Most human trafficking victims in the United States are not getting any compensation from their convicted captors, and the number of those awarded payment is shrinking, experts said on Thursday.
Although trafficking victims are entitled by law to compensation, judges ordered perpetrators to pay in only 27 percent of human trafficking cases brought before U.S. federal courts between 2013 and 2016, a study found.
During the previous three-year period, payment was ordered in 36 percent of the cases, according to the report by anti-slavery group Human Trafficking Legal Center (HTLC) and the law firm WilmerHale.
"This discouraging trend is disastrous for trafficking victims, who desperately need restitution funds to rebuild their lives," said the report's editor, Martina Vandenberg, head of HTLC.
An estimated 25 million people are trapped in forced labour worldwide, working in factories, farms and fishing boats, and as domestic or sex workers, according to the United Nations.
U.S. anti-trafficking legislation requires courts to order convicted traffickers to pay their victims the gross amount they earned from them, or at the least, the minimum wage plus overtime for their hours of forced servitude.
Among those receiving payment, people trafficked for sex tended to get far less than other victims, securing an average of $48,000 against the $505,000 paid out in forced labor cases, according researchers who analysed over 400 proceedings.
"Congress has mandated that victims receive restitution. But courts still leave trafficking victims empty-handed," said the report's main author, Alexandra Levy.
To fix the problem, the study's authors suggested more training on trafficking cases for prosecutors and judges, and free legal assistance for defendants.
"Trafficking victims need lawyers. Only when victims have legal representation will mandatory restitution finally be mandatory," said Vandenberg.
A U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) spokeswoman said the department is training hundreds of prosecutors on strategies to compensate victims, including overcoming "legal and evidentiary challenges" to assessing a trafficked person's losses.
"DOJ is deeply committed to securing restitution for victims and survivors of human trafficking," the spokeswoman told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an email.