Written by Monti Narayan Datta
The date is May 2000, and I’ve arrived in Thailand for a two-week vacation. I’m headed to the crystalline beaches of Phuket and some snorkeling after a few days of sightseeing in the capital city of Bangkok. It’s over 100 degrees Fahrenheit outside near sunset as I exit Suvarnabhumi International Airport and jump into the first air-conditioned taxi headed downtown.
“Where you from?” the taxi driver grins. He is a middle-aged, pudgy man.
“America,” I exhale, beads of sweet rolling down my face.
The taxi driver looks me over through the rear view mirror and lets me settle in.
“You want girl?” he winks.
My heartbeat quickens. I retreat into my seat. I wipe my brow. “No–just the hotel.” I hand him the address.
The taxi driver shifts in his seat, reassessing me. “Okay, okay,” he hurries.
I close my eyes and rest from the long flight. About half an hour later we slow down. But we are not at the hotel.
“You just look, okay?” the taxi driver encourages, his eyes focused on me through the rear-view mirror with a laser-like stare. He flashes a smile. “If you don’t like, no pressure, no pressure! Okay?”
Bright pink and red lights wash over the taxi under the night sky as we crawl to a stop along a narrow street, sandwiched between skyscrapers. A thin young man garbed in an Armani suit opens the door and beckons me.
“Just look, okay?” he grins.
The well-dressed man escorts me down an alleyway, the end of which opens into a hotel swathed in neon lights. Inside the lobby is a large viewing room encased in glass, like an aquarium cast in a haze of pink light. But instead of fish there are several dozen Thai women in bikinis tagged with numbers, sitting on cushions. At the prompting of another well-dressed man, the women stand to attention, like contestants from the Miss Universe pageant, perking up and preening themselves. Many have dazed stares and smiles cast with fear.
The man in the Armani suit gestures at the women in the fish bowl. He lights a cigarette, takes a drag and looks me over. “200 dollars. Nice bath. Two girls. They wash you. They make you feel good.” He flashes a smile, his eyes burning into me.
I pause. I’m sweating. My heart is pumping. “Thank you…but no.”
Daggers dart from the well-dressed man’s eyes and I wonder if I’m in danger. He bellows at the taxi driver who then pushes me back into the taxi and whisks me away. From the rear of the taxi, as we speed off, I glimpse the man in the Armani suit shouting at me, mouthing words in Thai that I don’t understand. I think about those women and wonder what will become of them–their hopes and dreams under lock and key.
That was one of my first experiences with human trafficking, but it wouldn’t be my last. Over the next several years, wherever I traveled in Asia as a single man, I found a familiar pattern after arriving in major city after major city. Taxi drivers are often operating on commission with local organized crime, to take any male with cash to the local red light district and offer them what the sex trade can offer. The problem isn’t just confined to Asian countries, though. There are nearly one million human slaves in Europe. Human trafficking, including child trafficking, also runs rampant in the U.S. Sadly, many states do not provide adequate protections for victims for trafficking.
It wouldn’t be until nearly a decade later, after settling into my job as an assistant professor of political science at the University of Richmond, that I found a deeper understanding of the rationale behind sex trafficking and other forms of modern day slavery, including forced labor, forced marriage and domestic servitude.
In October 2011, soon after reading Disposable People by Kevin Bales, I met the author. He had been invited to the University of Richmond, where he spoke about the relationship between global slavery and environmental destruction. He spoke about slaves deforesting the Amazon to produce charcoal for pig iron, which goes into the steel for the appliances we use in our kitchens and in the cars that we drive.
I had been looking for a way to study human trafficking and contribute to the antislavery movement. I chatted with Dr. Bales. It turns out he had been looking for a fellow academic who was comfortable with statistical research methods like linear regression analysis, maximum likelihood estimation and other forms of data analysis, which I had been trained in during my doctoral studies under Miroslav Nincic at University of California at Davis. And although I felt comfortable using quantitative methods for hypothesis testing, I was just beginning to understand the academic and policy debates within the antislavery movement. I found a mentor in Kevin Bales who could push and challenge me to think critically about ending slavery, and he found a protégé who could push back and engage his methods to measure the risk factors and prevalence behind estimating slavery.
Kevin summed it up nicely one afternoon over tea. “You know, I’d been looking for you for quite some time, but I just didn’t realize it,” he said.
Partnering with Kevin Bales marked my entrance into the world of the antislavery movement. I got lucky. There are many activists who want to end slavery, but few as gracious and fraternal as Kevin. In a manner of weeks, he became, to borrow from Star Wars, akin to Obi-Wan Kenobi, an elder statesmen trained in the a Jedi arts of abolitionism, putting himself in harm’s way to conduct breathtakingly original research and document contemporary slavery. Then, after the publication of Disposable People, he helped found Free the Slaves, the oldest antislavery organization in the United States, which would become responsible, at least in part, for the liberation of several thousand slaves in India and elsewhere. “The force” was strong with Kevin, and I was delighted to train under his mentorship.
We worked on several projects for the next nine months, including a way to demonstrate the economic benefits of liberation from slavery, what Kevin calls the Freedom Dividend, but it wasn’t until May 2012 that lightning struck. The Walk Free Foundation approached Kevin for his input in constructing a Global Slavery Index, the likes of which the world had never seen. The goal of the index would be to rank countries in terms of: (1) the estimated number of enslaved; and (2) key risk factors that would explain such enslavement.
In the summer of 2012, we rolled up our sleeves and got to work. In addition to shepherding my doctoral thesis into publication with Cambridge University Press, I burnt the midnight oil on finding ways to estimate the number of slaves in the world today. Kevin and I met often in Washington, D.C., prior to his move to Brighton, England. Thereafter, our weekly Skype chats became something of a ritual, sorting and sifting through data to inform the Global Slavery Index.
It has been the thrill of a lifetime. But it hasn’t just been because of the passion and dedication I’ve felt in collaborating with Kevin. It’s been the joy of immersing myself in the world of Walk Free. Founded by philanthropists Andrew and Nicola Forrest, the goal of Walk Free is to end slavery based on core principles of honesty, transparency, hard work, cooperation and bold leadership. It has been the spirit of Andrew and Nicola that has infused the world headquarters of Walk Free in Perth, Australia, where I visited this past summer. The staff of Walk Free, led by the indefatigable Nick Grono, form a powerhouse of ideas, passion, sincerity and a burning desire to free the world’s enslaved.
I have something of a confession to make. Entering the antislavery movement is unlike anything else I’ve ever done. It becomes a part of your life–a part of your heart, mind and soul. And although admittedly the subject matter is sometimes dark, the joy and warmth you feel of working with others who want to end slavery is contagious. It’s a spiritual brotherhood and sisterhood of smart, bright, passionate folks who are doing everything they can to inform the world about the horrors of slavery so that we can take the necessary steps to end it.
Although I’m proud of the work I’ve done on the Global Slavery Index, it is only the beginning. The steps that the international community has begun to take over the past few years — ranging from President Obama’s call to end slavery in September 2012 to the launch of the Walk Free Foundation’s Global Slavery Index in October 2013 — are just the opening notes in a global chorus of voices that are beginning to harmonize. I am so lucky and grateful that I am a voice in this chorus. It is a voice that fills my soul with hope. It is a voice that gives me confidence that I can one day, hopefully, help others find their voices as they escape enslavement and find a life of reintegration into society.
Photo Credit: Flickr