By Jesse Eaves, Special to CNN
Editor’s Note: Jesse Eaves is non-profit World Vision’s policy adviser for children in crisis. He is based in Washington, D.C.
When 16-year-old Kyaw left his home and a life of poverty in Myanmar five years ago, he vowed he would never return. He was on a quest to find a steady job, and he’d heard that he could earn up to $150 a month if he traveled across the border to a fishing port in Thailand.
However, what he discovered would soon make him wish he had never left. Kyaw had been trafficked onto a Thai fishing boat operating illegally in Indonesian waters, and, according to him, the conditions were worse than those on an 18th century slave ship.
“They allowed us to sleep only about one hour per day,” said Kyaw.
Surrounded by a crew with guns, he and his fellow workers were treated as animals.
When we think of trafficking today, images of young girls forced to work in dark, back-alley brothels in Bangkok or Phnom Penh often come to mind.
But the issue of trafficking is much broader than that.
Article 3 of the United Nations’ protocol against trafficking describes it as “the recruitment, transportation…or harboring…of a person…to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person for the purpose of exploitation.” (More on how slavery is defined)
And a new report from World Vision in southeast Asia found that for every one person forced to work in the global sex trade, nine are forced to work for little or no wages in dirty, dangerous, and often demeaning jobs. The sale of people into labor has now become the most common form of human trafficking in the world.
In Thailand and Malaysia, the fishing business is a multi-billion dollar industry. Young men and boys are often recruited from poor villages in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar onto boats where they are literally imprisoned at sea. Escapees have reported being drugged to work harder, threatened at gun point, seeing colleagues killed, not receiving a salary, and being beaten, starved, and worked nearly to death.
Ten years after the adoption of the U.N.’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) protocol, many in the international community have taken significant steps to combat trafficking. However, trafficking for labor exploitation is generally still not considered as severe a crime as sex trafficking, and since many of these victims, like Kyaw, do not have access to assistance or justice, their traffickers remain free to exploit others.
In the United States
In the United States, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) is the centerpiece of our country’s policies against modern-day slavery.
It is the largest piece of human rights legislation in U.S. history, creating the first comprehensive federal law to address human trafficking both here in the United States and around the world. The TVPA provides a three-pronged approach to trafficking: prevent vulnerability, protect survivors and prosecute human traffickers.
Because the methods of these perpetrators and the needs of survivors are constantly evolving, the law must evolve with it. The TVPA is currently set to expire September 30, 2011. If Congress does not reauthorize the bill, the United States’ fight against slavery will be weakened and for millions of children and adults trafficked every year, their story might not end the same way Kyaw’s did.
After six months imprisoned on the Thai fishing boat, Kyaw and his friends were desperate to escape. One night, they jumped into the water and tried to huddle together, but the waves separated them. Hours later, Kyaw was picked up by an Indonesian fishing boat and eventually sent to Bali where they waited in immigration detention for a year before World Vision was eventually able to help reunite Kyaw with his family in Myanmar.
The International Labor Organization estimates that every year, at least 1.2 million children like Kyaw are trafficked for labor around the world. The United States can and should do more to help end the illegal sale of children for sex and slave labor; that’s where U.S. citizens come in.
Now, with just a few weeks to go until the TVPA expires, it’s more important than ever that Americans tell the U.S. Congress that fighting trafficking is important to them.
Once their eyes are open to the realities of modern-day slavery, people often ask me: “But what can I do?” It’s actually quite simple; it only takes about 10 calls to a Congressional office to turn an invisible issue into a huge priority for Capitol Hill.
So raise your voices, spread the word, call your Congressional representative now and tell them to support this critical law. It’s up to you to ensure that this fight continues. Protecting children is not a right/left issue; it’s a right/wrong issue.
– The opinions expressed in this guest post are solely those of Jesse Eaves.