Victim-Centered Approach Is Key To Fighting Human Trafficking

By David Anthony Denny
USINFO Staff Writer

Washington - A Justice Department official and representatives of nongovernmental organizations involved in combating trafficking in persons say a "victim-centered approach" to the problem is crucial to prosecuting perpetrators and rescuing victims.

Testifying at a March 26 hearing of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Grace Chung Becker cited the formation of the Justice Department's Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit, which uses such an approach.

The new unit works closely with U.S. attorneys’ offices and human trafficking task forces around the country.  These task forces are composed of federal, state and local law enforcement authorities, plus nongovernmental organization personnel who provide necessary services to trafficking victims.

"We work together to ensure the victims’ safety and housing, to see that their medical and psychiatric needs are taken care of, and - for our foreign victims - to cooperate in normalizing their immigration status," said Becker.  "This victim-centered approach works," she added.

Working with U.S. attorneys’ offices, Becker said, the Civil Rights Division has increased court-filed human trafficking cases since 2001 by 600 percent.


A key U.S. tool in the fight against human trafficking is the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA). This law makes adult victims of severe forms of trafficking who have been certified by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services eligible for benefits and services to the same extent as refugees.  Victims of severe forms of trafficking who are under 18 years of age also are eligible for benefits to the same extent as refugees but do not need to be certified.

However, Katherine Kaufka, an attorney with the National Immigrant Justice Center, said statistics show that enforcement efforts have fallen short of the law’s goal of identifying victims and tracking down and prosecuting traffickers operating in the United States.

"We believe that a principal cause of this failure is that the burdens placed upon the victims are too high," said Kaufka, referring to the requirement for HHS certification for protection.

Kaufka listed three areas in which she believes the law needs adjustment: providing greater protection for victims and their families; ensuring that victims who make an effort to cooperate with law enforcement are adequately protected; and responding to the special needs of children who are victims of human trafficking.

One example Kaufka cited was a teenage girl from India who at first was reluctant to cooperate with law enforcement because the traffickers had threatened to hurt her younger sisters in India if she ever went to the police.

“We recommend that victims of trafficking who cooperate with law enforcement have the option to be united with family to support them through the legal process,” said Kaufka. “If those family members reside outside the United States, they should be allowed to enter the U.S. temporarily to aid the prosecution's efforts. This change to the law will not only enhance victim protection and rehabilitation, it will simultaneously facilitate cooperation between victims and law enforcement, leading to more successful prosecutions of criminal traffickers."

Martina Vandenberg, an attorney in private practice and author of three reports on trafficking in persons, said that although Congress, the executive branch and nongovernmental organizations have worked together to assist victims and bring traffickers to justice, gaps do still exist, and traffickers continue to operate with impunity in those gaps.  Holding traffickers accountable for their human rights violations can only be done when their victims are safe, secure and able to rebuild their lives, Vandenberg said.

“By focusing on the human rights and fundamental needs of the victims,” said Vandenberg,” we can close off the zones of impunity in which the traffickers thrive.”

Holly Burkhalter, vice president of government relations for the International Justice Mission, focused her testimony on the need for greater enforcement not only of the TVPA, but also the 1988 labor rights and anti-slavery provisions in the Trade Act, which linked U.S. trade benefits to recipients' abolition of slavery and child labor, and the Millennium Challenge Act, which tied access to U.S. aid to meeting a standard of good governance that included ending corruption - "a key factor in the existence of slavery today," Burkhalter said.

"The most difficult and significant work for this Congress is to insist on the execution of existing law that we have in our hands today that speaks directly to the enduring, contemporary crime of human trafficking and slavery," said Burkhalter.  "If supported and enforced, these statutes could contribute substantially toward the abolition of these crimes in our lifetime."

Subcommittee Chairman Dick Durbin noted that there are now 117 signatories to the U.N. Protocol To Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, and many of these countries have passed tough anti-trafficking laws in the past few years, including the United States.

"If there is any silver lining to this tragic problem, it is that the world has now opened its eyes," he said.

The full text of Durbin's remarks and testimony by Becker, Kaufka, Vandenberg and Burkhalter can be found on the subcommittee Web site.

For further information, see Human Smuggling and Trafficking.

The full text of the State Department’s 2006 Trafficking in Persons report is accessible on the department’s Web site.