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Human Trafficking’s Hidden Toll
The Global Scourge Is Worse Than a Crime—It Is a Systemic Threat
By
Jamille Bigio and Rachel Vogelstein

June 8, 2021
The mother of a victim of human trafficking near Sittwe, Myanmar, May 2015 
Soe Zeya Tun / Reuters
In 2000, countries around the world signed on to the Palermo Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, a landmark agreement that defined the crime of human trafficking and required states to criminalize it. That same year, the United States passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, a groundbreaking law that provided the U.S. government with a new arsenal of tools to tackle human trafficking; governments all over the world soon followed suit and adopted similar laws.
But two decades later, the scourge of human trafficking persists. An estimated 25 million people worldwide are victims of forced labor and forced sexual exploitation. The majority of victims are women and girls. Human trafficking is a truly global phenomenon; it occurs in almost every country, including the United States, fueled by poverty, social marginalization, and weak criminal justice systems. The scale of the problem is only growing, exacerbated by the upheavals of migration and conflict and by the economic desperation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Policymakers often overlook human trafficking as ancillary to major challenges. But trafficking is more than a mere crime. Moreover, it is not just an effect of significant global problems but also a cause: it bolsters abusive regimes
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JAMILLE BIGIO is Senior Fellow for Women and Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.
RACHEL VOGELSTEIN is Douglas Dillon Senior Fellow and Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations
They are the co-authors of the forthcoming Council on Foreign Relations special report “Ending Human Trafficking in the Twenty-First Century.”
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