Rama was looking for a better life. A young woman in a war-torn Syria, Rama was working in a café when a man offered her a restaurant job in Lebanon with a much higher salary. Rama jumped at the opportunity. But instead of taking Rama to the well-paying job he promised, the man took Rama to a run-down brothel in a slum. Over the next nine months, Rama was beaten and forced into prostitution – one of as many as 75 women caught up in one of Lebanon’s largest sex trafficking rings. As Rama told a reporter, “We slept where we worked…the windows were painted black. We couldn’t see the light, or breathe the air outside.”
Describing her captor, the ringleader of this trafficking operation, Rama said, “It’s not that he made us feel like slaves – we were actual slaves…He beat me until I surrendered.” Rama eventually escaped this horror, but she is physically and emotionally shattered.
Rama is not alone. Sadly, her experience is far more common than most of us realize. An estimated 21 million people in more than 106 countries are reported trapped in modern slavery. This includes countless children. That is more than the population of Romania.
These are people living in some of the most horrifying conditions imaginable. We see children forced to make bricks in Peru, disentangle fishing nets in Ghana, or sold into prostitution in Southeast Asia. We see men held captive on fishing boats off the coast of Thailand, or women trapped as domestic workers in the Persian Gulf. No country is immune from this crisis. That includes the United States, where, despite our efforts to combat human trafficking, too many people are still falling victim to criminals who force them into prostitution or other types of work with no pay and no way out.
This is not just an issue of human dignity. It can also be an issue of peace and security. The groups responsible for human trafficking are all too often the same groups that send weapons and narcotics across our borders. Or they are terrorist organizations that finance their attacks by smuggling desperate people. According to the NGO Human Rights First, traffickers earn an estimated $150 billion every year. That is big money. And it is money that frequently ends up supporting illegal activities that we all want to stop.
This problem is only getting harder to solve. Today, criminal gangs take advantage of technology to prey on people – putting out fake job ads online and reaching out on social media to lure people into trafficking rings. When criminals want to sell the people they have enslaved, they can again turn to the Internet to find buyers more easily and with less risk of detection. Law enforcement often lacks the resources and training to penetrate these online networks and find the people who need help.
We must do better. Standing up to modern slavery and forced labor is a core element of foreign policy. It demonstrates our unwavering commitment to human rights and the fact that everyone, regardless of where they come from, has the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” That is why each year, the State Department produces a dedicated report on Trafficking in Persons, along with just-released annual Human Rights Report. Both reports reflect our ongoing commitment to advancing human dignity.
I would urge all of you to read these reports and act on their recommendations to help promote accountability for violations and abuses.
A few weeks ago, President Trump made it clear that this administration will “focus on ending the absolutely horrific practice on human trafficking.” Already, our government has many people at work on this problem, but we will be devoting even more resources to the fight.
There are many proposals out there for how we can help. Our briefers have already discussed several important initiatives, including within the UN system. But I want to focus on just one new effort. In the coming weeks, the Department of State will launch an open and competitive process to fund transformational projects to reduce the prevalence of modern slavery under a new initiative called the “Program to End Modern Slavery,” which was recently signed into law and thanks in large part to the tireless efforts of U.S. Senator Bob Corker.
This initiative will seek to raise $1.5 billion to help countries break the trafficking rings and give support to survivors. The funding will come partly from the U.S. government, but unlike most assistance programs, the initiative will seek to raise most of its money from partners in foreign governments and in the private sector. That is important because ending modern slavery has to be a collective effort.
This new initiative will also spend its money on programs that show results. Groups that receive funding must set measurable goals, and they must target a 50 percent reduction in modern slavery for the population they will be working with. So the United States will lead in rallying donors to this new effort, and we will lead in identifying innovative programs that do the most good.
We cannot forget that when we help people trapped in modern slavery, we help restore human potential. At the State Department, for example, we now have an Advisory Council on Human Trafficking. This Council has 11 members that help advise the federal government on improving anti-trafficking policies. Some of these people manage businesses, others work at law firms, and others have founded non-governmental organizations. But what they all have in common is that all 11 of these Advisory Council members are survivors of human trafficking. They now dedicate their time and energy to keep others from suffering.
Their stories are a testament to what every man, woman, and child can achieve when they escape the exploitation of modern slavery. We need to give everyone who is trapped the chance to live their lives and live up to their potential. The United States is determined join with other Member States to make these efforts successful. Thank you.