Louise Shelley


On her book Human Trafficking: A Global Perspective

Cover Interview of April 10, 2011


Contemporary trafficking is much more diverse and complex than the white slave trade of the late 19th and early 20th century.  It cannot be stopped or appreciably slowed by the worldwide economic slowdown that began in 2008.  Today’s trafficking is truly global.  Every country of the world is part of the problem and the flows of people are much more difficult to chart than the unidirectional white slave trade whose victims flowed from Europe to North and South America.  Moreover, many countries in the world today are simultaneously source, transit, and destination countries for human trafficking.

Despite the disproportionate attention to sex trafficking today, contemporary trafficking victims are more likely to be victims of labor trafficking, forced to serve as child soldiers, or trapped in domestic servitude.  Although victimization is still disproportionately female, as was trafficking in the 1930s, children and minors today make up a significant share of victims both in the developing world and in the sex markets in the United States.  And they are increasingly visible in streets in some Western European countries.

The Russian meltdown in the late 1980s and the Asian economic crisis that subsequently crippled Asian economies affected trafficking in diverse ways.  Yet the crises were regional; many parts of the world remained largely untouched.  There was still a strong demand for trafficked people in other parts of the world.  Women impoverished by the crisis in Russia and desperate families in Asia sold their children into prostitution to pay debts or to ensure the survival of the rest of the family.  Trafficked women could still easily be sold in European markets largely unaffected by the crisis.  Sex tourism continued in Asia where the availability of victims merely made trafficked women and children more accessible.

The impact of the economic crisis on labor trafficking was more complex and long lasting.  The crisis reduced economic output and therefore the immediate demand for labor, both trafficked and free.  Only in the early 21st century did the human costs of the crisis of the late 1990s become more apparent.  Individuals who incurred debt during this crisis and could not repay were subsequently forced into involuntary servitude or sold their children to settle these accounts.  Children who were pulled out of schools by parents during the crisis often labored on family farms.  Ignorant and ill prepared for the workforce, these children as teenagers and young adults became victims of labor trafficking.  Therefore, the full impact of economic crises may be delayed, the consequences apparent only years later.

Human trafficking will remain a defining problem of the 21st century as the Cold War was in the 20th century and Colonialism in the 19th.

© 2011 Louise Shelley