Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Trafficking in Persons Report: Local Anti-Trafficking Efforts Are a Good Step…if They Exist in Your State

Today’s post in my series on the 2011 Trafficking in Persons Report looks at the report’s evaluation of federal participation in state and local anti-trafficking efforts. (For previous posts in the series, please go here, and here).

As the Department of State’s (DOS) report notes, the Department of Justice (DOJ) funds and participates in numerous state and local anti-trafficking task forces. The report also notes that 45 states have anti-trafficking statutes. This is a positive trend, and hopefully the remaining states will soon follow suit in adopting anti-trafficking legislation.

The report also acknowledges some potential problems, such as the fact that only 9 states and the District of Columbia offer state benefits to trafficked persons, and that those 45 anti-trafficking statutes include varying definitions and penalties – although I’m not certain the latter statement was meant critically. The inconsistency in state responses to trafficking is not surprising, but it should be seen as a problem.

Not only because it seems unfair that someone who happens to be trafficked into one state may have an easier time getting assistance, or seeing their trafficker convicted, than someone trafficked to another state…

Not only because that disparity seems to undermine our national policy on trafficking…

The United States also has obligations under the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, and the lack of uniformity in state laws – and the utter lack of anti-trafficking laws in 5 states – may mean that the United States is in violation of these obligations.

In many areas, or under certain circumstances, access to federal assistance may be harder to come by than access to state assistance (if it exists). And the DOJ can only prosecute so many trafficking cases. With provision of government services so often tied to criminal prosecutions (see post # 1) – a problem in and of itself – state benefits can fill in much needed gaps in the provision of services for trafficked persons.

Even in the hand full of states that provide services, the disparity in state definitions of trafficking mean that an individual who qualifies as a victim of trafficking under the law of one state may not qualify as such in another state, leaving the protection and assistance of trafficked persons to chance and geography. If a survivor of trafficking who merits assistance under international law cannot get assistance in every single state in the United States, we have a system failure.

Even if federal government agencies take pains to protect the human rights of the trafficked persons they come into contact with, gaps in state law can leave many without assistance or protection. Under international human rights law this is not just a local problem…it is the U.S. government’s problem.

The federal government has done a lot to reach out to state and local law enforcement, including funding task forces and providing trainings, but more could be done. Anti-trafficking task forces tend to be limited to law enforcement and executive officials – who is talking to local legislators? NGOs are, of course, but the federal government has a responsibility to ensure that federalism does not undermine human rights or the United States’ international obligations. We need a coordinated effort to make sure that trafficking victims’ rights are being upheld, and their basic needs met, in every single state. While they are a good start, the trainings and task-force initiatives to date have not had that result.

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