Trafficking vs. Smuggling

by Andy Hall, SAAS Member

Living in Arizona, I see a lot of headlines having to do with human trafficking. Or, at least, they say they do. But with a little further investigation, at least 80% of the time, I go on to read an article that actually highlights the crime of human smuggling, and wrongly uses the term “human trafficking” as a synonym. Go do a quick Google News search for “human trafficking Arizona” and see for yourself.

Some definitions might be helpful before we proceed.

Human smuggling refers to the voluntary, illegal crossing of a border; typically an international border. “Human smuggling” is synonymous with illegal immigration. Smuggling is voluntary, and is typically a paid criminal service. Upon successful crossing of the border, the smuggled person’s relationship with their smuggler is usually over.

Human trafficking, on the other hand, is the involuntary exploitation of a person to extract labor or services from them through the use of force, fraud, and/or coercion.”Human trafficking,” then, is synonymous with slavery. There are two main categories of human trafficking: sex trafficking and labor trafficking. Although the word “trafficking” seems to connote movement of people or goods, physical movement of persons is actually not required for a crime to fall under the legal definition of human trafficking. Consider an example: a 13-year-old girl is sold for sex by a family member and is prostituted out of her own bedroom. This is a clear-cut case of sex trafficking, yet no physical movement of the victim occurred at all. The keystones of human trafficking are force, fraud, or coercion–nothing more, nothing less. Movement of persons is legally irrelevant.

This drophouse was recently discovered in suburban Chandler, Arizona. Illegal immigrants were smuggled here, but were thought to have been on their way to a sex trafficking situation.

Of course, in practice, the line can sometimes be blurrier–a situation that begins as human smuggling may later morph into human trafficking. For instance, several years ago there was a Latin American woman who paid to be transported into the United States illegally via the U.S.-Mexico border (human smuggling), but when she arrived at an Arizona drophouse, she was forced to have sex with some of the human smugglers (sex trafficking), and in subsequent weeks and months was held captive and was forced to cook food for other illegal immigrants and clean the drophouse (labor trafficking). What began as a human smuggling situation turned into human trafficking. But the fact that smuggled people can also be trafficked does not mean that human smuggling and human trafficking are the same crime. Rape and murder often happen in conjunction with one another, and yet, it would be absurd to argue that rape and murder are actually the same crime, or to use the terms interchangeably.

It might be tempting to conclude that the woman in the previous example was “asking for it” when she chose to cross the border illegally, and that the trafficking was just the unfortunate consequence of her risky choice. But no matter what activities a person chooses to engage in, risky or not, no person ever deserves to be forced to work or exploited in the sex trade. That is slavery, and slavery is never, ever OK.

Recognizing this, the U.S. government has adopted policies to provide services to foreign nationals who have been smuggled into the U.S. and subsequently trafficked. Such individuals are not illegal immigrants in the eyes of the law; rather, they are victims of slavery and are eligible for a range of government-subsidized services from housing and job placement assistance to receipt of a T-visa, a special category of visa available only to foreign nationals who are survivors of a “severe form of human trafficking.” These policies are by no means perfect. One major problem is that T-visas are only available to trafficking survivors who are willing to assist with prosecution of their trafficker, which is extremely difficult and frightening for most survivors. Yet, the U.S. government’s insistence that no person ever deserves to be enslaved is admirable, as is its stated goal of treating trafficking survivors as victims of a crime, and not as criminals.

What if people all around the country wrote letters to their local media outlets clearing up the legal distinction between these two crimes, and insisting that the media make an effort to report accurately on each distinct crime, while acknowledging and faithfully reporting their intersections as well? Think of the awareness that could be raised about modern-day slavery with one simple letter to the editor distinguishing it from human smuggling! Do your part; take action today.


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