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Buying freedom isn’t good enough

October 6, 2009

AZERBAIJAN – Azade, 22, left rural Azerbaijan to work at a massage parlor in Baku. But the massage parlor was a cover for a brothel. Soon after she arrived, a client who worked for the brothel owner forced himself on Azade and threatened to show a videotape of the assault to her father unless she engaged in prostitution at the brothel. Fearing the social stigma attached to rape and the consequences of bringing shame to her family, Azade submitted to several months of forced prostitution before she escaped with the help of an anti-trafficking NGO. (TIP 2009)

The Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report  (TIP) from June 2009 includes the following brief piece on the issue of buying freedom. You can download the entire report here.

Many NGOs dedicated to eradicating modern-day slavery do a lot of fundraising in order to buy slaves from their owners, and set them free. Results are immediate, and dramatic for the formerly enslaved individual, but is it the best option?

Buying or Negotiating a Victim’s Freedom

Among the repugnant aspects of human trafficking is the commodification of human lives: the assignment of a monetary value to the life of a woman, man, or child. Whether in an Indian brother or in the Lake Volta fishing industry of Ghana, a price is placed on a victim’s freedom.

Anti-slavery organizations and activists have sometimes opted to pay the price of victims’ freedom from their exploiters. Negotiating a victim’s freedom or paying the ransom brings instant results. While this releases victims from the bonds of modern-day slavery, the implications of this practice are more complicated.

If trafficking victims are freed because of a payment or negotiation, the trafficker remains unpunished and unrepentant and is free to find new victims to perform the same service. By “purchasing” a victim’s freedom, well-intentioned individuals or organizations may inadvertently provide traffickers with financial incentive to find new victims. While the numbers of victims rescued from compensated or negotiated releases can seem impressive, it is difficult to determine whether they lead to a net reduction in the number of victims. Still, the enslavement may continue without any cost or punishment to the trafficker or exploiter.

A more lasting and effective way to secure a victim’s freedom is through the application of law: holding traffickers and those who exploit trafficking victims accountable under criminal justice systems. Criminal provisions assign a punitive cost to this trade in humans, a cost that the exploiters are likely to respect and fear. Applying criminal laws also provides society with a measure of justice and hope that the cycle of entrapping additional victims can be broken. Negotiating with traffickers provides none of this.

Some very good points. Although I imagine the issue has more shades of gray if you’re in the midst of it. It would be difficult for me to refuse to pay the price to set of woman free for 25+ rapes every day, but if her freedom enslaves another …


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