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US Envoy: Half of All Trafficked Persons May Be Children

The U.S. State Department's chief envoy on trafficking in persons says as many as half of all those trafficked worldwide for sex and domestic slavery may be children and young people under 18 years of age. Ambassador John Miller says the aim of the State Department's annual report on the issue is not to punish countries with trafficking problems, but prod them into action.

The State Department's annual reports on human trafficking, first authorized by an act of Congress in 2000, rate countries around the world according to efforts they make to combat the problem.

Those placed in the lowest, or third, tier of countries could face the prospect of U.S. sanctions including the loss of non-humanitarian aid. But the penalty provision has been only lightly used since the first annual report came out in 2001.

Ambassador Miller, director of the State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, says the hope is that the so-called Tier-Three countries will consider the designation a wake-up call to take remedial action.

In a talk with VOA as he prepared for release of the 2005 report, Mr. Miller said in the vast majority of cases, and notably the listing of NATO allies Greece and Turkey in 2002, governments are responsive to U.S. criticism.

"They didn't necessarily agree with the report, but in the three months after the report, we believe that they made some very significant efforts: stepped up arrests and prosecutions, stepped up cooperation with non-governmental organizations, and referring victims for help, stepped-up education activities to warn victims,” he said. “And as a result they were raised out of Tier-Three. That's the hope. The purpose here is not to put countries in Tier-Three. The purpose here is not to levy sanctions. The purpose is to get progress toward freeing victims and putting traffickers in jail."

Mr. Miller called modern human trafficking, which includes sex slavery, forced domestic, factory and farm labor, and the conscription and kidnapping of child soldiers, one of the great human rights issues of the 21st century.

The U.S. envoy, a former four-term U.S. Congressman from the state of Washington, said statistics on human trafficking are hard to come by given its criminal nature.

But he says the most recent U.S. estimate is that between 600,000 and 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders each year, and that internal slavery means the figure far surpasses a million. He said as many as half of the victims are children and minors.

“This is the sad fact,” he said. “When you look at sex slavery, which is inextricably linked to prostitution, many of those engaged in prostitution around the world are under age 18. If you look at domestic servitude slavery, many of those engaged in domestic servitude slavery have left their homes for a job, what they hope will be a job in somebody's home. So children are at the center of this issue. They form a large number of the victims.”

Mr. Miller said in absolute numbers, more children are probably trafficked in Asia than other areas and cited notorious sex-tourism problems in several Southeast Asian countries.

But he said regrettably, there is plenty of child slavery going on in Europe and every country in the world including the United States, where the State Department said last year that more than 14,000 people from abroad were trafficked.

He said some of the issues are long-standing, including the trafficking of children from South Asia to countries in the Gulf region to be camel jockeys, some of whom he said are half-starved to keep their weight down, and suffer serious injuries in racing accidents.

Mr. Miller said he is hopeful that states of origin for the child jockeys, including Bangladesh, Pakistan and India, and destination countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Kuwait, will take significant steps in the coming year to end the practice.

He said he thinks most countries try to respond to criticisms in the trafficking report. But he said some governments, those with few or no official dealings with the United States, have refused to cooperate - citing Cuba, where he said children have been caught up in the sex trade.

"The major problem in Cuba is that there is a government-affiliated, supported sex-tourism industry that includes many, many children,” he added. “And not just by U.S. law, but by international protocol. When you have children in prostitution, you have trafficking. So this is the challenge in Cuba. We hope the Cuban government will take action to meet that challenge."

The 2004 trafficking report faulted 10 countries including long-standing U.S. sanctions targets Cuba, Burma and North Korea for failing to adequately fight trafficking. Four of them - Bangladesh, Ecuador, Guyana and Sierra Leone - were later removed from the list in recognition of subsequent remedial action.

The United States has provided nearly $300 million to support anti-trafficking programs in more than 120 countries since 2001.

Ambassador Miller said despite the appalling nature of the trafficking problem, he sees signs of progress in the nearly three years he has run the State Department office, in large part due to the exposure the issue gets from the annual reporting exercise.

(Note: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will release the fifth annual Department of State Trafficking in Persons Report on Friday, June 3, 2005.)