May 20, 2022

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Secretary Antony J. Blinken Opening Remarks at the Annual Meeting of the President’s Interagency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (PITF)

6 min read

Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State

Washington, D.C.

Department of State

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Good afternoon, everyone.  Welcome to all of you and welcome to those tuning in online.  This is our administration’s first meeting of the President’s Interagency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, which I have the honor of chairing.  And to kick off today’s meeting it is a great pleasure to introduce our first speaker, a longstanding leader on these issues, the Vice President of the United States.

Madam Vice President, the floor is yours.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Madam Vice President, thank you so much, not just for starting us off today but for your leadership on this issue for a long, long time, for the extremely evocative words but also for demonstrating in what you’ve done and the focus you’re bringing to this now how we can actually make practical progress in tackling the issue.  And we are grateful for that leadership.  We’re grateful having you here today to start us off.

Let me just say a bit more about why we’re here today and what we’re going to do over the next couple of hours.  To pick up where the Vice President left off, we have an estimated 25 million people around the world subjected to human trafficking, every one of them a human being exploited in some way – for labor, for services, for sex.  Through force, through fraud, through coercion, traffickers violate the most basic right of people everywhere to be free.

We know, we feel, the human toll.  And of course, that is borne most of all by the victims of trafficking.  But it’s also worth noting that the impact extends far beyond those subject to trafficking to society as a whole.  Human trafficking erodes the rule of law, the safety of our communities, the security of our borders, the strength of our economy.  Forced labor, as the Vice President was speaking to, which is used to produce so many of the things that we buy and that we use every single day, from the food on our tables to the essential minerals that go into the devices probably a number of us are using at this very moment to log on to this event.  The use of forced labor gives an unfair advantage to businesses that exploit workers, hurts those that follow fair labor practices, and misleads consumers about the real costs of production.

This is, by definition, a global problem.  Victims come from every part of the world, as documented in our annual report.  Traffickers operate in virtually every country, including here in the United States.  And because this is a global problem we have to have a global coalition to confront it, one that cuts across government, business, civil society, all other parts of our society.  We also have to find more ways to put effective pressure on governments that engage in or enable human trafficking – China, Cuba, North Korea, Russia.

The recent bipartisan Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which cracks down on the profits Beijing can make from state-sponsored forced labor in Xinjiang and beyond, is one example of how we can do this.  And I want to thank Congress for its leadership on this front.  We need more efforts like that one.

This is a crime that all parts of our government have to work together to address, and I think we have evidence of that commitment today just on the screen with the participation of 20 cabinets or departments and agencies.  That shows, it demonstrates very vividly, that this really is a whole-of-government effort.  Every agency has a role to play, and our new National Action Plan provides a roadmap for how to do that – again, here in the United States but also around the world.

So what we’d like to do is to ask principals from every federal government agency involved in this effort to set out their major priorities in tackling the trafficking problem with a special focus on what’s new in these efforts.  And let me just add that this is an effort that has been underway for some years across multiple administrations, and a torch is passed to this administration to carry on the work, to dig even deeper, and to make genuine progress in combating trafficking.

Before we hear from colleagues, I’ve got something that is a particular pleasure, and that is to recognize the recipients of the 2021 Presidential Award for Extraordinary Efforts to Combat Trafficking in Persons.  So if you will bear with me for a few minutes, I want to recognize the awardees.

As the Vice President said, one of the core priorities of the new National Action Plan is to persistently work to engage survivors in every part of the anti-trafficking effort, from prevention to protection to prosecution.  Survivors are uniquely positioned to ensure that our policies and strategies are victim-centered and trauma-informed, which is crucial to their effectiveness.  And that’s exactly what Tanya Gould, who spent decades at this, has been doing.

A survivor of domestic sex trafficking, Tanya has dedicated her life to helping people who have been victimized by sexual violence, and she has made herself an indispensable ally of institutions and individuals working to help and to empower survivors.  She’s developed trainings that teach doctors and nurses what to listen and look for to identify trafficking victims and how to communicate in a way that’s respectful and meets victims where they are.

She helped the Department of Education improve its guidance to teachers, to counselors, and others in schools to prevent kids from being targeted, to spot warning signs of trafficking, and to support students who are survivors.  She’s traveled the country sharing her expertise with faith groups and student groups, with advocates and practitioners, and even helped write and produce a short film – all to help raise awareness about this crime and what we’ve got to do to tackle it.

Tanya’s – Tanya calls her work, and I quote, “love in action,” and Tanya never seems to run out of love for some of the people who need it most.

Let me just read the award citation:  “For her unyielding commitment and contributions to the fight against human trafficking and bringing greater awareness of the issue to her community and the nation.”  Tanya, thank you, thank you, thank you, and congratulations.

The second awardee is the Thai Community Development Center, known as the Thai CDC, represented here today by its founding director, Chanchanit Martorell.

In many ways, the story of this organization is intertwined with the story of the fight against human trafficking in the United States.  Back in 1995, the Thai CDC led a group of NGOs assisting 72 individuals in escaping from a secret sweatshop in El Monte, California.  Many of the workers had been held under armed guard for seven years while being forced to work up to 18 hours a day for virtually no pay.

The Thai CDC has – had never worked with trafficking survivors before, but the approach they pioneered became a model for efforts for decades to come.  The organization provided the victims with treatment for trauma; legal aid as they fought to stay in the United States and to be reunited with their families; and support as they built new lives, from finding places to live to providing training on how to start their own businesses.

In the more than 25 years since, the organization has worked on several more human trafficking cases, accompanying more than 500 victims.

Beyond these cases, the Thai CDC’s advocacy was instrumental to the passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.  It led to reforms in the garment industry, broadened the definition of human trafficking to include practices like debt bondage.

The organization’s formal citation reads, and I quote:  “For its unending support in the fight against human trafficking and for bringing a greater awareness of the issue to the Thai community in an effort to see an end to human trafficking.”

So please join me in congratulating them, to congratulating Tanya, for what has literally been and remains life-changing work.  Thank you.  (Applause.)

So thanks again to our awardees.  Thanks for the recognition that everyone is giving them.  And now, to move on with the agenda, I’d now like to ask our senior official, Kari Johnstone, to give us an update on the interagency efforts, the Senior Policy Operating Group.

Kari, over to you.

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