September 2000 – Rich nations face a rising tide of trafficking in human cargo – mostly women and girls forced into prostitution – and have been unable or unwilling to stop the criminal gangs behind this “modern-day slavery,” experts say.

“It is really a sick business and it’s a real dark side of the globalization that’s taking place as we’ve increased interconnection between the countries and ease with which people can travel,” said Sen. Sam Brownback, a Republican from Kansas and one of the chief sponsors of legislation that aims to crack down on the trade in the United States and abroad.

“It’s a global problem and the numbers are significant,” Regan Ralph, executive director of the women’s rights division of activist group Human Rights Watch, said. “Our investigations help support the claim that hundreds of thousands of people have been trafficked.”

The U.S. State Department estimates that more than 1 million people are trafficked annually around the world; some experts say it could be double that. Most are forced into the sex trade, others into servitude in homes, factories and fields.

Worldwide, crime syndicates most frequently seize women and girls for the sex trade from Russia and the other former Soviet republics, large parts of Asia and Central and South America.

Often victims who are looking to escape poverty in their own countries accept a fraudulent offer of foreign employment such as child-care or restaurant work, only to be forced into prostitution in deplorable conditions in a strange country where they do not speak the language – supposedly to pay off a phony smuggling debt of thousands of dollars, experts said.

The women and girls, whose passports and identification papers are confiscated by the traffickers, sometimes are “recycled” – turned over from one brothel to another – and many return home only after contracting diseases such as AIDS.

New commodity for smugglers

“Trafficking in human beings, predominantly women and children, is a form of modern-day slavery,” said Theresa Loar, the U.S. State Department’s senior coordinator for international women’s issues. “At its core, the international trade in women and children is about abduction, coercion, violence and exploitation in the most reprehensible ways.”

Laura Lederer, director of the Washington-based Protection Project at Johns Hopkins University, said a crackdown on the drug trade in the past 20 years led crime syndicates that had established trafficking routes to turn to a new commodity.

“The drug laws in countries were really tightening and the law enforcement agencies were serious about arresting and prosecuting drug traffickers, whereas the laws on the trafficking of women and children, the human trafficking laws, are nonexistent or very weak and poorly enforced,” she said.

The Protection Project has been compiling a database of laws worldwide on human trafficking and has drawn maps showing the routes used by crime syndicates to transport victims.

Brownback and Sen. Paul Wellstone, a Minnesota Democrat, are sponsoring legislation to criminalize all human trafficking, increase prison terms for violators and provide assistance rather than detention and deportation for victims.
It also would authorize a major U.S. initiative to publicize in other countries the dangers of human trafficking and require the U.S. government to name countries that are doing too little to combat the problem. “I’d like to really see this as kind of a model for other countries as well,” Wellstone said.

Some 50,000 people annually – about half of them in the sex trade – are trafficked into the United States, according to a CIA estimate. “The trafficking in the United States is significant, but it’s even larger in some other regions where the borders are not as patrolled and guarded,” Brownback said.

U.N. considers action

The United Nations, which has no estimate of the number of people trapped in sex trafficking, is fighting to come to grips with the problem. Negotiators from more than 100 countries are working in Vienna on a protocol relating to human trafficking as part of a U.N. convention against transnational crime. The convention is due to be signed in December in Palermo, Sicily.

The protocol would include demands that countries enact domestic laws against human trafficking if none exist, cooperate with one another in combating the gangs responsible, provide services for victims and allow them to remain in the countries into which they have been smuggled, said Sandro Tucci of the U.N. Office of Drug Control and Crime Prevention in Vienna.

The United Nations estimates that human trafficking generated $1.5 to $2 million annually at the beginning of the 1990s but now is in the range of $8 billion to $9 billion annually in profits to the criminal gangs involved, Tucci said.

The aggressive entrance of criminal gangs from the old Soviet bloc sparked a major upsurge in human trafficking in recent years. But Human Right Watch’s Ralph said many governments also have been part of the problem, actually nurturing the brutal trade.

“The question when it comes to stopping human rights abuses is almost always one of political will. To take trafficking seriously means to actively investigate, prosecute and punish perpetrators, and that means some countries will have to change their laws to make that happen,” she said.

“Others will simply have to enforce their laws. And initiatives like what’s going on at the U.N. right now to negotiate a new international treaty to facilitate cross-border investigation and prosecution, that’s important, too.”

Human Rights Watch is set to release a report in September on the trafficking of Thai women into the sex industry in Japan. The activist organization previously has detailed the shipment of thousands of Nepali women into India, women from Myanmar (Burma) into Thailand, and women from Eastern Europe into Bosnia. A Human Rights Watch staffer also previously investigated the trafficking of Russian women into Israel.

Lederer said Russia is a prolific “sender” country. “So far we’ve tracked young women being trafficked from Russia to 43 countries at the last count – pretty much every Western European country, Canada, the U.S., Mexico, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand.”

She also said women from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are trafficked in large numbers into the Middle East, particularly wealthier nations such as Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and even Saudi Arabia. And she said there is significant trafficking from southern and central Africa to Nigeria, which seems to be a transit point to northern Africa, Spain, and as far north as Sweden and Norway.