State Department Releases Trafficking in Persons Report

Last week, the U.S. released its 2009 Trafficking in Persons Report, also called the TIP Report. The report, developed by the U.S. Department of State, describes situations involving trafficking for work in agriculture, construction, domestic work, fishing, mining and many other venues. Previous TIP reports conflated trafficking and sex work, luridly emphasizing ‘sex trafficking’ at the expense of forced labor.

Even more encouraging is that this report for the first time overtly distinguishes between sex work and trafficking, and acknowledging that adult sex workers who have chosen their work and are not subject to abuse are not trafficked.

The first TIP report produced by the Obama administration differs significantly from previous ones in that the introduction emphasizes that trafficking involves the use of force and coercion in all labor sectors. This is a significant change. For example, in 2008 under pressure from the United States, Cambodia passed what was called an anti-trafficking law. The report chides Cambodia’s lack of attention to labor abuses. Cambodia enforced only the criminalization of prostitution rather than addressing force and abuse in factories and other workplaces. After the law was passed, brothels were raided and closed and the men and sex workers were arrested and sent to rehabilitation camps, but no services like job skills training were offered at the former Khmer Rouge prison and torture center. Pictures showed people padlocked into an overcrowded cell. Women reported being raped by the police and three people were beaten to death in custody. People imprisoned were denied access to medical treatment, including life-saving medications for HIV. International protests led to the release of the people detained. These abuses are justly condemned in the 2009 TIP Report.

The TIP Report distinguishes trafficking from sex work, but anti-trafficking programs still rely on less effective, even detrimental raids that traumatize the people rounded up without clearly distinguishing between trafficking and sex work.

Cambodian sex workers described terrifying police abuses during raids that did not actually address trafficking. Sex workers in India described similar fear and abuse in anti-trafficking raids carried out by non-governmental organizations in which the children of sex workers who were not themselves sex workers were removed from their parents’ homes. The U.S. government itself continues to rely on raids that lead to the arrest and detention of sex workers and trafficked women, counter to its own advice not to detain crime victims to other countries.

I wrote a report for the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center that documents that raids traumatize trafficked persons and discourage people from cooperating with prosecution efforts. The latest group to be charged with trafficking in the U.S. are men who guarantee a sex worker a certain number of appointments. No force or coercion was involved.

I deeply respect Lou deBaca, the State Department’s Ambassador-at-Large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, who is extremely experienced investigating and handling trafficking cases. I look forward to the changes he will bring to U.S. enforcement, as have been brought to the TIP Report.

Melissa Ditmore was the inaugural Chair of the Advisory Board of the Sex Workers Project and is currently on the boards of the Global Network of Sex Work Projects and Sex Work Awareness. Dr. Ditmore is the editor of the Encyclopedia of Prostitution and Sex Work (Greenwood Press, 2006) as well as the annual journal Research for Sex Work.

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