No room for fraud, waste in fight against human trafficking 

It’s a crime so horrific it makes you shiver with anger. Though this nation abolished slavery 150 years ago, human trafficking continues as a modern-day slave trade.

Brutal criminals withhold passports and threaten workers and their families, forcing them to provide their labor, often as prostitutes.

At least, human trafficking has gotten the attention of Congress, which passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act in 2000 to provide essential services to victims and to prosecute their perpetrators.

However, Congress and the president have blindly thrown money at the problem, resulting in waste, duplication and mismanagement.

The problem begins with the numbers. To gauge if our programs are working, we need baseline statistics, but we have no idea how many trafficking victims there are, much less what percentage we are rescuing.

A Government Accountability Office study found the numbers relied on by the United States were developed by one person who did not document all of his work. The numbers reflected methodological weaknesses, gaps in data and numerical discrepancies. These figures are useless.

Estimates of the number of worldwide victims from both the public and private sectors have ranged from 500,000 to 27 million.

Even one victim is too many, but juxtapose these staggering figures with the numbers of victims rescued each year (380 in 2009), or the number of successful prosecutions (47 in 2009), and it appears we are doing a very poor job fighting this crime.

At the low end of victim estimates, we are saving 0.08 percent of victims; at the high end, our heroism rates at 0.0014 percent. Yet we are spending over $485,000 per victim saved, and almost $3.8 million per criminal convicted.

But even with those we are helping, our programs are marred with waste and mismanagement. On the international side, the State Department has awarded grants for creating a music video about trafficking, producing a 15-minute film, developing a mobile application, and even one $115,000 grant for “no specific project yet.”

Another grant spent $100,000 to assist only 24 women who are vulnerable to being trafficked, but are not trafficking victims. Many of these grants are duplicative of USAID’s trafficking grants. While the goals here may be admirable, this money could be better spent.

Spending for domestic victims doesn’t paint a much brighter picture. The departments of Justice and Health and Human Services both give out grants, often to the same exact organizations for the same exact purpose.

This duplication of effort might not be so bad if these grants were actually helping to solve the problem, but they aren’t.

Between April 2007 and March 2008, the DOJ Inspector General audited only seven of the hundreds of trafficking grants, but found “significant deficiencies” in each, some spending more than $700,000 in unallowable expenditures, others serving far fewer victims than promised.

The grant recipients also spent wildly different amounts per victim, from a low of $2,500 per victim to a high of $71,542.

Furthermore, many different U.S. agencies run trafficking public awareness campaigns with no coordination among them. In the United States alone, separate but duplicative ad campaigns are run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Customs and Border Protection, and Health and Human Services.

It’s not as if these problems are new. In 2005, USAID was funding an organization made up of brothel owners who were using U.S. tax money to bring girls back to their brothels after they were rescued by law enforcement. We were funding the traffickers themselves.

That should have been a wake-up call that more oversight is needed, a call we should heed now before the situation grows even worse.

Russ Ferguson is a former federal prosecutor and former legislative counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

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Russ Ferguson

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