WASHINGTON -- The U.S. State Department says more than 20 million people were victims of human trafficking worldwide -- and that China is one of the world's worst culprits.
In its annual report on human trafficking, aimed at curbing exploitation of mainly women and children, the State Department said Beijing was a top offender because it allowed the use of exploited North Korean laborers in China.
The Trafficking in Persons Report 2017 also cited the example of Uighurs, a Muslim ethnic group in western China, being coerced into forced labor as a cause for China's ranking.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on June 27 that Russia also used thousands of North Korean laborers and that their wages help fund the regime in Pyongyang.
Tillerson called on "responsible nations" to help stop the practice.
"Human trafficking is one of the most tragic human rights issues of our time," he said in a statement accompanying the report.
"It threatens public safety and national security. But worst of all, the crime robs human beings of their freedom and their dignity. That's why we must pursue an end to the scourge of human trafficking," he said.
"It is our hope that the 21st century will be the last century where human trafficking occurs and that is what our goal is," Tillerson said.
President Donald Trump has made the fight against human trafficking a priority for his administration. That fact was highlighted by the presence of his daughter, Ivanka, at the State Department ceremony, where she called the issue a "major foreign-policy priority."
"It is a clarion call into action in defense of the vulnerable and the exploited," she said.
The report said Myanmar, Afghanistan, Malaysia, and Qatar had taken positive steps to combat human trafficking, but Russia, Cuba, and Thailand were unchanged in the department's annual classification.
The report placed Mali, Guinea, Congo, and the Democratic Republic of Congo among the 23 countries with the worst human-trafficking records.
China's ranking as one of the world's worst offenders puts it in the same category as Syria, Zimbabwe, and North Korea.