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From Villages to Cities: The Geography of Human Trafficking

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The eldest daughter of a family from a Colombian village worked at a local grocery store to help support her family. Learning of promising work in the United States, the girl relocated to earn a better income. Upon arrival, she was forced into prostitution, held in debt bondage and told that if she tried to escape, her family back in Colombia would be harmed. For five years she was moved to several different brothels throughout the United States and was unable to seek outside help.

A 13-year-old girl from a village in Ghana was sent to the United States by her family with the prospects of receiving an education. But her host family did not permit her to go to school. Rather, they forced her into domestic servitudeÑcleaning their house, cooking and supervising their three children. She regularly worked 18 hours a day and was not compensated. She was often beaten and raped by the father and was not allowed to leave the house or use the phone. One day, after a severe beating, she ran away and sought help from a neighbor.

As these young women’s experiences show, the risk of being a victim of trafficking increases with urban migration. Poverty, underdevelopment and lack of equal opportunity are some of the major reasons an increasing number of people are leaving the countryside for cities. Traffickers know this, and as a result, human traffickingÑwhether for sex or laborÑbegins with the promise of more-prosperous work for vulnerable victims in poor countries.

The flow of international trafficking occurs mainly from underdeveloped countries to wealthier countries. Southeast Asia supplies the greatest number of trafficking victims, mostly from the Philippines and Thailand. Women sex-trafficking victims taken to Western Europe are mostly from Eastern and Central Europe and the former Soviet Union. In Mexico, tourist destinations such as Acapulco, Cancun and Tijuana have seen a rise in child-sex tourism. In Morocco, female migrants are sold into prostitution in Casablanca and other cities. Similarly, in Nicaragua, trafficking victims come from rural areas and are coerced into prostitution in cities, including Granada and Managua. In Sudan, women from the Oromia region in Ethiopia are recruited as domestic workers with the promise of lucrative employment, only to be forced to work as prostitutes in the capital city of Khartoum.

Migrants at Risk of Trafficking

Migration to cities is mainly driven by economic necessity, reflecting the belief that urban environments provide more economic opportunity. However, this is often not the case. Instead, the growing number of the poor seeking employment in cities is contributing to an increase in urban poverty. According to the World Bank, there are an estimated 3.5 billion people currently living in urban areas, with 1 billion living in poverty in urban slums. As a result, large cities have seen an influx of crime and violence. It is projected that within the next 20 years, the urban population will grow to almost 5 billion people. Health, drinking water, housing, electricity, drainage, sewerage and other basic services are not accessible today to most of the poor populations living in slums or slum-like conditions. Anticipating this urban transformation, policymakers must take the necessary measures to mitigate the factors that contribute to poverty while providing essential services to urban dwellers.

Evidence suggests a correlation between prostitution rates and increased rural migration to urban, industrialized environments. The large number of women and children who end up _living in red-light districts in countries in which prostitution is legal allows for the development of and increased participation in the sex-tourism industry. It is important to note that sex tourism is not limited to poor countries. In places such as Germany, where prostitution is legalized, and Thailand, where the sex-tourism industry is robust, thousands of people solicit women for prostitution every day.

Women are by no means the only victims of exploitation. Children are often susceptible to being trafficked across borders, even within their own country of origin. Subsequently, in highly populated urban areas, these children are forced into domestic servitude, sexual exploitation and begging. They are low-skilled laborers who are trafficked to more-prosperous and developed places, often where low-cost services are in high demand, and remain in captivity under threat of physical and verbal abuse and harm to their families.

In Nigeria, young boys are trafficked from rural areas for labor and begging. In some cases, the trafficking of children is facilitated by family members who send their children to urban areas in hopes of securing more lucrative work or a better education. In Zimbabwe, families have been known to traffic their children, hoping for their adoption into a wealthier family. This is also seen in Tanzania, where young girls are forced into early marriages by their parents and, in some instances, sold into prostitution by their families.

The demand for sex with virgins in some regions means that younger children are being trafficked and prostituted. Moreover, as traffickers often shift locations, routes and tactics as their risks increase, it is difficult for law enforcement to track and control trafficking in persons. This leaves children vulnerable to unnoticed movement around the urban landscape. This urban experience may be similar for runaway youth, who are more likely to gravitate toward a large city, which reflects seemingly greater opportunity for unnoticed movement in more population-dense areas. These areas also are likely to have a greater number of available public places, shelters and abandoned buildings that allot youth the opportunity to survive. Recent statistics show the majority of street prostitutes are runaways who end up in a new locale with no financial resources and little recourse but to engage in some kind of criminal activity, whether theft, dealing drugs or selling sex.

Child Trafficking Victims in the U.S.

In pursuit of “the American Dream,” many people migrate, both legally and illegally, to the United States. Among these are human trafficking victims, who are often deceived into believing that a job and better life await. Moreover, thousands of children are domestically trafficked within the United States. These children are brought to large cities, such as Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York City and Washington, D.C., and various parts of FloridaÑall densely populated areas where the children go unobserved and untracked.

As immigration restrictions and border enforcement have expanded, the sophistication and violence of the organized criminal groups that promote the illicit movement of people across borders also have increased. Stronger regulations have fueled violence along the southern U.S. border and have made the northward journey much more difficult and expensive. As criminal networks organize smuggling operations, migrants who rely on the services of these networks become vulnerable to all forms of exploitation. They have no alternative but to submit to abuse. For many migrants, what begins as a normal contractual relationship converts into a trafficking case characterized by force, fraud and coercion.

In the face of such risks, more people might be inclined to remain in rural areas if their communities offered a supportive environment, employment opportunities and a decent living standard. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (adopted in 1979 by the U.N. General Assembly) calls for state parties to take all necessary measures to eliminate discrimination against women and young girls in rural areas, recognizing the roles women play and the economic hardships they face. Article 14 of the convention calls for women in rural areas to receive health care and family planning services; have the ability to acquire an education and technical training; obtain equal access to agriculture loans and equipment; enjoy basic housing conditions such as sanitation, electricity and water supply; have the ability to create cooperatives to ensure equal employment opportunities; participate in community development; and benefit from social security programs.

The importance of ensuring that basic needs are met and economic opportunities are realized in rural areas serves to mitigate the need to migrate to urban places, which in turn reduces one’s risk of becoming a victim of human trafficking.


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