The Forgotten Tool in the Fight Against Human Trafficking

By Olivia Enos

human trafficking taiwan

Source: Flickr

Human trafficking — a global scourge impacting an estimated 21 million people — generates close to $150 billion in annual profits. Now, the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, is using human trafficking and human smuggling, not only as a brutal terror tactic, but as a source of funding for its operations.

The National Security Council identifies human trafficking as one of several transnational criminal activities that pose a growing threat to U.S. national security interests. As such, anti-trafficking efforts should be integrated into a broader U.S. national security strategy. This means employing financial tools to combat trafficking in persons.

Trafficking in persons derives its profits from the global market — a market denominated primarily in U.S. dollars. The predominance of the dollar in the international monetary system affords the United States significant power to combat illicit activities through the Treasury Department’s anti-money laundering and counter-terrorist financing enforcement and regulatory tools. By not using financial tools of engagement against trafficking in persons, the U.S. government has limited its ability to identify funding sources for human trafficking; track perpetrators; rescue victims; and address the primary motive driving human trafficking: profit.

ISIS is perhaps the best-known to use kidnapping, rape and human trafficking as a means of terrorism. The group has sold Yazidi women on the open market as sex slaves and forced laborers. The Financial Action Task Force, while unable to give a comprehensive dollar figure for ISIS’s total profit from human trafficking, found that the group usually charges around $13 for its sale of Yazidi women, but charges far higher for ransom — somewhere around $3,000 for one person, according to one Yazidi woman.

While the Financial Action Task Force did not assign high levels of profit to human trafficking, later estimates suggest that ISIS has generated upwards of $323 million in profits from migrant smuggling during the European crisis. It is likely that ISIS is similarly profiting from human trafficking in the midst of both the Southeast Asian and European migrant crises.

The United States, as a global promoter of freedom and democratic values, has a responsibility to protect its own citizens from trafficking, as well as to model positive anti-trafficking leadership around the globe. Financial tools of engagement are one way to accomplish that goal.

If applied effectively, the Treasury has tools at its disposal that could effectively curtail funding sources for human trafficking. They also could uncover vast human trafficking networks.

The Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network already supports law enforcement agencies by identifying “red flags” on financial transactions that may help identify victims, traffickers, or smugglers. This authority should be expanded to allow for greater international information sharing, perhaps through Interpol, and could easily be utilized by the Treasury to freeze assets or sanction human traffickers.

Beyond merely disrupting assets and impacting the day-to-day operations of human traffickers, sanctions and asset freezes have the potential to reveal a money trail that could illuminate broader networks of human traffickers. Once assets are frozen, all transactions that pass through the New York Federal Reserve (or any other U.S.-controlled bank) will be flagged and banks will be prohibited from processing the flagged transaction. The Treasury can then see the banks, their locations, and where the traffickers conduct business.

Benefits of freezing human trafficker’s assets include increased deterrence to traffickers, identification of human traffickers and their broader networks of crime, and increased identification and rescue of victims. According to the State Department’s 2015 Trafficking in Persons report, only 45,000 victims, or a little more than 2 percent of their total, were rescued from trafficking in 2014. The United States has the opportunity to improve the efficacy of its efforts by employing financial tools to combat trafficking in persons.

Washington should integrate human trafficking into a broader national security strategy by utilizing financial tools of engagement. Such a policy decision would demonstrate the U.S. anti-trafficking initiative’s ability to rescue and rehabilitate victims, while mitigating the underlying profit motive that makes groups such as ISIS want to engage in this illicit behavior in the first place.

After all, it is in both the moral and national security interests of the United States to deploy all the tools it has at its disposal to eliminate human trafficking.

Originally published in RealClearWorld.