An estimated 40 million people are enslaved worldwide. One in four of those are children, and women and girls account for 71 percent of all victims. Forms of slavery include forced labor, forced marriage and sexual exploitation.
How do we work toward solving this human rights catastrophe? The answer lies in listening to the survivors of this dark and pervasive crime.
“Survivors know exactly how trafficking works, and when they [government and law enforcement] listen to us, they take proper action,” said Harold D’Souza, U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking co-chair and cofounder of Eyes Open International, an organization that promotes awareness and education about human trafficking. “We know how to talk to victims and to protect them.”
If anyone understands how human trafficking — also known as modern-day slavery — works, how traffickers think, act, and operate, it is the survivors of these inhumane offenses. A sexually exploited teenage girl knows how traffickers use technology to lure young victims. A man forced into labor knows victims can be trapped working at gas stations and in restaurants. A woman brought into the country at 10 years old bound behind closed doors in domestic servitude knows what signs to look for.
The Council Takes a New Approach
Recognizing the power of survivor voices to overcome this inhumane crime, the Federal Government created the U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking in 2015 under the Justice for Victims Trafficking Act that passed that same year. The Council provides expertise and recommendations to federal agencies to improve anti-human trafficking practices, training, education and victim services delivery. The Council is groundbreaking in many ways: it is the first of its kind in the world, and also the first time survivors have had a voice on such a high-profile body in Federal Government.
The Council consists of 11 members (see “Resources” below for full list) who are all survivors, and were selected based on their leadership fighting human trafficking across the country. “They say we [survivors] are voiceless, but we are not,” said Tina Frundt, councilmember and founder of Courtney’s House—an organization serving sexually exploited teens. “The movement was created based on our pain and suffering that we’ve shared with the world so others don’t have to suffer like we did.”
The seeds of the Council were planted long before President Obama facilitated its creation. Many survivors, including Councilmember Frundt, testified before prior administrations with the hope of giving survivors an opportunity to provide their expertise.
The Council’s Accomplishments
The Council’s purpose is to advise government and policymakers how to create a holistic system that addresses all aspects of human trafficking. From the beginning, the Council organized itself into five committees to address different areas of need within government. They are: rule of law, public awareness, victim services, labor laws and grant making.
In their short two-year term, Councilmembers worked tirelessly. One of their main goals was to educate the public. Although trafficking is the second largest illicit industry in the world after drug trafficking, many people — including government and law enforcement — remain naïve to what trafficking looks like in the field, how to respond to it when they see it, and how to provide survivors with the best possible services to support their healing.
To address this lack of awareness, the Council partnered with federal agencies that are part of the President’s Interagency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Human Trafficking (PITF) — such as the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Health and Human Services, to name a few — to institute new and improved practices that prevent, identify and interrupt human trafficking. For example, Councilmembers worked with the Department of Education on the first human trafficking awareness toolkit for university students so they know what trafficking looks like and how to protect themselves and their fellow students.
In 2016, Councilmembers produced the first-ever assessment of the various government agency department trainings, programs and other materials, and made recommendations for improvements. They also factored in results from the national Survivors Voices Survey they issued to learn directly from the survivor community writ large about the most valuable kind of support our system should provide to them. While many foundational materials exist within different divisions, the Council discovered inconsistencies in how language is used to describe human trafficking, which creates confusion about what human trafficking is and looks like. They also recommended creating standardized questions to ask victims to avoid re-traumatizing them, and to identify victims who may not know they are being trafficked. Other highlights of the Council’s recommendations include:
- Improve law enforcement training on human trafficking of all kinds;
- Get input from survivors about how to run trafficking investigations;
- Include a more diverse representation of survivors and the types of trafficking in public awareness efforts since not all victims look the same, and there are many forms of slavery;
- Provide comprehensive services — psychological, medical and safe housing, for example — to survivors;
- Offer better job training and employment opportunities to survivors; and
- Guarantee adequate funding for survivor leadership and empowerment programs, such as the one run by Councilwoman Shelia White who trains law enforcement on how to handle human trafficking cases.
Never Give Up on the Enslaved
The Councilmembers’ journey wasn’t easy. These dedicated individuals work full-time jobs, have families, and live in different parts of the country. Oddly, the government does not pay them for their time. Many wonder what message this sends from a government that claims it is fighting human trafficking, but does not pay survivors for their work. Councilmembers hope the government will pay the next Council for their invaluable services. At the same time, members have, for obvious reasons, committed their lives to fighting slavery.
The most important message Councilmembers shared during their tenure is that we must engage survivors at every level if we’re going to make a dent in human trafficking.
“Harriett Tubman escaped slavery, but that didn’t mean she could give up on those who weren’t free,” said Evelyn Chumbow, councilmember, Human Trafficking Legal Center advisor and a board member for Free the Slaves, an organization working to end slavery. “Survivor voices are needed to educate about how trafficking starts if we are going to prevent it.”
Most of the agencies were willing collaborators with the Council, but some were not. Another important message from the Council is that collaboration across the board is key to fighting human trafficking.
“We want Department of Labor to open the door to survivors,” said Shandra Woworuntu, councilmember and founding director of Mentari Human Trafficking Survivor Empower Program Inc. “Accept our teamwork and give us an opportunity to work together.”
The First Council Makes Progress
This past January 5—the last day of the current Council’s term—Councilmembers presented their second and final report to leaders in the anti-human trafficking movement, including the State Department, United States Agency for International Development, Airline Ambassadors International and Freedom Network USA. Overlooking the Washington Monument and National Mall from the top-floor offices of a law firm, the Council provided a compelling status update on the implementation of their recommendations.
The update included several important advancements Councilmembers drove forward. Notably, the Council advised certain agencies on a new national housing initiative for human trafficking survivors regarding services that would be most critical to support those escaping their circumstances. They worked with the Department of Labor to employ survivor trainers who will increase the detection of trafficking in the workplace. And they helped the Department of Education represent the many types of trafficking and diverse individuals in their public awareness efforts.
Select Councilmembers also took two trips: the first to Minnesota to learn from the local community and create awareness about meaningful survivor engagement, and the second to Washington State to hear from tribal communities about their anti-trafficking efforts and how the Federal Government can help them.
In addition to these accomplishments, the creation of the Council itself is a monumental step to end human trafficking. After all, there has never been survivor input at the federal level until it was formed. The hope is that the Council will serve as a model for other countries to prevent trafficking, provide appropriate services to survivors, and enable countries to work more closely together to prevent the destruction of millions of lives.
What Does the Future Hold?
Human trafficking is the human rights crisis of our day. It runs across borders, cultures, demographics, and social classes—African, South American, Asian, Eastern European, young, old, male and female.
At the January meeting, Councilmembers shared their hopes for the future in the fight against trafficking and made a persuasive case for why the Council is critical to extinguishing slavery. Most earnestly believe the Council can be a force for good if the government makes an ongoing commitment to hold space for survivors.
The Council will continue to push to hear the voices of survivors. “When people find out you’re a survivor, they treat you like a survivor. But we want to be treated like people who can rise and grow,” said D’Souza. “We are real human beings with families and passion and dreams. But we need support from the community to help rebuild our lives.”
Councilmember Shelia White is clear about what she believes needs to happen. “Less talk and more action! There are victims every day. Let’s actually do the work to reach them.” She wants to see empowered survivor leadership, which means giving survivors the time and support they need to do this important work while also being available for their families and their lives. “Survivor trauma affects the whole family and the people supporting them,” said White.
One thing is clear: instituting the Council as a permanent government body is essential to advance the inaugural Council’s momentum. Human trafficking has historically been a bi-partisan issue, and the Trump Administration has in the past been committed to the fight. Given the Administration’s current tone on human rights, it remains to be seen whether Trump will make the Council a priority. There is no question it should be if we are going to overcome this malicious crime and spare countless lives.
- Learn more about the Council’s work here.
- Get a full list of the 11 Councilmembers.
- Visit Polaris’ site for a list of simple actions you can take to make a difference in an enslaved person’s life.
- Learn more about types of human trafficking in The Typology of Modern Slavery researched and written by Brittany Anthony, data researcher for Polaris’s data analysis program; Jennifer Kimball Penrose, director of Polaris’s data analysis program; and Sarah Jakiel, chief program officer of Polaris.