutions, tech firms, crypto companies, and NGOs—each holds a piece of the puzzle. Each brings unique views and capabilities to the table. Each has a part to play.  

Because this is a crisis that calls into question our priorities. If we accept the argument that it’s necessary to overhaul how the financial sector operates to prevent terrorist financing and money laundering, what does it say about us if we don’t step up our efforts to save human lives?  

25 million people.  

It’s up to us.  

Scott Liles is CEO of the Association of Certified Anti-Money Laundering Specialists (ACAMS). 

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