The opening scene of “Not My Life,” a documentary that will be screened at an Aug. 20 Minnesota International Center event, is a cacophony of concerned voices speaking about a modern-day scourge: human trafficking, the subject of this month’s “Great Decisions” dialogue.
But beyond these voices, it’s the printed words, written in white on a stark black background, that speak volumes. “Human trafficking is slavery,” say the words.
Any doubt is put to rest by witnessing the wretched lives of those profiled: the “fishing boys of Lake Volta,” Ghanaian youth enslaved in dangerous fishing practices; kids scavenging amid garbage in a toxic New Delhi landfill; Romanian and Cambodian girls stolen and sold into the global sex trade; child soldiers kidnapped to fight in Africa for the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army.
There is more, and it’s tough stuff.
And even though the film’s finish offers some relief in the form of rescue efforts, the documentary doesn’t gauze over the hard fact that in real life, most modern slave masters go unpunished.
The statistics are staggering. According to the State Department’s 2013 “Trafficking in Persons Report,” only around 40,000 victims worldwide were identified in 2012, out of an estimated 26 million men, women and children who suffer “modern slavery.”
This impunity endures despite the U.S. government funding global anti-human-trafficking initiatives to help governments intervene in the process. That appropriate global focus, as well as the visceral images of victims in “Not My Life,” can lull local observers into thinking that it doesn’t happen here.
But it does.
This brutal truth was made apparent on Monday, when the FBI announced that it had concluded the latest busts in its decadelong Innocence Lost National Initiative. During a three-day, 76-city raid to combat child prostitution, it rescued 105 youth — mostly girls aged 13 to 17 — and arrested 150 pimps. Since 2003, the campaign has rescued more than 2,700 children in America.
“The average person thinks that this is what happens in Thailand or Indonesia, but it actually happens here,” said Rep. Erik Paulsen, a Republican representing Minnesota’s Third District. “The truth is that it is happening in our back yard, and not just in urban cities, but out in the country,” added Paulsen, who has seen the effects of human trafficking up close during police ride-alongs he’s taken in his district.
In fact, one of the victims and four of the pimps swept up in the FBI raids were from Minneapolis. Paulsen points out that the FBI has identified the Twin Cities as among the top 13 places for child prostitution and that a 2010 study estimated that on an average weekend night in Minnesota, 45 girls under the age of 18 are sold online or through escort services. Overall, Paulsen’s office reports that between 8,000 and 12,000 people are involved daily with prostitution and sex trafficking in Minnesota.
Paulsen realizes this is not usually a topic of Minnesota Nice conversations. “This is an issue that people are uncomfortable talking about,” Paulsen said from his Washington office. So instead of talk, Paulsen is trying action. On July 18, he and Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., co-sponsored a bill, “The Child Sex Trafficking Data and Response Act of 2013.”
Among the bill’s big aims is to require that child welfare agencies immediately notify authorities when a child goes missing from home, a foster home or a shelter so the information can go into a national database that can be used to track and locate these kids.
And it seeks to alter the government’s view of these children — categorizing them as victims, not runaways — in the hope that they can avoid jail and re-entry into the illegal sex trade.
“Policymakers and law enforcement want to be tough on prostitution,” Paulsen said. “But these are young girls often entering [the trade] at 12-14 years old, middle-school years, who are very vulnerable.
“We have to make sure there is not a system of fear where they will be inhibited from seeking help because they might be punished in some way,” he said. “They have years of youth left to live a promising life. Treating them as victims at that age is critical in giving them the confidence that they can break free.”
It’s too early to gauge the prospects for Paulsen’s bipartisan bill.
The same goes in the Senate, where similar legislation is co-sponsored by three Republicans and three Democrats.
But even in this era of partisan paralysis, Congress should be able to coalesce on this. Because if Congress can’t come together to protect our kids and provide an example to other countries where human trafficking is most egregious, Washington truly is broken.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 7:50 a.m. weekdays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. The Star Tribune Editorial Board and the Minnesota International Center are partners in “Great Decisions,” a monthly dialogue discussing foreign-policy topics.