As Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker considers how to use his remaining time in office to address human trafficking, there is a simple, bipartisan step he can take.
Go after the money.
There is a lot of money involved in modern-day slavery. Billions and billions of dollars. So where is all that money?
According to the state department, there are as many as 27 million people being trafficked today, and it’s more profitable than any other illegal enterprise except drugs. In one of the deepest stains on the global conscience, millions of the victims are children, trafficked for sex.
One of the main issues law enforcement faces with shutting down human trafficking operations is the confusion of victims for criminals. Someone thinks they are being hired for a job, only to find they are to work without pay in another country, while their traffickers hold their passports.
If such a victim encounters law enforcement, the victim could be mistaken for someone working illegally. Thanks to the tireless work of advocates across the country — where Tennessee is a leader — many police departments and emergency room personnel have been trained to recognize trafficking victims and help them escape. While awareness is growing, this is still a problem.
This dynamic also makes it that much harder to hold those profiting from human exploitation accountable. Victim testimony as a basis for prosecution is complicated, and painful for the victims.
This brings us back to the question at hand: Where is the money?
It’s not a mystery why people exploit others in forced labor or sex work. They do it to make money.
Better financial enforcement also helps take the pressure off victims. If we were able to bring money-laundering charges against traffickers, we wouldn’t need to rely on victim testimony to put traffickers behind bars.
There are bipartisan bills before Congress right now that would make it easier to catch traffickers for money laundering by ending anonymous companies, companies formed without any way of knowing who owns or benefits from their activities. Because it’s impossible to tell — even for law enforcement — who is behind these shadow companies, they are a favorite tool for setting up front businesses or moving dirty money.
Anonymous companies are used in all manner of crimes, from drug trafficking, to tax dodging, consumer fraud and even terrorist financing. But their application to human trafficking is multi-layered.
In 2016, anti-slavery advocates at Polaris analyzed public information to identify human trafficking occurring in businesses fronting as massage parlors in eight cities across the country. The inability to identify beneficial ownership was a recurring challenge in every location. In Fairfax County, Va., alone, Polaris identified 108 illicit massage businesses that were connected to 181 different corporations.
These anonymous shell businesses allow criminals to post ads, for clearly illegal services, with no way to connect the business listed with its true owners. Global Witness, in their “Great Rip Off” report, found that a Moldovan gang used anonymous companies from Kansas, Missouri and Ohio to trick victims from overseas in a $6 million dollar human trafficking scheme. Anonymous shell companies are ideal for tricking people in this way.
January is human trafficking awareness month, and we’re hoping this can be an opportunity for all of Congress to get behind bills introduced by Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Peter King in the House, and Sens. Ron Wyden and Marco Rubio in the Senate to give law enforcement access to who really owns a company.
So where is the money that modern slavers are making? That’s a question that we can’t answer without action from Congress.
Maybe the real question is: Will Congress help us go after the money?