Ambassador Elder speaks about Human Trafficking to AME University Graduate School

On July 12, 2019, U.S. Ambassador Christine Elder spoke to students at the African Methodist Episcopal University Graduate School on the topic of “Human Trafficking in Liberia.”

Dear President Isaac, Dean Konneh, honored professors, faculty and staff, AMEU Graduate School students, friends and colleagues — thank you for inviting me here today as part of the graduate school lecture series.  I spend so much time in meetings — with the government, international partners, political actors, or civil society — that I welcome the opportunity to visit a university, take a step back and engage in a deeper discussion about a problem.  I would also be remiss if I didn’t encourage you to research and apply for U.S. exchange programs in the United States.  We have information about scholarship opportunities on the “Education and Culture” portion of our Embassy website, and my colleague has also brought some handouts with information about exchange programs.

As I thought about the topic to discuss today, I wanted to speak with you about something that affects both of our countries, but also something that our governments and we, as ordinary people, can work on and make a difference.  The issue I have in mind today is human trafficking.  It is not discussed in the newspapers as often as some other issues, but I hope, during the course of our discussion today, to convince you to look at things you have seen your whole life through a different view and to remain vigilant to the dangers of human trafficking, and that you have a role to play in preventing it — that it is not a distant issue, but one that affects Liberia’s children today, and one you can help change.

One of the best ways to understand a topic as complex as human trafficking is through a real historical case, so I’ll tell you a brief story about how laws against trafficking developed in the United States.  In the late 1960s, there was a small dairy farm in Michigan run by a family called Kozminski.  They occasionally hired laborers and seasonal workers at the farm to help them with various tasks.  While driving around Michigan, the Kozminskis noticed two men, Robert and Louis, on the side of the road, looking for work.  The Kozminskis offered Robert and Louis $15 per week to live and work on their farm doing small jobs in the barns and in the fields, which the men accepted.

It’s important to note, for the purposes of what happened next, that Robert and Louis were known to have intellectual disabilities.  Their IQs were lower than average and they were easy to persuade and manipulate.

Soon after Robert and Louis began working on the farm, the Kozminskis stopped paying them the $15 per week they had promised, but continued to demand that Robert and Louis work.  Robert and Louis weren’t trapped on the farm, or locked up, or chained to a table — but their employers threatened to hurt them and send them to a mental hospital if they refused to work.  In that way, they coerced them into working, and tricked them into working, without physically forcing them to work.

After over 10 years of working in these conditions, a neighbor noticed that Robert and Louis looked unhealthy and seemed to be living in very poor conditions.  The neighbor suspected that Robert and Louis were being mistreated and reported their situation to the local police.  When the police came to investigate, they found the men living in terrible conditions — they were dirty and in poor health, they were living in a small, dark room, and what little food they had was infested with bugs.  The authorities removed the two men from the farm and opened a case against their employers, charging them with the crime of involuntary servitude.  This statute in U.S. penal code reads, “Whoever knowingly and willfully holds to involuntary servitude or sells into any condition of involuntary servitude, any other person for any term… shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both.”

In fact, this statute, the law that criminalizes involuntary servitude, arises from the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the history of the fight against slavery.  The U.S. Congress passed the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1865, just after the U.S. Civil War had ended, the war which was fought, in part, to abolish slavery.  The 13th Amendment is very short, it reads: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude… shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

Of course, progress rarely follows a straight line through history, and this case was no exception.  The Kozminskis were initially found guilty in a Michigan court of holding Robert and Louis against their will and exploiting their labor.  But the Kozminskis appealed the case, and their lawyers argued that the term “involuntary servitude” did not apply to Robert and Louis’s situation, because the Kozminskis had never used physical force to detain the men.  In effect, they were arguing that, while the Kozminskis may have exerted some psychological or emotional influence, Robert and Louis were free to leave the farm at any time, and therefore their labor was still “voluntary.”  Ultimately, in the landmark case U.S. v. Kozminski, the Supreme Court agreed with the Kozminskis, announcing that the definition of “involuntary servitude” was unclear and requesting further guidance from the Congress on the intent of the statute.

However, the story does not end there.  As we all know, democracies are always a work in progress.  Prompted in part by the Kozminski case, the U.S. Congress passed a law in 2000 called the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.  Then-Senator Sam Brownback, who is now Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, co-sponsored the bill, saying, “This legislation establishes, for the first time, a bright line between the victim and perpetrator.”  According to the new law, any labor that was compelled and exploited as a result of force, fraud, or coercion, would be sufficient to guarantee a conviction of human trafficking.

Let’s stop and examine this for a second.  If the anti-trafficking law had existed when Robert and Louis were trapped on that farm, their employers likely could have been charged with human trafficking.  It would have been easy to argue that their employers used fraud by promising the men $15 per week and coercion by threatening to send them to a mental hospital.  Meanwhile, the men were being exploited by working without pay.  So, Congress identified a gap in the law and an injustice — that some people could be tricked into working for others — and they passed a new law to fix it.  We can all agree that no one should be tricked into working for someone else without pay.  And now we call that human trafficking.

Let me emphasize one other important part of this story and the law.  You’ll notice that there is no mention, in either the case of Robert and Louis, or in the case of the “new” (20 years ago) Trafficking Victims Protection Act, of movement across borders, either internal or international.  This is a key point and one I want to stress:  under U.S. law, international law, and Liberian law, the crime of human trafficking does not require transportation of a victim across any geographical boundary.  No one should not confuse the crime of human trafficking with human smuggling, international abduction, illegal migration or other illicit acts that involve movement across borders.  In its most basic definition, human trafficking involves exploiting a person for their labor, period.  Using psychological and emotional abuse to trick Robert and Louis into working on the farm would have met the definition of human trafficking that now exists in U.S., Liberian, and international law.  If you examine the specifics of these laws, you will notice a number of related terms, including bonded labor, indentured servitude, domestic servitude, debt bondage, slavery, and slavery-like conditions.  The common thread is that exploiting people without paying them should be illegal.

At a summit in Palermo, Italy, in 2000, the United Nations adopted the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children, often referred to as a “Palermo Protocol.”  This protocol defined human trafficking in similar terms.  It defined it as the “recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, [or] of deception… for the purpose of exploitation.”  You’ll notice again that transportation across borders is not a required element of human trafficking.  It is sufficient to show that a person was “recruited” or “harbored” through fraud or coercion for the purpose of exploiting their labor.

Liberia became party to the Palermo treaty in 2004.  Liberia then passed its own law — a very good one — in 2005, the Act to Ban Trafficking in Persons within the Republic of Liberia.  The text of the law uses language derived from the Palermo Protocol, but it goes a bit further in explicitly defining exploitation.  Liberia’s 2005 anti-trafficking law defines exploitation as, among other things: “(1) subjecting a person to practices similar to slavery; (2) compelling or causing a person to provide forced labor or services; and (3) keeping a person in a state of servitude, including for example sexual servitude.”  It’s also interesting to note that Liberia’s anti-trafficking law specifically mentions taking advantage of children.  In the words of the law, some traffickers might take advantage of a child’s “reduced capacity to form judgments.”  In other words, according to Liberian law, it is human trafficking to take advantage of a child to force them to provide labor.

As some of you may know, each year our Embassy researches and publishes a report called the Trafficking in Persons Report.  This is an exercise mandated by the U.S. Congress and is completed at all of our embassies around the world, not just in Liberia.  The most recent Trafficking in Persons Report for Liberia was released just a few weeks ago, on June 20.  It is available on our website if you would like to read it, and my colleague has also brought a few copies.

It is a document that attempts, on the one hand, to understand the current situation of trafficking in Liberia, and, on the other, to make recommendations to improve the situation.  In this year’s report, we write, “Trafficking within the country from rural to urban areas is more prevalent than transnational trafficking, and the majority of victims are children.” It continues, “Most trafficking victims originate from and are exploited within the country’s borders, where they are subjected to domestic servitude, forced begging, sex trafficking, or forced labor in street vending.”

In other words, the most common form of trafficking in Liberia does not involve foreign traffickers, or movement to another country, but involves kids who end up forced to work.  This is a difficult subject and one that should be discussed more openly, including among people like you, in places like this.  We all know what this form of trafficking looks like because we see it in Liberia every day.  We all know that there are adults who take children with the intent of working them on the streets, without sending them to school, and without providing them even the most basic care.  Recently, an American diplomat joined two social workers as they did a routine assessment of child labor near ELWA junction.  They simply walked along the street and spoke with kids selling food, t-shirts, and water.  In two hours, they spoke with 15 kids.  Of those, 13 had been transported to Monrovia by an “auntie” or “uncle” who had no blood relationship with the child, and who had promised the child an education.  None of them were going to school.  This is not a large or formal survey, but it probably rings true to many here.  While it is common and acceptable in Liberia for extended networks of family and friends to take care of children from more rural areas, it should not be common or acceptable for adults to exploit children for their own gain, without any concerns for their welfare or future.

I understand the sincere wish of desperately poor or overwhelmed parents who want their children to have better lives.  They send them from more rural areas, hoping the child will be able to go to school or at least have greater opportunities than those available in the village.  But many of these parents don’t realize that their children, upon reaching Monrovia, don’t have opportunities, don’t go to school, are not taken care of, and are in fact being taken advantage of.

I am not suggesting that child labor itself is a form of human trafficking.  We all understand the economic struggle in this country, and many children, including those under 16 years old, willingly try to help their families in any way they can, including by working.  But there is a clear distinction between willingly working to support yourself and even your family, and working because someone has made false promises and uses a child or even an adult without the power to leave the situation.

These issues need to be discussed openly, but it may be difficult to begin the discussion for those who grew up around such a situation.  Perhaps the money for school just never arrived, and instead of having the child just sit around, an adult decides to put the child to work.  It is true that years ago, people saw the situation differently, but that doesn’t mean we did right by those children then, or that it is right today.  We have to help children reach their true potential, not bury it under bags of crackers and peanuts.  I am challenging you, in the next two weeks, to have a conversation with someone about trafficking of Liberian children from the interior to Congotown, Paynesville, Brewersville, Gardnersville, or wherever you live.  This discussion — an honest discussion — starts with you, the upcoming leaders of Liberia.  You are responsible for raising and protecting the next generation, the one that is supposed to take care of you when you are old.  Every child on the street selling during the day is a child not in school, not getting an education, not getting the skills to later become an electrician, professor, epidemiologist, computer consultant, etc.

Fighting trafficking starts with addressing some of the root causes of trafficking.  It requires helping people find a way to security in terms of food and shelter, especially in the counties, so they don’t feel the only option for their children is to live with a stranger in the capital.  In keeping with the Pro-Poor Agenda for Prosperity and Development, it means building roads into rural areas, creating a facilitating market for small-business growth, and investing in health and schools so people have opportunities to grow and thrive in their own communities and with their real families.

On an official level, the Government of Liberia has increased its efforts in the past year and plans to do more, including at the end of this month around the World Day Against Trafficking in Persons.  In the coming year, there are specific actions we know the government is focused on doing to fight trafficking.  Some of our recommendations include:

  1. Increase efforts to vigorously investigate and prosecute trafficking cases;
  2. In partnership with international organizations and experts, train and equip law enforcement, immigration officials, labor inspectors, and social workers to more effectively identify trafficking victims; and,
  3. Increase efforts to raise awareness of trafficking, including trafficking of Liberians within Liberia.

But there are also things you can do to help fight trafficking.  To begin with, the Ministry of Labor operates a telephone hotline for potential victims of human trafficking.  The number is 2-8-8-3.  If you think someone you know or someone you’ve seen might be a victim of exploitation or trafficking, please call that number.  You will speak with trained operators who can help refer you to the Liberia National Police or the Ministry of Gender, depending on what the case requires.  Again, the number is 2-8-8-3.

Another small but important step is to make sure you, your family, and your friends apply for birth registration.  Some estimates cite only 25% of children born in Liberia have their births officially registered.  Having these formal documents protects you and your children and helps ensure that no one can take advantage of you.

Another way you can help is to raise awareness around specific cases and make sure the various agencies of law enforcement see them through to prosecution. One of Liberia’s great strengths is its active civil society and free press.  If you hear about a case of human trafficking, make sure you bring it to the attention of the authorities so they can address it properly.

Finally, if someone from the village asks you to take care of their child, or tells you they want to send their child to Monrovia, please tell them about the risks and dangers of sending their children away, especially with non-relatives.  Tell them that many children who come to Monrovia with the promise of schooling and a new life end up in an unknown place, selling goods or themselves on the streets.

There are also things that we, at the U.S. Embassy, can do to help fight trafficking in Liberia.  Through our office of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, we helped develop a human trafficking course for law enforcement officers, so they are better prepared to identify and investigate cases of trafficking.  Similarly, in my government, the U.S. Department of Labor has worked with the Ministry of Labor to develop a training course for labor inspectors, so they better understand forced child labor.  And we stand ready, through opportunities like this and others, to help start discussions about trafficking, especially about internal trafficking.

In closing, let me add that human trafficking is sometimes called “modern slavery.”  Our shared responsibility to fight an injustice like this predates Liberia’s 2005 trafficking law, or the Palermo Protocol, or the U.S. trafficking law.  Our two nations, by virtue of our connected history, have a unique opportunity and special obligation to advocate for the vulnerable and to bring liberty to those who are exploited.  Next week, we will celebrate Liberia’s 172nd Independence Day.  The framers of your Declaration of Independence, like the drafters of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, outlined universal principles of freedom that can and should apply to all people, even the most marginalized.  The Liberian Declaration of Independence states, “Liberia is an asylum from the most grinding oppression.”  It was an ideal and goal formed by the circumstances of the nation’s founding as a refuge for free men and women.  They continued: “We were animated with the hope that here we should be at liberty to train up our children in the way they should go… to inspire them with the love of an honorable fame… to form strong within them the principles of humanity, virtue, and religion.”  Let us honor those words to train up our children in the way they should go — to provide them every opportunity to give Liberia a prosperous, thriving future, with the promise of liberty for all.


Thank you and enjoy your Independence Day next week!