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Under tougher anti-immigration policies in the United States under President Donald Trump, human trafficking will "skyrocket," a top expert warned at a conference on Tuesday (local time).
Fear of being deported by US authorities stops people from speaking up about their own or other trafficking cases, said Denise Brennan, professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology at Georgetown University.
"Policies that push migrants to live and work in the shadows make the perfect prey for abusive employers," said Brennan, a keynote speaker at the Trust Conference/America Forum, a one-day Thomson Reuters Foundation event on the fight against slavery and trafficking.
"We cannot effectively fight trafficking when migrants fear reporting exploitation and abuse."
Anti-immigrant rhetoric, violence and policies are on the rise around the world, in particular in the United States under Trump, who has vowed to fight illegal immigration and build a wall along the US-Mexico border, she said.
"Trafficking will skyrocket under President Trump," she said. "Anti-immigrant policies make trafficking possible."
Since becoming president, Trump has issued a temporary visa ban against seven Muslim-majority countries that was later blocked by federal courts, suspended a refugee program and initiated tougher deportation procedures.
LITTLE POLITICAL WILL
Up to 12 million people are estimated to be living illegally without documents in the United States.
While there are no official law enforcement statistics, in the United States nearly 32,000 cases of human trafficking have been reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline in the last decade.
"These individuals have no place to turn," said Brennan, author of "Life Interrupted: Trafficking into Forced Labor in the United States."
"Isolation and threat of deportation are just as powerful as locking someone behind closed doors," she said.
Globally, nearly 21 million people are victims of forced labor, made to work for free after falling into debt or forced to work due to deception, coercion or threat of violence, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO).
Brennan said there is little genuine political effort made in the United States to find and aid labor trafficking victims.
"The dirty little secret about trafficking in this environment of 2.5 million deportations under President Obama and now President Trump's obvious anti-migrant stance is there has not been a political will to really find people," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview before the forum.
Under a law passed in 2000, 5000 visas are available each year to trafficking victims, Brennan said.
But only between 7000 to 9000 such visas have been issued in the past 17 years when the number could have been 85,000, she said.
"I just don't think we've been looking for trafficked people," said Brennan, who is currently writing a book, "Life without Papers," about how undocumented people navigate threats of detention and deportation. She said the fear of deportation extended further than those without legal papers.
Last week Trump ordered a review of a US visa program for bringing high-skilled foreign workers into the country with a view to potentially modifying the system.
"Under President Trump, we have so many people who have various forms of temporary protective status," she said. "If we start deporting people with green cards, we're looking at millions of people who don't have full US citizenship."