by Gabrielle Jorgensen
The Virginia House of Delegates unanimously passed Del. Timothy Hugo’s, R-Prince William, bill to define the term “human trafficking” and make coercion and recruitment into the sex trade a felony offense. The bill, whose counterpart has already passed in the state Senate, would make Virginia the last state to incorporate sex trafficking into its criminal code. While the U.S. has enacted federal legislation prohibiting trafficking and providing a roadmap for prosecution, there exists no comparable state-level statute. This transition to a codified felony is by no means a symbolic gesture. Human trafficking is not unique to Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe: it is modern enslavement, and it is happening in Virginia.
Hugo’s bill, if passed through both chambers, would be a crucial step toward addressing a particularly misunderstood and underreported crime. The current state-level deficiency makes it difficult for law enforcement to identify both traffickers and their victims or for the state to systematically collect data without an apparatus for prosecution. The lack of data, in turn, allows issues like human trafficking slide under the radar of major funding sources that could potentially help victims.
As noted by the Washington Post, Prince William and Fairfax counties in particular provide a surprisingly fertile breeding ground for the commercial sex trade.
Their affluent demographics call for less specifically trained patrol officers than would be found at conventional border sites, but their locations near major international transit hubs make them ideal for ease of transport and camouflage. Proximity to airports allows traffickers to expand their operations well beyond Virginia’s borders, contributing to what has become one of the world’s most difficult legal conundrums. NGOs and international governing bodies have exposed the severity of global sex trafficking—the Polaris Project estimates 800,000 people are victims of cross-border trafficking each year.
To address an obvious violation of the United Nations’ human rights ideals, 119 parties within the U.N. have adopted a Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons and the E.U. has similarly adopted a Convention on Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings. The U.N. protocol in particular was designed with criminal prosecution in mind and compels states to use law enforcement against trafficking to the best of their capacity. The trouble, however, is that international law violations are neither easily monitored nor conventionally punishable, which is why the Virginia legislation is so critical.
The trouble with enforcing international human trafficking laws is two-faceted. Data on trafficking activity is difficult to obtain without highly trained border agents who can recognize the difference between a victim and a smuggler or prostitute acting of her own volition. Untrained agents could mistakenly arrest a victim of sexual enslavement for prostitution. Second, while NGOs are generally significant assets in the way of information provision and support, it is an immeasurably complicated and time-consuming process for one state to indict a trafficker who has crossed international borders. Multiple countries with differing views on international involvement or conflicting judicial systems can make this process even more complex. Political levers, such as sanctions, bound international law. The absence of a true international government obscures the possibility for any kind of standardized criminal indictment and sentencing procedure.
International law, especially with respect to multifaceted criminal acts such as human trafficking, will never be conventionally enforceable without a major restructuring of international legal apparatuses. Thus the issue of cross-border human trafficking must be addressed at the local level. Hugo’s bill would be a positive step for Virginia in its effort to criminalize trafficking and impose sentencing minimums for those convicted. If the Virginia General Assembly is serious about curbing the commercial sex trade, it should pass the bill and initiate a process of specialized training for law enforcement.