Could FOIA Unveil Modern Slavery? / Sarah Williams

July 13, 2020

We know it’s happening every day, right under our noses. Slavery may have legally ended in the 19th century for Americans, but the worldwide trading, buying, and selling of people continues underground to this day.

An estimated 18,000 to 20,000 people are illegally trafficked into the US each year, most of them being children, according to Business Insider’s James Parsley. Human trafficking takes on many forms, from people being trafficked to work for free or illegally cheap, to prostitution and sexual slavery. From the lowly street corner pimp to the infamous Jeffrey Epstein, criminals are trafficking innocent people at an alarming rate. What have journalists done so far to expose this underground market?

The New York Times utilized Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to gather documents in regards to Jeffrey Epstein’s islands and the unspeakable acts taking place there. In the article “Epstein’s Island, ‘Little St. Jeff’s’: a hideaway where money bought influence,” reporter Steve Eder tells of Epstein’s history in the U.S. Virgin Islands, providing facts that would be otherwise hidden without a FOIA request. The reporter was able to describe the so-called “Pedophile Island,” the lengthy development ordered by Epstein, attributing information to memos, reports, and documents obtained in the researching process. Eder cited Epstein’s applications for further construction and tax breaks, exposing Epstein’s method of hiding behind charitable work while operating a prostitution and pedophile ring.

Epstein’s mansion on Little St. James. Gabriel Lopez/Associated Press

FOIA requests have also helped journalists expose the government’s involvement in human trafficking, as Friends of the Earth writers report. This request revealed the State Department’s involvement in downplaying human trafficking in hotspot nations in order to prioritize political benefit. The State Department published its annual Trafficking in Persons report, which rated countries on their work against human trafficking. Friends of the Earth states that “Recent media reports indicate that political appointees meddled in the compilation of this publication by challenging State Department human rights experts’ rating recommendations for 17 politically-strategic countries and inflating the assessment of 14 of these,” indicating the State Department’s mishandling of its reports.

According to Friends of the Earth’s unveiled information from 2015, Malaysia’s numbers were grossly inflated so the United States could continue to work with Malaysia as an important player in the Trans-Pacific Partnership.  The article states “on the eve of the July…negotiating round, the State Department took Malaysia off its human rights blacklist by upgrading its status from a Tier 3 to the less incriminating Tier 2 Watch List rating.” This change indicates a political influence which prioritizes commerce and financial increase over human lives and ending slavery. Without a FOIA request, much of this information and the official numbers would still be in the dark, kept out of the minds of American citizens and continuing to present the mirage of the United States’ government innocence.

A Las Vegas billboard displays the phone number for the National Human Trafficking Hotline John Locher/Associated Press

How can journalists continue to fight the war on modern slavery, utilizing FOIA requests? Much of this world is hidden from public eyes, yet the press can bring this world to light. FOIA requests can continue to reveal the underground labyrinth of Jeffrey Epstein’s child prostitution ring, look deeper into the recent Wayfair cabinet scandal, and force the skeletons out of the closets of America’s biggest organizations and celebrities.