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State Department Calls For End To Modern Slavery


This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, immigration is back in the news right now, in part because of a new move by the Obama administration to stop deporting young people who came here illegally as children. And now there's also new information about just who is coming here and why.

It turns out that Asians have surpassed Hispanics as the largest group of new immigrants, and Asians are now the fastest growing racial group in the United States. There's a new report that gives a new snapshot of Asian-American life. In just a few minutes, we'll talk about that.

But first, we wanted to talk about the millions of people around the world who are not able to make the choice of where to go or what to do every day.

We're talking about human trafficking. Every year, an estimated 27 million people are trafficked for labor, sex or other reasons - that according to the State Department. It just released a report that takes stock of trafficking around the world. This year, 17 countries were tagged as the worst offenders. That's an improvement, though, from last year, when the number was 23.

Here's what U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had to say at a press conference announcing the findings yesterday.


SECRETARY HILLARY CLINTON: Traffickers prey on the hopes and dreams of those seeking a better life, and our goal should be to put those hopes and dreams back within reach.

MARTIN: We wanted to find out more about this, so I'm joined now by Ambassador Luis CdeBaca. He is the head of the State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. Also with us, Sister Azezet Kidane. She is a nun and a nurse with Physicians for Human Rights-Israel. She's interviewed hundreds of Egyptian survivors of trafficking, and yesterday she was honored by the State Department for her work.

And I think this is a good place to mention that this conversation may not be appropriate for all listeners. So with that being said, welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for coming. And, sister, congratulations to you.


MARTIN: Ambassador, I'm going to start with you, because I'd like to ask you to explain exactly what human trafficking entails. I mean, I think a lot of people think of human trafficking as being particularly connected to the sex trade, but it goes beyond that, as I understand it.

AMBASSADOR LUIS CDEBACA: Well, human trafficking is basically an umbrella term for all of the activities involved in holding someone in or reducing them to a condition of compelled service. In a nutshell, what we're talking about is modern slavery. We typically use the term human trafficking in a lot of fora because it's more polite or it's a euphemism, but it's a euphemism that lets us turn away from the reality that slavery, 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, is still out there.

MARTIN: You would prefer to use the term slavery.

CDEBACA: You know, Secretary Clinton and I both feel that we should name the crime. You don't call it sexual assault when you should be calling it rape. You know, people need to confront the realities that the victims go through, and so the honesty of calling it modern slavery is something that we've been making a point to do.

MARTIN: Tell me a little more, if you would, just about what your office does. I think some people might be surprised to know that there is a State Department office on human trafficking, particularly because this is a transnational crime. So it isn't specifically kind of an issue of the U.S. relationships with one other country or bilateral relationships per se, right?

CDEBACA: Well, we sometimes get the question, is, you know, why does the United States care if Beninois children are enslaved in Nigeria, or why does the United States care if Burmese men are enslaved on a farm in Burma? The reality is, is that this is a universal human rights norm. It's something that destabilizes countries. It destabilizes populations.

It has security impacts on things like food security and the immigration the policies and other things. But at the end of the day, this is a human rights crime, and this it's something that the United States feels - I think partially because of our own original sin of chattel slavery - feels that we really need to be working with our partners around the world on.

MARTIN: Sister Azezet Kidane, I'll turn to you now. And you prefer to be called Sister Aziza, so I will be calling you that. As I mentioned, that you were honored for your work documenting hundreds of cases of trafficking in the Sinai region of Egypt. How did these stories come to light?

KIDANE: In this clinic of Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, we started to treat people. We realized this - they were young, and they come with psychosomatic diseases and they're wounded, and they need abortion because they have unwanted pregnancies, all that. And we said: What is happening to these people? How they are coming? From where are they coming?

So we started to do a questionnaire, and when we did this questionnaire, we discover the things that we didn't want to hear. We realized that it was a metaphor for human trafficking, and a lot of - many torture camps and smugglers' camps, more than 15 camps in all the peninsula of Sinai. And really, how traumatic experience they have during the journey, and people - also people who doesn't want to come to Israel. They were kidnapped and brought to Sinai without their needs.

And some people, they work while they are chained. And the way that they bring them to Sinai as a shipment, they put them in tanks, in lorries with - covering them with vegetables or whatever they have, and they are suffocated. So many people die. And really, I agree it is a new slavery, and it has to stop, these things.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. We're talking about a new State Department report on human trafficking with Sister Azezet Kidane. She is a nun and a nurse. She was recently honored for her work to combat human trafficking. Also with us is Ambassador Luis CdeBaca. He heads the State Department's anti-human trafficking office.

Ambassador, could you talk a little bit more and amplify what sister's telling us? I mean, obviously, I think everybody knows that Egypt's been in a state of political turmoil for more than a year now. Is that contributing to this, or was this going on before that?

CDEBACA: Well, this has been going on before that. And, of course, there's been a trade and there's been, unfortunately, trade of people up and down the Sinai and in the Levant for - since time immemorial. But what we've seen over the last couple of years is the Egyptian government coming together in a bipartisan fashion, both the Mubarak government and the opposition from the Muslim Brotherhood worked together to pass legislation in 2010 against human trafficking.

An action plan was developed by the Mubarak government that was put into place in December of 2010, just before Tahrir Square and the cries for freedom. And I think that one of the things that we've seen that bodes well going forward is, even in a tumultuous year in Egypt, in many parts of the country, trainings have occurred on the new action plan, on the new law.

That said, though, we have to look at what we would call zones of impunity. Those zones of impunity can be what happens to men on a fishing boat, you know, thousands of miles out at sea in the Southeast Asian fishery. That zone of impunity can be the immigrant communities or runaway and homeless youth here in the United States.

MARTIN: So you're saying there is trafficking in the United States.

CDEBACA: There's most certainly trafficking in the United States.

MARTIN: What form does it tend to take here?

CDEBACA: Well, it's a mixture. I used to be a prosecutor in the civil rights division at the Justice Department, and I prosecuted cases that ranged from, you know, 300 Chinese and Vietnamese in a garment factory enslaved behind barbed wire to one individual, a girl in prostitution with, you know, a pimp that was controlling them through force and threats.

The thing that holds these together - whether the victim is a United States citizen or someone who's come here in search of a better life - is that what the traffickers are selling is not fear. It's not danger. The traffickers are selling this idea of hope. They're going to that 14-year-old girl and saying: Come with me. I can give you love and glamour. I can be better than, you know, this stepfather that might be assaulting you.

And the girl goes with the pimp, thinking that she's going to be getting those things, and instead she gets a life of slavery. Same thing with the folks who come here to pick our vegetables and do the jobs that Americans are loath to do. They come here thinking that they're going to get that opportunity to help their families.

Instead, they get a crew leader or a boss who takes away their passport, takes away their documents. And suddenly, instead of in the land of the free, they find themselves enslaved.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, there seem to be some improvements. Venezuela and Myanmar are two countries that actually showed improvement this year - at least they were taken off of the list of the group of worst offenders. What did they do differently?

CDEBACA: Well, in Venezuela, we saw action by the National Assembly to update some of the slavery laws and to look at the human trafficking laws. There were trainings done. The hotline is now up and running and so a very different situation than we'd seen in Venezuela, even just a year ago. We'll want to see results going forward, obviously, from those changes.

In Burma, you know, there is a very interesting thing happening. You know, Aung San Suu Kyi is known by many as a democracy activist. She's known by those of us who fight human trafficking as one of the leaders in this field.

The first place that she went when she could travel again was to the shrimp packing plants, where Burmese migrants are enslaved in Thailand. The second place that she went was to Geneva to the International Labor Organization meetings.

So what she's working on is not just democracy. It's bringing a new day, as far as forced labor in Burma, and that's not just her work. It's also the work of Kin Sin's(ph) government. They've done some really interesting things over the last eight months on this issue. They've abolished the law that allowed for state-sponsored forced labor. That was a very big step on their part and it's something that they should be given credit for.

MARTIN: Before I let each of you go, I did want to ask - do you feel that this problem can be eradicated in our lifetime? Sister, is anything getting better in your world?

KIDANE: Only God, for me and the religious. God can change our hearts. If our heart change and all of us - we focus on respect of other person - yes. It will change. But if we are selfish and think only about our own business and our own pride and money, will not. So I do pray so God to touch our hearts or we can change our world.

MARTIN: Ambassador, what do you think?

CDEBACA: I think that Sister Azezet is spot on with this. It has to take that cultural change, the ethical change, the religious change. This is not simply something that we can prosecute the traffickers until there are no more traffickers. This has to be something where people take responsibility. Think about what you're buying. Think about what you're doing in your life and how that impacts modern slavery. Once you start doing that, it becomes everyone's business and, at that point, I think we really, truly will live to make men free.

MARTIN: Sister Azezet Kidane is a nun and a nurse. She's working to fight human trafficking. Yesterday, she was honored by the State Department for that work. Also with us, Ambassador Luis Cdebaca. He heads the State Department's office to monitor and combat trafficking in persons. They were both kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Thank you both so much for coming.

CDEBACA: Thank you.

KIDANE: Thank you.


MARTIN: Coming up, for the first time, Asians are America's fastest growing population of immigrants, surpassing Latinos. They are also the highest earning and best educated group. That's all according to a new Pew Research study called Asian-Americans on the Rise. Sounds like good news, so why are so many Asian-American activists sounding cautionary notes? We'll find out why in just a few minutes on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.