When Matt Friedman graduated from CCSU in 1983 with a degree in biology and psychology, he never imagined he would end up as an international human trafficking expert living in Hong Kong.
For close to 30 years, Friedman has been fighting the modern slave trade. He has worked with the United Nations, as a technical advisor to numerous governments; he is a speaker at major conferences around the world — last year alone he gave 150 presentations — and he is often cited in the news media on issues related to sex trafficking and slavery. He also is CEO of The Mekong Club, an organization that is mobilizing the private sector in the fight against modern slavery.
In a letter Friedman recently wrote to CCSU President Zulma R. Toro, he thanked the university for the education and inspiration that propelled him into his life as an international activist.
“CCSU had really good teachers with a lot of knowledge and experience, Friedman says. “With some of the smaller state schools, the premise is you’re not getting the education of the larger Ivy Leagues. I feel my education was comparable. Once again, it came down to the quality of the teachers — not only their excellence in teaching, but wanting me to reach a level of excellence in my career.”
What set Friedman on his current path was his initial encounter with victims of trafficking in Nepal. At the time he was working as a public health officer.
“I was invited to a brothel where these girls, who had been tricked and deceived into prostitution, were being held,” he says. “I had a police officer with me. An 11-year-old victim wrapped herself around me and said, ‘Save me, they’re doing terrible things to me.’ I knew if I tried to get her out, they’d kill us, so I came back with a lot more police, but by then the girl was gone. I can only imagine the horrible things that happened to her. A lot of people who become activists have an experience like this that they can’t turn their backs on.”
Against all odds
According to the 2017 Trafficking in Persons report, only 66,000 of an estimated 45.8 million slaves were rescued in 2016 — less than 0.2 percent of victims. Despite the best efforts by governments and nongovernmental organizations around the world, the problem, Friedman says, is growing.
He cites many reasons for this, including that human trafficking is a clandestine activity. Everything is set up so you can’t find the perpetrators because the incentive is huge: profits generated from slavery generate $150 billion annually.
“Out of a half million criminals, we put 6,000 to 8,000 in jail per year,” Friedman says, “so just over one percent impact with all the NGOs and governments combined, which is the reason we’re working with the private sector. We need an army of ordinary people to get involved, to cross the line from caring to action.”
But the subject matter can make it difficult to generate significant public involvement.
“In the early days, I talked a lot about the pain and suffering of victims in my presentations and created a room full of zombies,” Friedman says. “I discovered that people can take seven-and-a-half minutes of bad stories before they become comatose.”
Human trafficking also is not an issue many Americans can identify with because they don’t see it happening in their own backyards, and yet, Friedman points out, before the film “An Inconvenient Truth,” most people didn’t see the environmental relevance to themselves, either.
“One would think the moral repugnance of 45 million people in sex trafficking would make it something we’d want to address,” he says. “But when you realize the number of workers in forced labor associated with supply chains — where our shoes, belts, etc. come from — you realize your buying patterns are determining how many slaves you’re supporting, and that makes it relevant. It’s no longer someone else’s issue.”
Friedman says once Americans learn about human trafficking, they often want to help but feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem. In response, he’s looking into creative ways of engaging people through social media, including a new phone app that will be launched in March, through which participants earn “Care Points” by completing anti-slavery initiatives such as reporting crimes, advocacy, fundraising, and sharing.
“If everyone did one or two or three things and 10 million people did it, that could add up to a lot,” Friedman says. “The idea is to tap into the goodwill that exists in the general public.”
In a TED Talk, Friedman describes a young woman named Gita. “She wasn’t angry at the traffickers, at bad people being bad people,” he says. “She was angry at the good people, society, us, for not caring enough to do something.”
After almost three decades, Friedman is still trying to find ways to do something.
Asked how he remains optimistic despite the small percentage of people who have been saved from slavery, Friedman notes that it still translates into 66,000 to 70,000 human beings rescued every year.
“That’s an achievement. That’s something good,” Friedman says. “So, instead of focusing on the people we couldn’t save, we focus on every individual we’re able to help, and that helps get us through.”
For more information about Friedman’s work, visit www.mekongclub.org.