The Face of Injustice
By Congressman Joe Pitts
William Wilberforce is one of my heroes. As a member of the British Parliament in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, he led the fight to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire. He succeeded, and in the twilight of his life, watched as his countrymen made his life long dream a reality by emancipating all slaves in the Empire in 1833.
During the first debate in Parliament on his Abolition Bill, Wilberforce discussed the inability of the slave merchants to understand the grave injustice they were committing. Attributing this to their failure to understand the effect of their "horrid trade" on people, he said, using the terms of the day,
"I verily believe therefore, if the wretchedness of any one of the many hundred Negroes stowed in each ship could be brought before their view, and remain within the sight of the African Merchant, that there is no one among them whose heart would bear it."
He understood that the slave trade was incredibly lucrative for these merchants and for the British economy as a source of cheap labor. However, he held that if people were confronted with the face of injustice they would come to understand the human tragedy they supported, and it would not continue.
In this nation, we had similar experiences. We fought a civil war over slavery. And much of the first half of the 20th century was spent coming to grips with the effects of racist policies on our African-American neighbors. We wrestle with the effects of racism to this very day.
Sadly, the slave trade continues to rear its ugly head. While, it is not focused on one race in particular, modern day slavery continues to be a lucrative profession for many across the world, including right here in the United States. We call this trade trafficking in persons.
The State Department estimates that at least 800,000 men, women, and children are trafficked each year into the sex industry or slave-like labor conditions. Other United States government reports estimate that between 18-20,000 victims are trafficked into the United States each year.
In Wilberforce's day, slave traders explained away the injustice of captivity by pointing to all the "amenities" offered to the slaves. Today, women are lured from their homes by the promise of a well-paying job or a better life. When they arrive overseas, they are forced into a brothel and told their family back home will be harmed if they do not perform adequately.
In some Persian Gulf States, young boys are trafficked to serve as camel jockeys - as the terrified child, tied to the camel's back, screams in terror, it makes the camels run faster in races.
In India, many young girls and boys are trafficked into the infamous red light district in Bombay. And, in other nations, people are trafficked and forced to labor in harmful conditions - similar to prison camps. It is vital that as the issue of trafficking is analyzed, we, particularly the United States Government, remain focused on the individuals affected by this terrible crime.
In January 2003, I visited the New Life Center in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and saw the wonderful impact the work of people like Rev. Bethell and others had on the lives of young girls. During that trip, I also traveled to the Thai-Burma border and met with NGOs, refugees, and government officials. One of the most heart-wrenching aspects of the journey was a visit to a refugee orphanage.
There we listened to stories about the tragedy in these young lives. An eight-year-old boy, who could not smile, had lost both parents, was then trafficked across the border to Thailand, somehow escaped from his "owners," and reached the relative safety of the refugee camps. Many children like him are at risk.
Reports from NGOs working with victims reveal a need for further resources, particularly shelters and safe houses for the victims. Trafficking victims often need to recover from a host of physical and emotional health issues. That is why aftercare programs are so essential to re-entry of victims into society.
These human stories offer a look at the face of this grave injustice that happens on our watch as a world leader. William Wilberforce, despite his life-long mission to abolish slavery, accepted guilt by implication. He said in 1789 that, "we are all guilty-we ought all to plead guilty, and not to exculpate ourselves by throwing the blame on others."
We may not participate in or benefit from this modern day slave trade, but we are in a position to stop it. We can bring an end to this horrid trade by promoting aftercare programs, shedding light on trafficking networks, and pressuring governments to drop their support of this new form of slavery.