Washington, 5 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- A United Nations conference has concluded that modern slavery, which now takes the form of women and children being sold into prostitution or of desperate people going to extremes to enter advanced countries, has become the "fastest growing" type of organized crime in the new globalized economy.
Pino Arlacchi, the head of the UN Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention, told a meeting he convened in Brasilia last week that "trafficking in human beings is one of the most globalized markets in the world today," one that "almost no country is immune from."
Arlacchi, who made his name fighting the Italian mafia a decade ago, said that more than four million people are being smuggled each year either to satisfy demands for prostitution in developed countries or to provide a way for those suffering in poorer countries to enter richer ones.
He complained that most national governments have focused on such illegal immigrants themselves rather than on the criminal groups which exploit them. And other speakers warned that the problem, something Arlacchi himself called "a new form of slavery," involves not only the international sex industry but also trafficking in children for adoption, forced marriages, organ smuggling, and traditional slavery as well.
Hamish McCulloch, who follows such human trafficking for Interpol, said that in the new globalized economy, "human beings are treated as nothing more than commodities by the traffickers." And he told the meeting in Brazil's capital that he estimates those involved in this illicit trade currently take in some $9 billion a year.
Host country Brazil is a particular victim of this trade. Its officials said that 75,000 Brazilian women have been smuggled into European countries and now work as prostitutes. Brazilian officials said they were seeking to curb this trade and noted that they had rescued almost 2,000 Brazilians who were working as slaves in the country's agricultural sector.
But human rights activists there and elsewhere said that Brazil and other countries faced with this problem still have not devoted the resources necessary to do anything about the problem. And they added that the only time most people in developed countries pay attention is when there is some terrible discovery such as the finding last year of a container full of dozens of dead Chinese criminals were attempting to smuggle into Britain.
Speakers at the Brasilia meeting were profoundly pessimistic about the future, precisely because the forces arrayed against those who are struggling against these modern forms of slavery are so large. The new globalized economy has increased income disparities between the richest and poorest countries and created far more opportunities -- legal and illegal -- for people to move from one to the other.
Even those in wealthy countries who are aware of these problems are frequently unprepared to do much about them. On the one hand, there appears to be less and less support in these countries for providing the kind of foreign aid that might reduce the income differentials that are powering this movement or for erecting the kind of border controls that some fear might have a negative impact on completely legitimate activities.
On the other hand, many people in the wealthier countries are reluctant to impose serious restrictions on such movements because such illegal immigrants often perform jobs at low pay or provide illegal services that few in the wealthier nations are prepared to do.
Even when governments do step in, they generally go after the immigrants themselves rather than after the criminal entrepreneurs who stand behind them. Such arrests and the resulting deportations are often politically popular in the advanced countries, but they do little or nothing to attack the infrastructure that made these flows possible.
Until that international criminal infrastructure is attacked and dismantled -- something that will likely require expanded cooperation among countries around the world -- the number of victims of these new forms of slavery is likely to continue to grow, a trend likely to provoke a new debate on globalization and its discontents.