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Pro Bono

A voice for trafficking victims

Martina Vandenberg, President and Founder of The Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center, shares her perspective on how to combat trafficking in the United States.

Why is human trafficking an important issue in the US today?

Human trafficking has always existed. But until recently, it has been largely invisible in the United States. Only in the last ten years or so have people started recognizing that human trafficking exists here, in the United States, and that the abuses encompass forced labor, forced prostitution and the commercial sexual exploitation of children. We are also seeing a huge paradigm shift; now we're placing the blame squarely where it belongs—on the perpetrators.

It's actually tragic that so few trafficking victims know that they can bring charges against their traffickers and recover damages.

What is being done to deter trafficking?

Traffickers need to be punished to the full extent of the law. We need to obtain accountability by either pressing criminal charges or through civil judgments. We may not be able to put all traffickers in prison, but we can certainly relieve them of their assets. In 2003, Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protections Reauthorization Act, which gives trafficking victims the right to sue their traffickers for damages. But in the past ten years, we have had just 117 cases brought in federal courts. It's actually tragic that so few trafficking victims know that they can bring charges against their traffickers and recover damages.

The Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center pairs trafficking victims with highly competent, well-trained pro bono lawyers. In little more than one year, we have trained about 900 US lawyers, primarily from large firms, including White & Case. After attending one of our training sessions, a New York partner at White & Case signed up to bring the fourth civil sex trafficking suit in US history.

The world's focus on human trafficking has been in large part on the sex industry. Work highlighting all forms of human trafficking has helped to broaden the scope so we understand that this abuse encompasses other groups as well. White & Case has reviewed policies and legislation on domestic worker labor laws around the world to determine compliance with the ILO's Domestic Workers Convention. This research has been used to strengthen national legislation. White & Case has also populated an online global database of criminal trafficking cases that have been prosecuted or litigated for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. That database is very useful for research and determining global trends. It complements our own database, which is focused entirely on litigation under US statutes.

What more can be done?

Every trafficking victim in the United States who wants legal services should have access to a pro bono lawyer, someone who will fight for their rights through criminal cases, a civil case and any ancillary administrative or family law concerns that may emerge as that person tries to rebuild a life. One of my goals is to increase the number of civil cases brought under trafficking laws in the United States. Sometimes victims don't want to go forward with a trafficking case. That's fine. The point is to restore the reins of decision making to them, to empower them, to give them the best legal advice possible so they can make informed decisions.


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