February 2022

Progress in Fight Against Human Trafficking

February 2, 2022    |  

While many advances have been made in the last two decades since landmark measures were put into place to combat human trafficking, a lot of work remains to be done and federal and international representation must continue to be involved.

From left, Susan G. Esserman and Kari Johnstone.

From left, Susan G. Esserman and Kari Johnstone.

That was the overriding theme of “Critical Updates: The Fight Against Human Trafficking, Federal & International,” a two-panel virtual program held Jan. 20. The conference was a collaboration between two centers at the University of Maryland Graduate School: the University of Maryland SAFE (Support, Advocacy, Freedom, Empowerment) Center for Human Trafficking Survivors led by founder and director Ambassador Susan G. Esserman, JD, and the Center for Global Engagement, under the leadership of assistant vice president Virginia Rowthorn, JD, LLM. The program was also hosted in collaboration with the Montgomery County Human Trafficking Prevention Committee and the Prince George's County Human Trafficking Task Force.

The purpose of the virtual gathering was to gain insights on recent developments in U.S. anti-trafficking policy and programs from experienced government officials at the Departments of Justice, Health and Human Services, and Homeland Security, and to host panel reviews on international issues in anti-trafficking.

“I'm just amazed at the people that we've been able to assemble, and I want to thank them,” said University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB) President Bruce E. Jarrell, MD, FACS, as he welcomed panel participants and the virtual audience. “This program is intended to provide you with critical updates in the fight against human trafficking, and there have been many advances. There still remain many challenges, but I think you'll be pleased to hear what some of the advances, what effects they've had in the field, as well as victims of human trafficking.”

Jarrell recalled meeting Esserman five years ago as she discussed the vision she had for creating the SAFE Center.

“This was a center and is a center that was aimed at fighting human trafficking, a crime that we all know is a grave violation of human rights,” Jarrell said. “I learned a lot about this crime from Ambassador Esserman. I learned that it's a problem in our own backyard. I learned that it's invisible to most of us. And as a result of her vision and drive, and her convincing me of this, I had the honor to help her establish this center as part of a partnership between two universities, the University of Maryland, College Park and the University of Maryland, Baltimore.”

An initiative of the University of Maryland, College Park (UMCP) and UMB through their formal collaborative program for innovation, University of Maryland Strategic Partnership: MPowering the State, the SAFE Center is a direct services, research, and advocacy center that provides a comprehensive and holistic response to help survivors move from crisis to wellness. Its mission is to empower trafficking survivors to heal and reclaim their lives, better support them through research and advocacy, and help prevent human trafficking. Through in-house support and collaborative partnerships, the center provides bilingual social, legal, mental health, economic empowerment, primary medical, and crisis intervention services to survivors of sex and labor trafficking of all genders, nationalities, and ages.

The center has worked with schools across both universities to provide services to several hundred human trafficking survivors and their family members, launched an innovative economic empowerment program for survivors, advocated for state anti-trafficking legislation, promoted state and local efforts to combat labor trafficking, implemented trafficking prevention workshops in local international high schools, and trained more than 5,000 professionals on human trafficking, Jarrell said.

Speakers included officials from the Departments of Justice, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, and Labor, as well as survivor leaders and other agencies and organizations. Senior official Kari Johnstone, PhD, MA, principal deputy director of the State Department Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, delivered the keynote.

In opening remarks kicking off the event, Esserman noted that 2020 marked the 20th anniversary of the adoption of the U.N. Palermo Protocol to prevent, suppress, and punish trafficking in human beings, especially women and children, and the landmark anti-trafficking legislation the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which established methods of prosecuting traffickers, preventing human trafficking, and protecting victims and survivors of trafficking. The act established human trafficking and related offenses as federal crimes.

“Although much progress has been made over the past two decades, there is broad recognition among government anti-trafficking advocates and survivors that a more comprehensive strategic approach with new tools is necessary to effectively combat trafficking locally, nationally, and internationally,” said Esserman, an international trade partner at the law firm of Steptoe & Johnson, where she also leads the firm’s pro bono program on behalf of survivors of human trafficking. During the Clinton administration, she served as deputy U.S. trade representative and assistant secretary of commerce.

‘You will hear today critical updates from government officials and survivor leaders with extensive experience on the front line of the fight against human trafficking. We hope this program will assist practitioners and survivors to better navigate and benefit from change policies and programs,” Esserman said, before introducing Johnstone.

“The last two years have not been easy ones,” said Johnstone, who advises senior officials on U.S. government policy and strategy to fight human trafficking around the world. “The COVID-19 pandemic has and continues to exacerbate economic inequality, particularly among historically and systemically marginalized groups, to create job insecurity in certain sectors, and to disrupt global supply chains. Traffickers operating around the world take advantage of this economic uncertainty, and the diversion of resources and services toward the pandemic to exploit vulnerable individuals.”

While human trafficking continues to be underreported, the crime is far more pervasive than statistics indicate, Johnstone continued.

“The security, economic, social justice, and public health ramifications of human trafficking affect individuals and communities everywhere,” she said. “For example, forced labor has been found in virtually every industry and region around the world, affecting supply chains of many of the goods we buy. Human trafficking undermines our values, creates unfair advantages for those who exploit workers, undercuts legitimate businesses, and misleads consumers about the true cost of goods.”

The pandemic has affected sex trafficking, solicitation, and recruitment methods for both adults and children. Online recruitment and grooming increased, particularly as children spent more time online for virtual learning due to school closures, often with little parental supervision, according to Johnstone.

“Reports from several countries demonstrated drastic increases in online commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking, including online sexual exploitation of children and demand for and distribution of child sexual exploitation material. Although these are significant challenges, we are undaunted in our anti-trafficking efforts,” she said.

The federal government updated its National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking, which the White House released in December. “This represents a whole of government approach to address this crime and human rights abuse,” Johnstone said, noting overall that the plan contains more than 60 priority actions to complete over the next three years.

“Without question, there's a lot of work ahead of us in 2022,” Johnstone said. “But we are already rolling up our sleeves and getting to work. Each of us, including all of you at this event today, has a role to play in the fight against human trafficking, whether in federal, state, or local governments, as advocates or service providers, the private sector, or individual citizens.”

Participants on a federal panel moderated by Renée Battle-Brooks, executive director, Prince George’s County Office of Human Rights, and chairperson of the Prince George’s County Human Trafficking Task Force, included:

  • Karen Stauss, senior policy counsel, Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit, Department of Justice
  • Katherine Chon, founding director, Office on Trafficking in Persons, and senior advisor on human trafficking, Department of Health and Human Services
  • Ramon Padilla, acting division chief, Center for Countering Human Trafficking, Department of Homeland Security
  • Tanya M. Gould, survivor leader expert and consultant; vice-chair, the U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking; director, Anti-Human Trafficking for the Attorney General of Virginia

The second panel, focusing on international issues and moderated by Esserman, included:

  • Thea Lee, deputy undersecretary for international labor affairs, Department of Labor
  • Charita Castro, deputy assistant, United States trade representative for Labor Affairs
  • Philip Hunter, head, Labour Migration Unit, International Organization for Migration
  • Ronny Marty, independent anti-labor trafficking consultant; survivor leader; member, International Survivor Trafficking Advisory Council, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe

This program may be viewed in its entirety by accessing the video link at the top of this page.