The sad reality of human trafficking

He met her in a Starbucks in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. While the story she told was gut-wrenching, it wasn’t unlike those he’d heard countless times over the past four years.

Nour Miyati, an Indonesian woman in her 20s, had come to Saudi Arabia to work as a domestic servant. But her dream of supporting her family back home turned into a nightmare. Her employers abused and tortured her. She lost fingers and toes to gangrene when the wounds from her beatings went untreated and festered. When she finally escaped and sought justice in a Saudi court, she was sentenced to 79 lashes.

"It was heartrending," John Miller said of his meeting with Miyati.

Miller, a former Republican congressman from Seattle, has traveled the world as the head of the State Department’s office to monitor and combat human trafficking. But after visiting 50 countries since 2002, pleading his case with crown princes and prime ministers and meeting, by his count, more than 1,000 survivors of 21st-century slavery, Miller is moving on.

"It’s been rewarding and I think we have made a difference," Miller said in an interview. "But I’m worn down, and after four years it is time for a change."

As he leaves to take a job as a professor at George Washington University, Miller said the human-trafficking problem can be overwhelming. There are no easy answers or quick fixes. And even the blunt threats of diplomacy, such as withholding aid or imposing sanctions, can be ineffective.

Every year, an estimated 600,000 to 800,000 men, women and children are trafficked across international borders, according to the State Department. About 80 percent of them are women and girls. Up to half are minors.

Most of them are victims of sex trafficking, winding up as prostitutes in countries ranging from the Dominican Republic to the Netherlands to Japan. Others are forced to become beggars or child soldiers. Still others are forced to work in sweatshops 20 hours a day or are trapped in involuntary servitude as construction or domestic workers.

After four years of listening to victims’ stories, it takes a lot to shock Miller.

He recalled meeting an 11-year-old who worked in a Southeast Asia embroidery factory whose owner poured acid on her and shot her. He met a man in India who was an indentured servant at a brick mill because his grandfather had borrowed 20 or 30 rupees years ago and the family had been unable to repay the debt. In Amsterdam, he met a Czech woman who was forced into prostitution after being told she’d never see her 2-year-old daughter again if she didn’t cooperate.

When it come to human trafficking, no country is clean, including the United States. Every year, about 17,500 people are smuggled across U.S. borders into slavery, Miller said.

"Are we doing enough?" Miller said. "No. No country is doing enough."

Each year, the State Department is required to submit a report to Congress on what other countries are doing to eliminate human trafficking. This year, the report assessed the efforts of 149 countries. Twelve of them, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, Venezuela and Zimbabwe, were identified as "Tier 3" countries that don’t comply with minimum standards and aren’t making significant steps to comply. Another 32 countries were on a watch list.

Under U.S. law, the federal government can withhold non-humanitarian aid from the worst offenders. In addition, these countries can face U.S. opposition to assistance from such international financial institutions as the World Bank. But such steps are rarely taken and, in most cases, the threats are toothless. Most Tier 3 countries don’t receive U.S. aid or international financial assistance.

Though there’s no way to know whether the number of victims has peaked, Miller said there are signs of progress.

More than 80 countries have passed anti-trafficking laws in the past two years. This year, there’ll be an estimated 4,700 convictions in trafficking cases. Two or three years ago there were several hundred. The number of shelters for victims is growing, as is public awareness.

Stories like those of Nour Miyati trouble Miller, especially the sentence she received. The Saudi court ordered no punishment for her male owner, 35 lashes for her female owner and 79 lashes for Miyati because of disloyalty, he said.

Miller said he raised Miyati’s case in a meeting with the Saudi crown prince, and her sentence was reversed. Though Miyati plans to return home to Indonesia eventually, she remains in Saudi Arabia pursuing her case.

"She’s still fighting," Miller said. "She is an amazing and courageous person."