Human Trafficking: International Efforts by U.S. Agencies to Combat a Global Problem

Federal agencies are implementing a range of efforts to combat international human trafficking. GAO found gaps that could impede these efforts, such as unclear roles and weaknesses in tracking.

The big picture

Human trafficking, also known as human trafficking, is a long-standing global problem. Although data is limited by the clandestine nature of trafficking, the International Labor Organization estimates that approximately 25 million people were victims of human trafficking worldwide in 2016.

Victims of human trafficking are often held in slave-like conditions and forced to work in the sex trade and other types of servitude. The US government has also found forced labor overseas in a number of industries producing goods that are or can be imported into the United States.

Various laws, regulations, and US agency policies and guidelines exist to combat trafficking. Several federal agencies are also working to combat trafficking. For instance:

US International Anti-Trafficking Programs. The Departments of State and Labor and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) run development assistance projects aimed at preventing trafficking, prosecuting traffickers, and protecting survivors.

World ranking and reports. State and Labor publish reports containing information on human trafficking and forced labor around the world. For example, the annual State Report on Trafficking in Persons ranks countries based on the extent of their governments’ anti-trafficking efforts.

Law enforcement. US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is working to enforce a law prohibiting the importation of goods produced by forced labor. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has a role to play in investigating potential crimes related to forced labor.

Monitoring of contracts and purchases. The State, Department of Defense (DOD), and USAID oversee contractors for overseas services to ensure they meet anti-trafficking requirements to help protect foreign workers from traffickers. The DOD also has policies and processes for its commissioners and exchanges around the world — which provide retail goods to service members — to prevent the resale of goods produced with forced labor.

What the GAO’s work shows

1. Understaffing and unclear roles and responsibilities have hampered counter-trafficking efforts.

We found that CBP has increased the resources of its Forced Labor Division, which it created in 2018 to lead efforts to prevent imports of forced labor. However, CBP had not assessed the division’s labor needs, such as numbers, types, locations, or specialized skills. As a result, the division encountered difficulties in enforcing the ban on forced labor. For example, it had to suspend some ongoing investigations due to a lack of staff. We recommended that CBP assess the division’s labor needs. (GAO-21-106)

In addition, DOD, State, and USAID procurement officers responsible for overseeing contracts and procurement were not always aware of or did not fulfill their anti-trafficking responsibilities. not because of unclear guidelines. For instance:

  • Twelve of the 14 Army and Navy procurement officers we spoke with were unaware of their anti-trafficking oversight responsibilities for federal contracts. Additionally, the DOD did not consistently report trafficking violations and investigations of foreign contractors, as required by the guidelines. (GAO-21-546)
  • The DOD, the state, and USAID had not provided clear guidelines to help ensure that foreign workers recruited by U.S. government contractors overseas were not subject to recruitment fees that could lead to debt bondage – a form of trafficking abuse. (GAO-15-102)

In response to our recommendations, agencies have taken steps to improve contract monitoring, for example by helping to update regulations that could help prevent traffic abuse related to recruitment fees. But the DOD has yet to clarify responsibility for reporting trafficking violations and investigating contractors.

2. Problems with data reliability and information sharing have hampered anti-trafficking efforts.

We found issues with data reliability and sharing of TIP information, which could impede agencies’ efforts to ensure compliance with US laws and regulations as well as agency policies and guidelines. For instance:

  • Incomplete and inconsistent data may have hampered CBP’s monitoring of the status of forced labor cases. (GAO-21-106)
  • CBP had not released information that would help importers comply with US law prohibiting imports of forced labor products. (GAO-21-259)
  • CBP had not disclosed the types of information that nongovernmental sources might collect and submit to help it identify imports of seafood produced with forced labor. (GAO-20-441)

DOD officials had not used information available from other agencies about the risks that goods sold in commissaries and stock exchanges were produced with forced labor. (GAO-22-105056)

In response to our recommendations, CBP and DOD have taken steps to improve data reliability and information sharing. But the DOD has not yet instructed its officials to use other agencies’ information on at-risk goods.

3. Weaknesses in surveillance have limited efforts to ensure the effectiveness of anti-trafficking efforts.

We found weaknesses in agencies’ monitoring of their international counter-trafficking efforts. For instance:

  • The state did not have adequate documentation, such as monitoring plans and progress reports, for its anti-trafficking projects. (GAO-19-77)
  • The state and CBP had not established performance goals, which limits their ability to assess the effectiveness of their anti-trafficking efforts. (GAO-17-56, GAO-19-77, GAO-21-106)

In response to our recommendations, agencies have taken steps to improve their monitoring. For example, the state and CBP have established goals to measure progress toward anti-trafficking goals. In addition, the state, USAID, and Labor have taken steps to overcome difficulties in evaluating the effectiveness of anti-trafficking projects. (GAO-21-53) Continued attention to monitoring and evaluation is essential to ensure that federal anti-trafficking efforts achieve desired results.

Policy Implementation Considerations

  • The COVID-19 pandemic and other crises, such as the conflict in Ukraine, have increased the risks of international trafficking. What lessons can be learned to mitigate the impact of these crises on trafficking and guide the efforts of agencies to combat it?
  • Congress enacted the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Law in December 2021 to ensure that products made with forced labor in China’s Xinjiang region do not enter the US market. What challenges do U.S. agencies and importers face in implementing the requirements of the law?
  • Since 2015, the US government has entered into child protection compacts with selected countries to combat child trafficking. How has the US government implemented and evaluated the progress of these partnerships? Our future work will examine the strengths and challenges of these approaches.

For more information, contact Latesha Love at (202) 512-4409 or [email protected]