Today marks World Day Against Trafficking in Persons and I want to offer my thoughts on this critically important topic.
Few of the issues we face as a global community rise to the importance of combating trafficking in persons. We often discuss this scourge in terms of numbers of victims rescued or traffickers prosecuted, or the amount of money spent on those efforts. Those are all important statistics, but they do not always communicate the devastating cost that trafficking has on individual people.
Let me put the issue in very human terms.
Last April I made a trip to Anuradhapura where I met a gentleman at an event hosted by USAID’s anti-trafficking partner, the SAFE Foundation. He tearfully told me about his wife who went to earn money for her family as a domestic worker in a Middle Eastern country, leaving him and their children back in Sri Lanka as she sought a better life for them. Just months after arriving, she fell ill. When she told the agency she wished to return to her home and family, she was told she would be required to complete another eight months of service and pay an exorbitant 400,000 rupees to leave. She was trapped.
Fortunately, her husband learned of the predicament she was in, and referred the case to the SAFE Foundation. Through SAFE’s advocacy with the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment, the family was reunited earlier this month.
The emotional and psychological toll on this family from the ordeal was clear on the man’s face as he shared his story. Today, I’m thankful that through our support to SAFE, he and his family are reunited and continue to heal.
Unfortunately, we know not every trafficking story ends in a happy ending; there are countless others who continue to be victims .
U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said it well in this year’s State Department report on trafficking in persons when he wrote, (quote) “Human trafficking is an affront to our foundational values.”
That’s why fighting human trafficking in all its forms is a U.S. priority.
As we celebrate 75 years of bilateral partnership with Sri Lanka, our joint work with your nation to fight trafficking strengthens our national bonds. Our work together makes both our countries and the South Asia region safer.
We fight trafficking in Sri Lanka on a number of fronts.
USAID’s work with the SAFE Foundation is one of our main efforts. We also work to enhance Sri Lanka’s security through our Office of Defense Cooperation, which has donated three former U.S. Coast Guard cutters and other equipment and provided training and exercises for the Sri Lanka Navy and Coast Guard to crack down on all forms of trafficking.
I’m particularly pleased this year that Sri Lanka maintained its status on the State Department’s annual report ranking anti-trafficking efforts by country. The Sri Lankan government showed it remains actively engaged in battling trafficking in persons. Still, there is more to be done.
Among the report’s several recommendations to Sri Lanka for continued progress, I want to highlight three that speak directly to the human elements of trafficking.
The first is to increase efforts to investigate, prosecute, and penalize traffickers – including labor traffickers. The other two focus on the trafficking victims. One is to do better to proactively identify those victims, and the other is to improve the quality and accessibility of victim services – so that survivors can recover physically and emotionally.
Each year, thousands of Sri Lankans migrate for economic opportunity. These individuals who are searching for a better life should not find themselves in bondage to unscrupulous employment agencies or otherwise exploited. As we mark this important day, let’s always remember to emphasize the “human” in human trafficking.
Our goal shouldn’t be to turn the tears of sorrow I witnessed in April to tears of joy, but to prevent any tears at all by working to eliminate this most personal of crimes against humanity.