World makes progress against slavery, but 13 nations lag

The US State Department's annual report on modern-day slavery cites greater determination worldwide to stamp it out. But 13 nations are on the list of sluggards neglecting the issue.

By , Staff writer

The United States is hailing growing determination in most corners of the globe to combat modern-day slavery through stepped-up law enforcement and legislative action. That’s the good news.

But the State Department’s annual report on human trafficking nevertheless brands 13 countries as standouts for failure to address rampant cases of sex trading, indentured domestic work, forced field labor, and other varieties of slavery within their borders.

The global scofflaws range from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to North Korea and Cuba. The bright spots include Pakistan, Malaysia, Syria, Egypt, and Bosnia-Herzegovina – countries that don’t always shine in annual human-rights ratings but that the State Department found have acted to address human-trafficking issues over the past year.

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“We saw overall improvement,” with 116 countries enacting legislation of some form in 2009 to combat human trafficking, says Luis CdeBaca, senior adviser on modern slavery issues to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The report estimates that more than 12 million people are trafficked globally every year.

For the first time, the US rated itself in the report, giving itself a “tier one,” or top-tier, rating (along with most Western countries and Nigeria, which stands out in Africa as a tier one country) but recommending more training for federal, state, and local law enforcement officials to better detect and prosecute cases ranging from debt bondage to child prostitution.

In reviewing the 10th annual human-trafficking report, Ambassador CdeBaca said the State Department tallied more than 4,000 convictions worldwide in trafficking and slavery cases in 2009 – a 40 percent increase over the previous year. On the other hand, the global economic downturn means that more people facing deteriorating living conditions are finding fewer alternatives to forced labor – either in their own countries or in foreign locations to which they are trafficked.

“People are more desperate, and are therefore willing to take more risks,” he says.

A not-so-positive trend in this year’s report is a “feminization of trafficking,” with more women being involuntarily placed in domestic or “maid” work, either in their home countries or abroad. In other cases – as in a documented case in the United Arab Emirates – women are hoodwinked into accepting what they are told will be maid jobs in a foreign country, only to find themselves “prostituted out,” as CdeBaca says.

Cases of large-scale trafficking of men have fallen off, not so much as a result of better enforcement against the practice but because the global recession has curtailed the building boom in the Middle East and other regions, CdeBaca says. Fewer large development and infrastructure projects mean less need for armies of manual laborers.

The US report has high praise for Bosnia-Herzegovina, which it lauds for imposing stronger penalties for trafficking and for improving services for trafficking victims. On the other hand, the report slaps Switzerland with a “tier two,” or less-than-exemplary, rating, largely over Swiss law that in some cases allows 16- and 17-year-olds to legally engage in prostitution.

The report also honors nine antitrafficking heroes – individuals from countries as different as Mauritania and the United States who dedicate their lives to denting the practice of human trafficking in one of its forms.

The Mauritanian woman, Aminetou Mint Moctar, has worked to denounce the trafficking of Mauritanian girls to Persian Gulf nations. In Florida, Laura Germino coordinates the antislavery campaign of the coalition of Immokalee Workers, which for years has uncovered slavery operations in the agriculture sector in the southeastern US.

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