By Tony Maddox
Executive Vice President and Managing Director of CNN International
You know that moment when you read something, and then immediately have to re-read it because you cannot believe it is true? That happened to me when I read that the levels of slavery and people trafficking today are greater than at any point in history.
Surely that cannot be right?
Obviously there is no precise figure, but the International Labor Organization and respected abolitionists like Kevin Bales and Siddharth Kara put the global number of slaves at between 10-30 million worldwide. At a minimum, 10 million.
Driving the global people trading business is ruthless greed, vast returns on investment and crucially, government ineffectiveness. The same as most criminal enterprises.
And the numbers involved are extraordinary.
The United Nations estimates the total market value of human trafficking at 32 billion U.S. dollars. In Europe, criminals are pocketing around $2.5 billion per year through sexual exploitation and forced labor.
But let’s remember the commodity here is not drugs or contraband; it is human beings. And usually the most vulnerable in society.
Those unable to defend themselves, those who innocently trust the intentions of others, those who can easily be made to disappear.
The cruelty and inhumanity of those who would profit from such a crime is truly shocking.
In previous centuries, when slaves were captured and traded each had a significant market value. Although their ill-treatment was often horrific, the reality was that it made economic sense to keep a slave alive and functioning, to protect what was usually a significant investment, made with a view to long term.
That is not so today. Many girls and women, who are trafficked, particularly for the sex trade, are done so with a view to high rate of return over a relatively short period of time. Then they are switched from the steady supply of replacements.
And what do you suppose happens to those who are seen to have maxed out their usefulness?
Often addicted to drugs they have been forced to take, almost certainly in the country illegally, with no support, and with no record that they ever existed.
A bad outcome is more or less assured.
It is also difficult to see any hope for the people who trade in people. They have reconciled themselves to the awful crimes that they commit, and are unlikely to stop because others tell them to.
No, to stop this shameful trade takes the will of governments.
First in the countries where people are either abducted or forced into labor.
These are often nations that are facing many problems, with tough economies, poor infrastructure, and sporadic and ineffective forces of law and order. People in rural and remote regions are often the targets, people who can be easily misled, or just kidnapped, with next to no chance of the crime ever being properly investigated.
For local and national governments it is just one more of a series of pressing problems they must face. The international community has a role to play in forcing it higher up each of these countries to-do lists.
This is not a problem that can be ignored.
CNN will go to the places where the people traffickers ensnare their victims.
And we will follow the routes through to markets where they get the best return on their haul.
And these destination countries are often not those struggling with the basics of civil government and policing.
No, they are established western societies, throughout Europe and in the U.S.
Have you noticed when there are raids on the brothels in these countries, that when the police do a sweep of the red light areas, so many of those arrested appear to come from thousands of miles away? How did they get there?
Is the so-called massage parlor operating in your neighborhood, sometimes brazenly touting the services of teenage Asian girls, really journey’s end for a wretched trip that began continents away?
This is a story which truly touches many parts of the world.
The current rates of return ensure that the people trafficking business will continue to grow, unless there is a concerted effort and will to stop it, by governments around the world.
The UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime reports that human trafficking is the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world – now tied with arms smuggling and trailing only the illicit drug trade. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says human trafficking crosses cultures and continents.
CNN will use the full range of our international resources to track and champion this story. We will be in the countries where people are abducted, traded and passed into the hands of the smugglers. We will follow the routes as people are ruthlessly moved to areas where they can generate the highest return on investment.
And we will be at the end of the line where men, women and boys and girls are over-worked, raped and abused, and when no longer of value, discarded.
It is a story which is shocking and tough.
But there are also many examples of great courage and inspiration. Of people who have made a stand, of groups who at great personal risk have taken the fight to the criminals. And of individuals who have found freedom, and have not let their experience break them.
We want to highlight these important victories, these triumphs of human spirit.
There are many fine groups and individuals doing outstanding work to help trafficking victims.
Organizations like Anti-Slavery International, Free the Slaves, International Justice Mission, ECPAT, Not For Sale and Polaris Project have fearless team members at the frontlines, risking their lives in lawless lands, to help those most vulnerable.
CNN will be proud to work with many of them as we put our resources behind this project throughout 2011.
Because human trafficking is a shameful trade that must be stopped.