When I was growing up in London, I walked past a massage parlor on the way to school every day. If my friends and I ever gave a thought to what went on behind its doors, we saw it as a bit of a giggle; it existed in a world away from our own.
Fast-forward 30 years to 2006, when I first met 19-year-old Elena through my work with the Helen Bamber Foundation, a U.K. charity that helps abuse victims. Elena's story was all too common but had a huge impact on me.
An intelligent girl with ambitions, Elena had been enticed to London from Moldova with a promise of a good job and a bright future. Once in the U.K., however, her passport was taken from her and she was kept in solitary confinement to break her will. She was warned that her family in Moldova would suffer harm unless she did what she was told. And then she was put to work as a sex slave, servicing a procession of men in the most appalling circumstances.
What made her story so personal for me was where she'd been imprisoned: the same massage parlor I'd once treated as a joke. It underlined an awful truth: that human trafficking is not just a problem for other communities or other people. It exists on our own doorsteps, and our lack of action shames us all.
It's hard to put an accurate figure on the full scale of this misery. But the International Labor Organization estimates that there are at least 2.5 million forced laborers who are victims of human trafficking at any one time. Their plight can be seen as the hidden side of globalization: a sickening business worth more than $30 billion a year.
It is a crime that scars every region and almost every country. Some 120 nations are routinely plundered by traffickers for their human raw materials, and more than 130 countries are known as destinations for their victims.
Like Elena, these victims may end up in the sex trade. Many others find themselves condemned as slave laborers, forced to work in domestic service, in hazardous factories or at grim sites like the cocoa plantations of West Africa. Thousands more, many just children, become unwilling conscripts in bitter wars. Nearly all suffer physical or sexual abuse, creating mental and physical scars they carry for the rest of their lives.
To help people understand their plight, a powerful and disturbing exhibition has been put together. Called "Journey," the exhibit is based on the testimony of Elena and other girls like her. It has had a searing impact on all who have seen it. But "Journey" also contains a message of hope. It reveals—as I have learned from Elena and other survivors—the extraordinary resilience of the human spirit. It shows how, with support and care, these courageous women can rebuild their lives.
The exhibit traveled from London to Vienna early last month for an extraordinary international gathering of 1,400 experts, legislators, law-enforcement officers, business leaders and campaigners, all determined to help stamp out this evil trade. And it should be coming to the United States soon.
A unique initiative of six organizations under the rubric of the U.N. Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking (UN.GIFT), the Vienna Forum highlighted how little is being done to fight the problem internationally. U.S. State Department figures show that in 2004 (the last year for which numbers are available), there were only about 3,000 successful convictions of criminals worldwide for related offenses. With more than 80 women being smuggled into Britain alone each week for the sex trade, this lack of action should make us all very angry.
I passionately hope the Vienna Forum and UN.GIFT manage to persuade countries to step up their enforcement efforts. But I left Vienna more certain than ever that, while leadership at the top is crucial, each of us must also step up to the mark.
Much as we need international organizations, national governments, the police and courts to bring traffickers to justice, we must all examine how we behave. The solutions lie in all our hands. Businesses must ask searching questions about their suppliers and not let themselves be fobbed off with convenient answers. As consumers, we need to think about what we buy, where it comes from and under what conditions it's made. Everyone can make a difference. If we explain to our own kids how children are forced to work as slaves in cocoa plantations, for example, they will press us to buy Fair Trade chocolate.
Above all, we have to keep our eyes open and not be afraid of letting our voices be heard. This is not a problem happening somewhere else. It is on all our own doorsteps.
Elena and many thousands of people like her need us to come to their aid. We can no longer keep walking past their door and ignore their cries for help.