Queensland Professor Addresses Human Trafficking Myths and Realities in Short Course, Lecture

Most of us are familiar with how human trafficking is portrayed in movies and television. Victims are abducted, taken to a strange place, and forced to work against their will. However, that scenario rarely plays out in the real world, says Andreas Schloenhardt, professor at the University of Queensland TC Beirne School of Law.

“Most cases do not involve someone taken against their will,” Schloenhardt adds. “They  involve people who knew where they were going and why, but they did not know the conditions they would be forced to work under. It’s very rare that anyone is kidnapped and forced into slavery.”

Schloenhardt’s visit to the campus deepened the student and faculty exchange agreement between TC Beirne and Washington University School of Law. That agreement—which also established a dual-degree program through which students of each school can earn a Master of Laws (LL.M.) degree at the other—is one of the law school’s 14 international exchange agreements. 

Schloenhardt’s lecture providing insights from an Australian perspective on the issue of human trafficking was co-sponsored by the Immigration Law Society, International Law Society, and Family Law Society. In addition, Schloenhardt taught an intensive course on Trafficking in Persons: International Law and Practice while on ampus.

 According to Schloenhardt, the United Nations’ protocol on trafficking focuses on three elements:

  • the act of recruiting, transporting, transferring, harboring, or receiving a person;
  • the means, which can include threat, force, coercion, abduction, fraud, or deception; and
  • the purpose, ranging from prostitution and sexual exploitation to forced labor

Consistent with the protocol’s criteria, the victim’s “consent” is irrelevant; as long as the offender has committed any of the acts spelled out in the protocol, trafficking has occurred, Schloenhardt said.

That’s an important concept in Australia, where 98 percent of victims are prostitutes from Southeast Asia, mostly Thailand, who are seeking better pay in Australia. Other victims are prostitutes from South Korea, where prostitution was recently recriminalized, he said.

Still, trafficking is relatively rare in Australia. Since 2001, only 350 cases have been prosecuted. Virtually all of them involve adults, and most have previous experience in the sex industry. But it’s what they encounter “on the job” that makes them trafficking victims.

“It’s not the quantity but quality of exploitation that is the issue and that makes trafficking a heinous crime,” Schloenhardt said.

For example, often the victim is placed in “debt bondage,” where the trafficker imposes a large debt that the victim has to “work off.” Schloenhardt said that in Australia, the trafficker often keeps an accounting of the victim’s progress toward decreasing the debt. While the debt may eventually be paid off and the victim released, the coercive means the perpetrator has used classify it as trafficking.

Following Schloenhardt’s comments, Abby Howard of the St. Louis Rescue and Restore Coalition and Kristine Walentik from Catholic Legal Services offered a local context for understanding human trafficking. Howard’s organization provides a network for victims and links them to resources, like the International Institute of St. Louis, Recovery House, and YWCA. Catholic Legal Services provides victims with legal assistance.

Howard said the Western District of Missouri has prosecuted more cases of trafficking than any other jurisdiction in the nation. And unlike Australia, most cases in Missouri involve sex trafficking of minors.

Nationally, Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 to encourage victims to come forward, because it is difficult to get convictions without victim testimony. The act created Visa T and Visa U to allow victims to stay in the United States for four years, as long as they have worked with police in trafficking cases.

However, victim cooperation is often difficult to obtain, given the language and cultural barriers and shame they have experienced. In addition, most programs are set up to provide victims with services, not to prevent trafficking from occurring.

“This is a crime that is happening around us, in our own backyards, every day,” Walentik said. “We need to build awareness to identify victims of trafficking and provide referral services for potential victims.”

 By Timothy J. Fox