The State Department's annual report on human trafficking, issued Wednesday, gave the lowest rankings to some U.S. Arab allies, including Saudi Arabia. But several countries were credited with an improved performance on the issue, including Venezuela, Malaysia and Madagascar. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.
The annual report is mandated by an act of Congress, and according to both U.S. officials and non-governmental activists has become the most authoritative guide available to the global problem of human trafficking.
Introducing the 2008 report at a State Department news conference, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the report has elevated the level of world attention to the problems of trafficking including sex slavery and forced labor:
"Globally, human trafficking is a multi-dimensional threat. It deprives people of their human rights and dignity. It increases global health risks. It bankrolls the growth of organized crime and it undermines the rule of law. In recent years we've witnessed a hopeful global movement uniting civil society, governments, and international organizations - not just to confront this crime, but to abolish it," she said.
The 2008 report rated the anti-trafficking performance of 153 countries around the world and 14 were placed in the lowest category, Tier Three, which makes them subject to possible U.S. sanctions.
Key U.S. Gulf ally Saudi Arabia was put in Tier Three for the fourth consecutive year, along with fellow Arab states Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Syria, Algeria.
Burma, Cuba, Iran, Sudan and North Korea - all countries whose human rights records have been subject to strong U.S. criticism - were also listed. Moldova, Fiji and Papua-New Guinea were added to Tier Three for the first time.
The director of the State Department's human trafficking monitoring office, Mark Lagon, said the problem affects virtually every country around the world, including the United States.
He said U.S. intelligence estimates are that some 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders each year, 80 percent of them women, and that millions more are exploited within their home countries.
Lagon stressed anti-trafficking success stories, citing among others Mexico, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, whose ranking improved.
He said Madagascar, which jumped into the highest category, proves that the problem can be tackled with national will, even by a country with minimal resources.
On the negative side, he said Moldova fell to Tier Three, reflecting that central European government's failure to address trafficking-related corruption.
He said China remained on the so-called Tier Two Watch List - just above the lowest ranking - because of insufficient efforts to protect trafficking victims, most notably North Koreans who have fled into northeastern China.
"These North Koreans seek refuge in China. But many are preyed upon by Chinese traffickers, who sell them into sexual servitude as 'wives' - with quotation marks around wives - or into prostitution. When Chinese authorities find these trafficking victims they often send them back to North Korea where they face harsh punishment. The victims are punished rather than cared for," she said.
The U.S. anti-trafficking director said another Asian power, India, made some progress but remains on the watch list because its failure to recognize bonded labor as a form of trafficking.
Lagon said the cases of the Tier Three countries will be reviewed later this year for possible U.S. sanctions. He acknowledged that actions against some U.S. allies have been waived in the past, but said the real penalty may be the embarrassing status of the Tier Three listing itself.