It’s easier to ignore the slaves if they never arrive

The U.S. State Department released its annual Trafficking in Persons Report this week. Much has been made of the Saudi reaction to the report, as that country was the only major U.S. ally to be placed in the worst category of offenders of modern-day slavery. I was a little more interested in what the report ...

608378_trafficking8.jpg
608378_trafficking8.jpg

The U.S. State Department released its annual Trafficking in Persons Report this week. Much has been made of the Saudi reaction to the report, as that country was the only major U.S. ally to be placed in the worst category of offenders of modern-day slavery.

I was a little more interested in what the report would have to say, if anything, about the trafficking of people to Iraq to help rebuild the country. Unfortunately, the department doesn't rank Iraq (mostly because the data aren't available), but it does provide a breakdown of some of the country's specific issues. What most intrigued me was not the report, but an exchange during Under Secretary of State John R. Miller's press briefing:

QUESTION: Have there been any prosecutions of Pentagon contractors or subcontractors?

The U.S. State Department released its annual Trafficking in Persons Report this week. Much has been made of the Saudi reaction to the report, as that country was the only major U.S. ally to be placed in the worst category of offenders of modern-day slavery.

I was a little more interested in what the report would have to say, if anything, about the trafficking of people to Iraq to help rebuild the country. Unfortunately, the department doesn’t rank Iraq (mostly because the data aren’t available), but it does provide a breakdown of some of the country’s specific issues. What most intrigued me was not the report, but an exchange during Under Secretary of State John R. Miller’s press briefing:

QUESTION: Have there been any prosecutions of Pentagon contractors or subcontractors?

AMB. MILLER: The [question] was on DOD, a Department of Defense response to the story at the end of 2005 about trafficking to Iraq. The story specifically involved trafficking of Nepalese workers through Jordan into Iraq and we have a specific page on that, page 19, what the Defense Department has done. There was a lengthy Defense Department investigation. To answer […] your question, there have been no prosecutions yet. This was a complicated trail involving recruiting firms in Nepal that had deceptive advertisements, other recruiting firms in Jordan that engaged in deception. In the case of these particular victims, they never even reached a contractor in Iraq. They were killed on the way in. 

So you can’t blame the contractor; it never even received the indentured servants because they died on the way!

Granted, State outlines some of the steps that DoD has taken to combat such abuse of foreign nationals, including:

  • All employees of Defense Department contractors or subcontractors will be provided a signed copy of their employment contract that defines the terms of their employment and compensation.
  • Contractors and subcontractors must be licensed recruiting firms.
  • Recruiting firms must not charge employees illegal recruitment fees.

But it seems hard to imagine that the kind of servitude that the State Department describes will be solved simply by ensuring that the Defense Department only hires licensed firms. Miller’s response, as well as the brief on the country in the report, highlight some of the overlooked deaths in the ongoing crisis in Iraq. That is, those people from primarily Southeast Asian nations who travel to the country (often involuntarily) for work only to be killed by insurgents and other violence.  

Kate Palmer is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy.

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