COMMENTARY | This week the 2012 Trafficking in Persons Report revealed there were an estimated 27 million victims forced into human trafficking. It also revealed there are 17 countries doing nothing to comply with international standards to stop the practice.
Eleven are from the same neighborhood as a historical ancestor to the modern-day human traffickers: the Barbary Pirates. This group from North Africa and the Middle East raided Europe and other regions for centuries with impunity, and no one did anything about it until the U.S. came along.
The question is whether the U.S. is again willing to do something about a human trafficking problem that others seem unable or unwilling to tackle.
For hundreds of years, Barbary Pirates seemed to go wherever they pleased. There are even reports of these pirates snagging travelers sailing between Ireland and England. All were forced into the type of slavery that might have exceeded the Hollywood horrors shown on the big screen. Rowers chained to oars until death, harems, bastinados, drudgery or prison. Only a lucky few were ever ransomed or managed to escape. An estimated 850,000 might have fallen to this fate.
This persisted until the U.S. got into the commercial game, trading throughout the Mediterranean Sea. Morocco, Algeria, Tunis and Tripoli pounced, unleashing the human trafficking problem upon a new country, well-documented by Ian W. Toll's book "Six Frigates."
Americans were advised by Europeans to pay tribute to the Barbary Pirates, a bribe which would hopefully lead to fewer attacks. But a cash-strapped American government couldn't pay up. And these Barbary Pirates demanded the U.S. make them ships to include in the ransom payments for American kidnapped sailors. The Pasha declared war on the U.S. in 1801.
President Thomas Jefferson finally ordered the American Naval Squadron (built by John Adams, which Jefferson opposed creating) to deal with the Barbary Pirates. Initially, it was a disaster. America captured little and lost its frigate (the USS Philadelphia) and all aboard when it ran aground off of Tripoli. Now the pirates had more captives and a powerful ship.
But a daring raid by Lt. Stephen Decatur aboard a disguised Maltese merchantman destroyed the USS Philadelphia. America kept up a blockade in the harbor, and shelled the city. Marines were landed with the goal of installing an ex-Pasha, who would be more amenable to American interests.
The blockade didn't work. The Marines didn't overthrow Tripoli. But Tripoli did sign an agreement promising not to capture more American ships. And when the Algerians made the mistake of declaring war on the U.S. after the War of 1812, they too were forced to cave in after several naval setbacks.
America did not overwhelm the Barbary Pirates but did earn some grudging respect by standing up to them. And that's what they need to do with human trafficking. Some large military demonstration of force won't achieve much, but perhaps some highly publicized law enforcement raids might do the trick.
Because after the Americans stood up to the Barbary Pirates, other Europeans followed. Within two decades of their wars with the Americans, these countries were conquered and became colonies themselves.
If Europeans see how serious Americans are about the problem, they're more likely to do their part. Maybe like the Barbary Pirates, the human trafficker scourge can finally be brought under, after America proved you can stop a problem that seemed to persist forever.