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Trafficking in War Zones: Making Zero-Tolerance Meaningful

Steven M. Watt,
Senior Staff Attorney, ACLU Human Rights Program
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April 30, 2012

Last week in Little Rock, Ark., Attorney General Eric Holder spoke eloquently and forcefully on the problems of human trafficking in the U.S. Holder noted the problem — one of "crisis proportions" — takes place both outside and within our borders:

In communities nationwide, human trafficking victims often are hiding in plain sight: the young woman who traveled to America for the promise of a new life, but finds herself enslaved and sold for sex. The child who was born here, but ran away from home and, in desperation, accepted help from the wrong person. The migrant worker who is deprived of identification, transportation, health care, and access to money in order to ensure complete dependence on his employer. Or one of the many young girls regularly shuttled to truck stops along I-40 — who is filled with shame and empty of hope, living in fear of incarceration and in doubt of her ability to survive on her own.

Holder described the current administration's adoption of many far-reaching measures by numerous government agencies to eradicate trafficking wherever and however it occurs, and stated that the U.S. has a "'zero-tolerance, one-strike' approach" to the problem.

One of the measures highlighted by Holder was effective training for government officers to identify traffickers, trafficking schemes and victims — a task that can often-times prove difficult. In this regard, Holder pinpointed one area of government where human trafficking has arisen: U.S. government procurement or contracting.

In fact, for many years now, U.S. government contractors providing services to the U.S. military have engaged in the trafficking and forced labor of reportedly thousands of men and women from low-wage countries such as Nepal, India and the Philippines. These men and women work as cooks, janitors and cleaners on U.S. military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan on the U.S. taxpayers' dime.

Although trafficking and forced labor of these so-called Third Country Nationals (known as "TCNs") may well be difficult to identify because the abuse occurs overseas in war zones, media reports and official government documents obtained by the ACLU through a Freedom of Information Act request reveal that trafficking and forced labor of TCNs is a pervasive and ongoing problem; that U.S. government contractors are involved and yet, little or nothing is being done to address the problem.

The U.S. has failed to even investigate reports of TCN trafficking and abuse. According to a 2010 report on trafficking of the Department of Defense inspector general there was "one report of preliminary investigative activity of a contractor in Iraq" for labor trafficking violations in 2009. Although the inspector general referred the matter to the Justice Department, prosecutors "determined facts and circumstances did not warrant further action." The 2011 report mentions only one case during the 2010 time period, which it describes as "one [human trafficking]-related incident involving a Department of Defense contractor or sub-contractor employee. In that case, the employee was barred from the installation by the commander and fired by the contractor." The 2011 Department of State report on trafficking notes, "during the reporting period, allegations were investigated and one employee was dismissed by a DOD contractor." However, "no prosecutions occurred and no contracts were terminated" for the reporting period, although "allegations against federal contractors engaged in commercial sex and labor exploitation continued to surface in the media."

There is now ample evidence of trafficking of TCNs by government contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan; training in identification of the perpetrators and their victims, while important, is not the problem, accountability is. It is simply not enough for Holder to proclaim a "zero-tolerance" policy against trafficking. The U.S. must put that stated policy into action by fully investigating credible reports of trafficking and abuse of TCNs by U.S. contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, and, where appropriate, hold perpetrators accountable. Only then will "zero tolerance" mean what it says.

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