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W4 interviews Siddharth Kara, Author of “Sex Trafficking, Inside the Business of Modern Slavery”

Women's WorldWide Web



Siddhart Kara

You left your corporate job as an investment banker in order to pursue a career in research and advocacy for the contemporary abolitionist movement. What prompted you to make such a change and to dedicate your career to understanding and fighting modern-day slavery?


When I started my research, I didn’t imagine myself as part of any particular movement. In fact, in late 1999-2000, there really wasn’t much of a movement on this issue, so I really launched off on my own (my work was entirely self-funded for the first ten years) to research and understand the various forms of servitude and trafficking around the world, from the worst forms of child labor to debt bondage to labor and sex trafficking. I wanted to understand these problems in a strategic, economic and business-modeling light, in order to make some argument about what could be done, type by type, region by region, to tackle these issues.


That’s how it started, but my motivation dates back much earlier. When I was an undergraduate student in the early 1990s, I spent one summer as a volunteer in a Bosnian refugee camp in the former Yugoslavia. I heard a lot of awful stories during that summer. Some stories involved Serbian soldiers who would go into Bosnian villages, execute the men and round up the women and girls and traffic them across the Balkans, and even beyond, into Western Europe.


I came back to the US, finished my degree and went on to get an MBA and a law degree. In 1999 I was working in the financial sector, but I was still very troubled by the stories of trafficking I had heard in Bosnia and I wanted to know if anything was being done about it. Was there any good research explaining what was happening, or how it was happening, or why it was happening?


I found some reports, mostly anecdotal, but nothing that struck me as good analysis or proffered any sort of argument. I thought, maybe I have a background that makes me well-suited for this sort of research and advocacy. I could at least give it a try. I certainly had no idea what would come of it when I took my first trip almost twelve years ago.


In your book, you say that one of the chief obstacles in the effort to combat sex trafficking has been confusion over the definition of sex trafficking. You mention the linguistic attenuation of the term “sex trafficking”. And you talk of the need to disaggregate the criminal acts that constitute sex trafficking, in order to combat these crimes more effectively. Can you tell us a little about the progress that has been made on this front?


The term “human trafficking,” or “sex trafficking,” has created a great deal of confusion because it implies movement, migration, smuggling—and this confusion has misdirected efforts to tackle the problem. In human/labor/sex trafficking, movement is, ultimately, incidental. People might cross many national borders over many months and years, or they might cross no borders at all. The point of human trafficking is not movement but exploitation, slave-like exploitation.


This is the argument I have been making wherever I have been invited to speak since my book came out. Globally, there’s a strong attachment to the term “human trafficking” — partly this is owing to inertia, because it’s the term everyone is familiar with, but there is also a desire to link the issue to migration and use the issue as a platform for migration approaches and policies. That’s been a real problem.


There has been some progress, though.  A few years ago, in its annual “Trafficking in Persons Report”, the US State Department conceded: “Well, we have to be clear that movement is ultimately not the point and it is incidental. The point is whether there is some form of forced labor or exploitation.” But of course they still stick to the term “human trafficking.”


I wish there had been more progress in terms of reframing laws and terminology in order to be more accurate in describing what’s happening and to disaggregate “movement” from “exploitation”. I think it has happened intellectually in some important circles, but, by and large, in terms of general awareness and in terms of policy and law, there hasn’t been much progress.


Siddarth Kara, Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Moder SlaveryYour book analyzes sex slavery from an economic and business perspective and you discuss the converging macro- and micro-economic factors that have led to the rise in sex trafficking. You argue that globalization in particular has aggravated the prevalence of this crime and you talk about it in a refreshingly direct way. Could you say a little about this?


The last two decades in particular, from an economic globalization standpoint, have been characterized by the crumbling of physical and virtual borders so that the movement of everything, from capital to people, is generally easier to accomplish. But underneath all that there has been, particularly throughout the 1990s, a great deal of economic turmoil in many developing regions—the former Soviet Bloc, of course, East Asia, Latin America, South Asia. Throughout the developing world, the birth of the new economic globalization (beginning with the fall of the Berlin Wall) was characterized by this mass relocation of resources, capital and wealth from developing economies into developed economies. In its worst days, there was a real corporate raider effect—as to whether it was conscious or unconscious, only the people in the room know. Either way, the net result was this plundering of resources and capital during very fragile times of transition for many developing countries, which led to all kinds of chaos for people at the very bottom end of the economic ladder. This catalyzed mass migration, which traffickers were able to exploit quite efficiently.


We also have to remember that human trafficking isn’t something new. The process of acquiring, transporting and exploiting vulnerable women, children and men has been going on for millenia. Now, in the modern context, it’s accomplished in far more efficient and profitable ways than in the past because of the speed of transportation and the ability to exploit labor in any number of industries. But the phenomenon itself is as old as human history. It’s just that these forces in the last couple of decades have put that same ancient formula on steroids. That’s really the role that globalization has had to play. And it’s not just in developing countries. We see now, even in developed countries, the extreme market economy principles that lead to great asymmetries in wealth, to the great boom and bust cycles that are causing problems in Western Europe and the United States. We had this huge global economic cataclysm in 2008, 2009 and 2010 that affected everyone, except probably the top 1 to 5 percent, and maybe this will repeat itself in coming years. We are seeing some protests with the Occupy Movement in the United States, in England with the riots of 2011, and in other European countries that are clearly developed economies, but the model remains highly unfavorable for those at the bottom of the ladder and very favorable for those at the top.


What has been the response to the events and processes you’ve just described, and to what you’ve been doing with your lobbying work?


Siddharth Kara: Well, the response depends on the audience. Some people don’t really have a hard time understanding these larger global economic forces. When I sit in front of government officials, they’re usually a bit less interested in the globalization argument and more interested in what they can do from a policy or law standpoint.  Along the lines of: “That’s fine; I don’t need to spend my time doing a critique of globalization. Let’s get to the business of trying to deal with trafficking.” That tends to be the focus.


It’s funny, how different the responses can be. I was recently in Singapore and Malaysia, where the US State Department sent me to advise the governments there on human trafficking (which was in itself quite something; it’s a strong statement of commitment to this issue by the US government). There was more than one moment, particularly in Malaysia, when their governments were really interested in this critique of globalization and less concerned about policies. It’s important to note, from a standpoint of understanding some of the forces that have brought us to this place. But attenuating those forces isn’t going to solve the problem in the near term, so we have to think of many ways of tackling this issue.


You explain that gender bias has been a huge factor contributing to the vulnerability of women and children to sex trafficking. You also highlight the correlation between gender bias and the prevalence of violence against women (particularly in rural areas) and girls’ and women’s vulnerability to sex trafficking. In your opinion, how important are girls’ and women’s empowerment efforts in the struggle to end sex trafficking?  Could you cite particular examples?


Yes, this is a very important point. Things we can’t lay at the doorstep of globalization are the deep systemic and sociocultural biases against females that you find in many places around the world that are very active origin regions for sex trafficking victims. These are very powerful forces, as I try to make clear in my book. Certainly, the lack of educational opportunities, economic opportunities, and basic rights are very powerful forces that can make women, and even children, vulnerable to being trafficked or exploited in any number of ways. Whether it’s in South Asia or Eastern Europe or Africa or Latin America, wherever these forces are strongest, you see the greatest amount of exploitation and vulnerability to being trafficked.


Efforts focused on empowering women and girls, with education, with rights, with economic opportunities, are extremely important—particularly when they are tied to efforts to make communities aware of the value of a woman. That value can be enhanced if a woman is educated, if she participates economically on at least something close to equal footing with men. When these comprehensive efforts are made, the results are invaluable and very beneficial. I’ve seen this, typically on a pretty small scale, maybe in a small village in Nepal where an NGO is working, or with some micro-credit efforts in Eastern Europe or East Asia focused on women. These women become economic contributors. They become empowered.  Rather than having six babies and then having very little value after that, these women are able to contribute economically and become literate. And this makes them, without question, less vulnerable to all kinds of exploitation—certainly less vulnerable to trafficking. The old cycle is brutal: a woman, then her daughter, and her daughter in turn, none of them ever getting a foot on the ladder. The value that lies in these girls and women being educated and becoming economically empowered is obvious. It takes time, but these kinds of efforts, wherever I’ve seen them, are absolutely invaluable.


Will you share with us one or two success stories of girls and/or women who were liberated from sex slavery and explain how they managed to break out of enslavement?


First, it’s important to recognize that the success stories are very few and far between. The individuals who do get out and get their lives back on track in some sort of meaningful and sustained way are the rare few. The care for and protection of individuals who’ve been trafficked and exploited remain deeply insufficient and the stigma these people face as victims, as if they did something terribly wrong, is often a further blow—it keeps them completely disempowered and isolated and really limits their opportunities. But there are a few pockets of hope.


A handful of shelters have the right formula for providing safety and security as well as psychological counseling, education and, ultimately, vocational training, with the possibility of a job down the road—plus, of course, a support system to help with all the healing that’s needed along the way. A few shelters do this: there are various places that I’ve been to, and I’ve met some young girls who have found their way to getting an education and even getting a job and earning a safe living. Even when their families have rejected them, they’ve still found a way. I’ve seen it in South Asia. I’ve seen it in West Africa, even in Europe. But these are really the exceptions to the general trend, which is the deep and ongoing exploitation and disempowerment of these young women.


In your book, you list tactics and strategies for inverting the risk/reward economics of the sex trafficking industry. To what extent has progress been made in the different areas that you list?


Some of this argument is expanded, at least the legal penalty part of it, in a law paper that came out in the Northwestern Journal of International Human Rights, called “Designing More Effective Laws against Human Trafficking”. In this paper, I spell out the economic penalty argument in a bit more detail than I could cram into the book.


As for progress: I’ve been brought out to meet with several governments and to speak to and advise UN officials who deal with this issue. I make the same argument each time. It’s the argument that you find on the back of my book, about evaluating the cost and risk in the system of trafficking. Right now, it’s a near cost- and risk-free system of profit and exploitation. I don’t encounter many people who don’t see this doesn’t make sense. But, of course, changing it requires some action. What often happens is that the right kind of legislative action gets sidetracked into this migration-related dialogue or an ideological debate about prostitution versus trafficking; things just get kind of derailed. And, of course, action requires resources. The last two or three years particularly have been a resource-constrained environment for many governments.


I was in England when the Home Office was eliminating its Metropolitan Police’s human trafficking police unit. The head of that unit was a colleague and friend of mine and we made an argument to the Home Secretary (this was back in March or April of 2010) about why this was a terrible idea from the standpoint of maintaining some foothold against trafficking, keeping an eye out and investigating and intervening and prosecuting and convicting. The Home Secretary got it, she completely believed what we were saying, but the bottom line was budget cuts. That was the reality: the British government couldn’t afford the human trafficking unit.


What I’m trying to say is that everyone kind of “gets it,” but this issue has yet to be treated with the level of severity and given the priority it needs so that it doesn’t get cut. It’s maybe number eight or ten on the list of fifteen things that governments are tackling. So it has been an uphill battle from the resource standpoint.


You talk about measurements that are being implemented when it comes to drug trafficking and the huge differences in terms of penalties against drug trafficking and human trafficking, for example. How would you explain that difference? Why is priority given to taking measures and imposing penalties against drug trafficking rather than against sex trafficking?


The real answer is that no one had really sat down and bothered to analyze the crime of sex trafficking for many years. There was a great deal of anecdotal evidence and much sharing of horror stories. On the most cynical side, there were NGOs capitalizing on an issue of money and fundraising. And on the most well-meaning side, there were activists and NGOs trying to raise awareness but lacking the tools or background to practically analyze a crime and then make arguments. For many years, the scholarly community just wasn’t focused on this issue. No one had bothered to sit down and say, “Here’s how the crime works. Here’s the nature of the offense. Here’s the motivation behind it and here’s what the benefit is.” The perpetrators reap an economic benefit, and it’s a huge economic benefit.


Until you know that, you can’t design your policies and laws to respond to the nature of the crime. That’s why the first salvo of laws on this offense was completely off target. I think my work has started to shift the needle to the point where people recognize that this is driven not just by sadistic monsters acting cruelly, but by the desire, particularly amongst organized criminals, to make huge amounts of money. As with other economic crimes, the crime has to be recognized and effectively penalized. I think that shift is now occurring and there’s a greater appreciation of the need to more adequately analyze these various forms of servitude and trafficking around the world and then design laws and interventions based on that analysis.


Can you tell us a little about your current work?


I continued researching this issue after my book came out. I was in Nigeria in January (2011) researching sex trafficking. I’ve been back to Western Europe and South Asia, all over the world. But I’ve also focused on all the other forms of servitude and slavery – such as the trafficking of boys and men for forced labor, and even organ trafficking. As of last year, I documented the cases of more than 1,000 victims of trafficking and slavery in dozens of sectors and industries.


My next book focuses on one particular category of contemporary slavery, and that’s bonded labor in South Asia. Bonded labor overlaps with other forms of human trafficking, but this is a particular form of servitude – debt bondage – that’s existed for centuries in the region. At one point it was in existence all around the world, but now it persists largely in South Asia. As I said, I am continuing to research labor trafficking and other forms of trafficking, including organ trafficking. I have been working with the officials in the Department of Homeland Security on some organ trafficking research along the Texas-Mexico border.


This brings us back to the question of tactics and strategy. In your book you offer a very clear and compelling analysis. Have similar studies been done in the drug trafficking sector, regarding the cost/risk structure? And has there been any progress in terms of increasing the penalties and eroding the profitability?


Since my book has come out, there have been some countries that have either passed their first trafficking laws or amended their laws to include elevated economic penalties and things like asset forfeiture and restitution payments. (I don’t know whether these changes are related to my book or not.) Another argument I’ve made that seems to have caught hold is that there should be something called a private right of action for sex trafficking, or any trafficking. (Again: it may be based on my argument or simply happening independently.) Right now, trafficking is primarily prosecuted as a criminal offense, meaning that the state prosecutes the alleged offender; penalties are typically related to incarceration. A civil, private right of action would allow the victim to make a legal claim against their alleged offender and seek monetary damages, so then you would be adding yet another economic penalty to the system: the possibility of asset forfeiture or restitution payment.


This idea is starting to get out into the trafficking field. A couple of states in the United States have amended their laws to allow this, and a couple of other countries are thinking about it. And even some states in the US have, in the last year or two, elevated the economic penalties on the criminal law side against trafficking offenses. So, I think there’s an increasing realization that this is fundamentally an economic crime and it’s important to negate the economic benefit of the crime if we are going to have sufficient deterrence and retribution. That’s the whole point—otherwise the crime remains a financially enticing opportunity for potential offenders.


How can people in their everyday lives contribute to the fight to end modern-day slavery, and particularly sex trafficking?


If you want to try to combat sex trafficking, there are certain things you can do. If you want to try to tackle child labor or human trafficking in other industries, there would be another set of things you could do. Focusing on sex trafficking: I think the first thing to do is to accrue and spread some knowledge-based awareness. What I mean by that is not just awareness of the bad things that happen to people, nor the spreading of really sensational horror stories. There are sensational and horrific stories and spreading them around may make people very upset and concerned in the short term, but that emotion fizzles out unless it’s attached to some sort of coherent and practical plan or argument. I’ve seen this happen time and again.


I think it’s important to spread an awareness that’s based on analyses of the issue and offers some sort of argument or plan. That’s the first thing. The other very important thing that people can do—the other pieces of low-hanging fruit, as it were—is to find good NGOs in your area that are focused on some aspect of the issue and support these NGOs in some way, whether financially or through in-kind efforts. These organizations are typically under-staffed, under-resourced and under-appreciated. Helping on this level is a very direct way that people can be involved.


Then there’s the broader question: “How do we organize ourselves as everyday citizens into an effective movement?” There is a category of activities that must and can only take place at the higher levels of government and organizations, both local and international. Laws have to be passed, resources have to be allocated, states and regional organizations and international bodies have to focus on this issue. Until there’s a sufficient “bottom-up” demand that this happen—and “sufficient” is the important word here—this issue will be left to languish as number eight, nine, or ten on the list of things a government focuses on. It will be perpetually at the bottom of the list of issues that should be attended to during economically difficult times.


People have to find a way to organize themselves, not in a sensational movement, but in a rational, effective and argument-driven movement that demands action from their representatives, communities and lawmakers. To tackle sex trafficking more effectively, there has to be a statement of the moral priorities of a society in which everyday citizens, in sufficient numbers, declare it unacceptable: either you deal with this issue or you don’t represent us anymore as our elected officials. That hasn’t really happened yet. It’s a very fragmented movement. There hasn’t been a great unifying effort yet, which I think is owing to many factors and forces. People have to find a way to do that, and I think they can use knowledge, use technology, use communication to organize themselves.


Make contact with the law enforcement individuals in your region or area or city who deal with this issue.  It might be a five-person police unit team or just one or two police officers who are tasked with receiving complaints or investigations. And set up your own system of community vigilance; I talk about this in my book very briefly. There are indicators, signs that give away the fact that someone might be the victim of some form of trafficking, particularly sex trafficking. Just keep your eyes and ears open. If you see something, report back to the law enforcement person or unit that you made contact with, or report it to a local NGO. It may not sound like much, but this kind of community-based organizing and vigilance makes all the difference in advancing efforts to monitor and identify people who might be trafficked. There’s a whole host of things that people can do.  This is a list of some of the small things and some of the more organizational things that you can do.


Are you optimistic about the work that’s being done to combat human trafficking? Are you optimistic about the future?


My answer depends a little on which day you ask me, where I am or where I’ve just returned from. Some days I’m not too optimistic and I wonder why did I ever start down this path? Other days, actually, I do feel quite a bit of hope. I look back at the level of awareness that existed when I first started almost twelve years ago, and I look at the level of awareness now—it’s just worlds apart. There’s so much more knowledge of this issue and the issues surrounding it now, and this is a tremendously positive thing.


Many countries now have some laws or national action plans—and this just wasn’t the case when I started my research. The more I travel, the more I meet people, very smart people, who are really passionate about this issue. They are concerned and they want to do something, even if it’s only in their little corner of the world. They’re very committed and dedicated. That makes me feel hopeful.


If I’m speaking at a conference or out doing research somewhere, I’m more and more heartened by the awareness that everyday people have of this issue and their dedication to doing something about it. I think at some point the stars will align, things will fall into place, and we will pass over the hump of knowing about this but not being sufficiently effective at tackling this issue.  Eventually, we will become very effective at tackling this issue. The forces are in motion and the pieces are in play. As long as people continue advancing knowledge and making good efforts, I think we’ll get there.


© Women’s WorldWide Web 2012

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Meet the editor-in-chief

Andrea Ashworth

Andrea is an author, journalist and academic. She has studied, taught or held fellowships at Oxford, Yale and Princeton. Andrea has written fiction and non-fiction for numerous publications, including Vogue, Granta, The Times, The TLS and The Guardian. She is the author of the award-winning and internationally bestselling memoir "Once in a House on Fire". Andrea works to raise awareness about domestic violence and to promote literacy and education.