Human trafficking is an insidious industry. It is also an enormously lucrative one. Global profits run to roughly $150 billion a year with an estimated 25 million victims trapped in modern slavery, according to Human Rights First.
The question of how to fight it is one not only of raising awareness to the reality of what is happening but of how society and law enforcement should respond to effectively reduce, if not eradicate, the benefits traffickers get from their crimes.
An important answer comes from Victor Boutros, head of the international Human Trafficking Institute. As Boutros explained to me in a recent conversation, "This is not something of a bygone era. This is something happening on our watch and in our patch of history that God has given us."
This is not a new problem. But it's one that — as we have developed a deeper understanding of it — has challenged us in how we respond. The idea that trafficking is too big or too difficult to confront is one Boutros rejects. And his work here and in the developing world is showing that there is hope in fighting this terrible crime. Step one is the willingness to see it for the evil it is.
Boutros is a graduate of St. Mark's School of Texas and studied philosophy in the honors program at Baylor University. He continued those studies in the graduate program at the University of Oxford. As a Christian, he was fascinated by the philosophical and theological problem of evil, the question of how a good, all-knowing and all-powerful God could permit evil. The problem is especially pronounced when it comes to the suffering of the innocent.
Pondering the issue of the innocent victims of human trafficking, Boutros discerned that his call was not to the academy, although he maintains an avid interest in philosophy, but to the practical resolution of the evils in our very midst. His sense of mission has its origins in his Dallas childhood, especially in his repeated reading of a children's book about Abraham Lincoln.
Boutros, who went on to receive his law degree from the University of Chicago, asked himself, what would it take to combat trafficking in its root causes, not just in its consequences or symptoms? He knew that enormous sums of money were already employed in the fight. But were they being used to the greatest effect?
The working assumption of the Human Trafficking Institute is this: "Traffickers are only willing to enslave others if there is no meaningful cost to them. Traffickers begin to leave the vulnerable alone when the alternative is losing their business, forfeiting their profits, and sacrificing their own freedom." As HTI's mission states, "Once there is a critical mass of consistent enforcement, trafficking becomes too risky."
Consistent enforcement is not a simple matter. It requires political will and the inculcation of specialized skills for police, prosecutors and judges. HTI provides local law enforcement with a vision for reorganization and sustained training. As new law enforcement protocols are implemented, HTI measures "the increase in the number of investigations, arrests, prosecutions, defendants convicted, and victims freed through law enforcement operations," according to its website.
This is evidence-based social policy at its finest. It began not in a foreign country, but in the United States, at the Department of Justice as part of its Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit, where Boutros served as a prosecutor. That unit piloted a new, rigorous law enforcement model in six federal prosecution districts. The results were palpable. In a two-year period, those districts increased prosecutions by 114% while the remaining 88 districts only saw a 12% increase. While the six districts represented only 7% of all federal districts, they accounted for more than half of all the human trafficking convictions in the entire country. Those are impressive data points.
As a founding director and now CEO of HTI, Boutros has shifted his efforts from domestic to international trafficking. Still in its infancy, HTI has partnered with Uganda to fight trafficking, helping to reform systems of legal enforcement of anti-trafficking laws. The initial success is astonishing and a real sign of hope that the scourge of trafficking can be greatly diminished, if not entirely eliminated. Boutros prudently shies away from overpromising.
During the past year, even in the midst of COVID-19, HTI trained 252 Ugandan prosecutors, across all the districts in Uganda. HTI had a goal of a 70% increase in arrests and in the number of those freed from trafficking. Arrests exceeded 150 and those rescued were more than 130 — 80% of whom were children. That's a 1,000% increase in both categories!
Of course, there are further steps needed here, namely, achieving convictions. But even the arrests have a huge impact. Boutros' research shows that trafficking is an opportunity business that flourishes in the absence of disincentives.
At a time when so many feel powerless in the face of daunting evils, the evidence-based program of HTI is a great sign of hope, testimony that skill combined with conviction, research with a passion for justice, can make a difference.