Rep. Chris Smith

is a Republican representing New Jersey's Fourth Congressional District

Human trafficking - modern-day slavery - remains one of the most dehumanizing yet preventable forms of exploitation on Earth.

Despite serious efforts by the United States and others to combat trafficking, this pernicious cruelty, by any objective yardstick, appears to be getting worse - or at least more visible. Still, without our efforts to date, human traffickers would be operating with impunity.

According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), profits from sex trafficking exceed $217 billion a year, or about $23,000 per victim. Organized crime is making a killing. A recent United Nations report ranked human trafficking third as a profit-making illegal industry behind arms dealing and drugs. No country, including our own, is exempt.

Too much demand, enabled by crass indifference, unbridled hedonism and misogyny, has turned people - especially women - into objects, valued only for their utility in the brothel or the sweatshop.

Each year, about 800,000 people are trafficked internationally, millions more inside various nations' borders. Almost 80 percent are women or girls. Half are minors. The ILO estimates that more than 12 million are subjected to sexual servitude, bonded labor or child labor.

In the late 1990s, I organized and chaired the first congressional hearings on human trafficking. Our key witnesses then, and at more than a dozen hearings in subsequent years, were women who escaped or were rescued from the thugs who traffic in human beings. Over the years, women consistently told my committee how they were deceived, coerced, drugged, kidnapped, beaten and repeatedly raped. They told us how the traffickers use the threat of swift, devastating and brutal retaliation against the victim as well as her family as a means of destroying any hope of ever becoming free.

One Russian woman - a lawyer - told us how she was deceived by what she thought was "a nice middle-age woman" - in reality, a trafficking recruiter - into thinking she could obtain employment in Hamburg, Germany. Once in Hamburg, she was forced into prostitution, told the police were on the take, and heard stories and saw pictures of Russian girls killed when they approached the police. One of her friends, also a victim, told us she was beaten senseless by her captors. Stories of this kind are commonplace.

In December 2000, after a two-year legislative push, President Clinton signed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA), which I authored. It included the three P's: prosecute traffickers (up to life imprisonment), protect victims (via shelters and a new T-visa for the victim and her family), and prevent trafficking through public-information campaigns. Expansions of the act in 2003 and 2005, both signed by President Bush, targeted trafficking in the U.S. military, U.N. peacekeeping deployments, and NATO. To date, the United States has spent more than $525 million implementing the act.

Among its numerous provisions, the act created the State Department Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Office, which presents an annual report, chronicling trafficking abuse by country and ranking each country. If minimum standards prescribed in the TVPA are not met, and serious and sustained efforts not made to meet them, that country is liable to an array of sanctions and penalties.

The TVPA authorizes the U.S. government to withhold from noncooperative governments certain non-humanitarian foreign aid, including military grants and sales. Proving that such smart, judiciously applied human rights sanctions work, about 100 countries since 2001 have enacted antitrafficking laws that look just like ours. Of equal importance, most of those nations are actually enforcing their laws. Since passage of the TVPA, not only have convictions of traffickers in the United States increased more than threefold, but also there have been more than 16,800 convictions worldwide. That's progress.

Up to 17,500 foreigners, mostly women, are trafficked into the United States from abroad each year. American teenage runaways are hunted by pimps at train stations and bus depots to enslave them. The TVPA gives the U.S. attorney general many new tools to fight back, including grants for state and local law enforcement to facilitate trafficking prosecutions. To protect U.S. victims, the act authorizes $10 million for a residential juvenile treatment program and $20 million to assist domestic trafficking victims.

With the lives of so many in the balance, we must continue our campaign to eradicate modern-day slavery.

Rep. Chris Smith is a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. For more on the Trafficking Victims Protection Act: