How to Stop Governments from Trafficking People

July 2, 2024
John Richmond

Common images of human trafficking often focus on pimps compelling their victims into commercial sexual exploitation or criminal networks targeting migrants seeking a better future. But what about when the trafficker is not an individual criminal, corporation, or cartel, but instead is a government? The United Nations (UN) estimated in 2022 that governments are trafficking at least 3.9 million people on any given day. These victims of state-sanctioned human trafficking constitute 14 percent of today’s estimated modern slavery victims.

On Monday, the US State Department released a new report that shines perhaps the strongest light yet on foreign governments’ human trafficking offenses.

Which governments are traffickers?

In 2019, the US Congress mandated that the State Department identify which governments have a policy or pattern of human trafficking. The new 2024 Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP Report) marks the fifth year the State Department has declared that governments exploit people in forced labor and sex trafficking.

Over the last five years, the State Department has identified thirteen countries engaged in this human rights violation, and nine governments have been on the list for all five years. In the 2024 TIP Report, thirteen countries are listed as traffickers, including China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and Russia. Sudan earned a spot on the list for the first time.

Governments trafficking people is a persistent problem

It should surprise no one that governments are trafficking people. For most of recorded history, monarchs, czars, emperors, sultans, pharaohs, chiefs, and other tyrants advancing their empires, governments, and central committees have driven the slave trade. Today, these trafficking patterns vary by country.

  • China: In China, the government forces Uyghurs to work in commercial facilities in Xinjiang and compels laborers in its Belt and Road Initiative around the world. China’s unapologetic embrace of slavery caused a unanimous US Senate to pass the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, known as UFLPA, which bars the importation of slave-made goods into the United States.
  • Cuba: The fact that Cuba rakes in eight billion dollars annually from its Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) is stunning. What is worse is that Cuba forces medical workers into the program, and the government siphons off the workers’ earnings. Cuban victims have sued PAHO in US federal courts, and Cuba has drawn condemnation from the international community. At the State Department rollout event for the 2024 TIP Report, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken conferred a “Trafficking in Persons Hero Award” to Maria Werlau, an activist fighting back against Cuba’s record of trafficking.
  • Eritrea: In Eritrea, the government forces the poor and vulnerable into extended terms of compelled government service. Those with resources and connections can avoid government-forced labor.
  • Turkmenistan: The government of Turkmenistan continues the old Soviet practice of forcing individuals to harvest cotton. The reforms by its neighbor Uzbekistan, which drastically reduced state-sanctioned forced labor in the cotton harvest—from 2.5 million victims in 2007 to eradicating forced labor in 2022—provide a helpful comparison. While Uzbekistan’s reforms have caused the Cotton Campaign and major fashion brands to lift their self-imposed ban on Uzbek cotton, the government of Turkmenistan has refused to use free, market-based laborers in its cotton harvest.

Typical interventions do not apply

The UN provides an estimate of 3.9 million state-sanctioned trafficking victims, and the TIP Report lists the offending countries. Yet, the world needs a plan to address this aspect of the human trafficking crisis. When dealing with individual traffickers or organized crime, the typical interventions include encouraging countries to increase victim identification, investigations, prosecutions, and convictions. To care for survivors, governments and civil society organizations must provide tailored services that appreciate the trauma traffickers inflicted. None of these interventions make sense when the government is the bad guy. It is absurd to ask Afghanistan or Burma to investigate itself or to hold itself accountable.

The path forward

Those focused on foreign policy and the plight of those whom governments abuse must find a new path forward. Interventions that may work to incentivize governments to cease enslaving people include:

  • Transparency and reporting: Exposing these abuses globally could motivate some countries to abandon forced labor. The TIP Report itself, along with other government and civil society reports, is an effort to shed light on these abuses.
  • Banning tainted products: Several countries are attempting to block slave-made goods from entering their markets. The United States, for example, relies on the Tariff Act and the new UFLPA. The European Union is poised to enact a new law banning all products made with forced labor from its markets this year.  
  • Sanctions: Countries can target individuals, companies, or other governments by imposing financial penalties, freezing assets, or refusing visas for engaging in forced labor. Global Magnitsky Act sanctions focus on human rights violators; the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act restricts Iran, North Korea, and Russia’s movement of money; and the TIP Report’s Tier 3 sanctions focus on countries that are not making significant efforts to meet antitrafficking minimum standards. While the effectiveness is debatable, many agree that the more narrowly targeted the sanctions, the more likely these efforts are to produce change.
  • Private sector incentives and disincentives: The private sector is often more agile than bureaucrats striving for change. The large fashion brands that pledged not to use Uzbek cotton made a significant impact when a reform-minded leader took to the helm of Uzbekistan’s government. Likewise, companies operating or sourcing from a country can engage in commercial diplomacy by building coalitions and using their investment to demand reforms. While public justice systems are central to stopping criminal traffickers, addressing state-sanctioned human trafficking requires foreign policy and advocacy solutions. The millions of people oppressed by their governments need people of goodwill to create new initiatives that shift exploitative government policies into processes that bring freedom.

By John Richmond
Chief Impact Officer of Atlas Free, Former US Ambassador-at-Large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons
Original article published in the Atlantic Council.