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UN Says Human Trafficking Appears To Be Worsening

Three-quarters of those exploited as modern-day slaves work in the sex industry.
(RFE/RL) -- In a new report, the United Nations says human trafficking for the sex trade or forced labor market appears to be getting worse, not better, because many countries aren't paying attention to it.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) surveyed 155 countries for its report on modern-day slavery, but didn't say how many people it believes are victims of human trafficking. Estimates range from 800,000 new victims each year, according to the U.S. State Department, to 2.5 million, according to the International Labor Organization.

UNODC chief Antonio Maria Costa told a news conference at UN headquarters in New York that 40 percent of the countries where the problem exists have not convicted one person of trafficking charges.

A large percentage of the perpetrators of human trafficking are women, UNODC chief Antonio Maria Costa says.
Even when there are convictions, Costa said, they're not as plentiful as convictions for crimes involving far fewer victims. In these countries, he said, authorities either ignore the problem or don't have the resources to fight trafficking -- or both.

"According to the statistics, about 80 percent of these crimes are concentrated on sexual exploitation," Costa said. "But I warn you. This may be an optical illusion in the sense that it is the most commonly reported [crime], it is the most commonly visible [crime], and it is especially visible in rich countries -- Europe, if you wish, [and] North America."

Overall, the report said, 20 percent of those forced into the sex trade are under 18 years of age. But in Southeast Asia and parts of Africa, it said, minors make up the majority of sex slaves.

But enslaved children aren't limited to the sex trade, according to the report. Because their hands are small, it says, they're exploited as cheap labor -- to untangle fishing nets, pick delicate berries, or do intricate sewing.

Seventy-nine percent of slavery is for sex, according to the UNODC, while about 18 percent is for forced labor, forced marriages, or forced organ donation. And although the victims of sex trafficking are usually women and girls, those in charge of the trafficking are women, too.

"In this specific case, the specific case of human trafficking, we see a very large presence of women. In some Eastern European countries, some former [Soviet Union] countries, Central Asian countries, even 60, 70, 80 [percent] -- 83 percent in one case -- of the perpetrators are women," Costa said. "In some of the African countries, the majority of the perpetrators in this business unfortunately are women."

Border Security Not A Factor

Fighting human trafficking might be easier if it were an enterprise that always involved crossing borders. After all, Costa said, well-designed border security might intercept a significant percentage of the victims.

But that isn't the case.

"It is not only trafficking from Southeast Asia into other parts of Asia or into Western Europe, it's not only from Latin America to North America -- these are the kind of flows which you probably have in mind," Costa said. "There is a lot of exploitation within countries, large countries like the United States, large countries like some of the African countries, but also in smaller countries."

There is some good news in the UNODC report.

In 2004, the UN enacted a special protocol to fight human trafficking. Since then, it said, 63 percent of the 155 countries surveyed have enacted laws against the practice.

But there was little else in the report to inspire much optimism. In fact, Costa said, the worldwide economic crisis is driving even more illicit business to the traffickers, particularly for cheap labor.

"The budget situation, the bottom line of so many enterprises, including the multinationals, who have been known in the past to use forced labor, cheap labor, child labor, in their supply chain -- their budget, their financial situation, their financial predicament being so much more difficult than it was in the past -- may very well induce them to use more than in the past cheap sources of labor," Costa said. "Namely, the ones stemming from modern slavery."

RFE/RL Washington correspondent Andrew F. Tully contributed to this story

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