— The U.S. State Department released its annual Trafficking in Persons
report Wednesday, and Russia, Uzbekistan and China were automatically downgraded to the lowest Tier 3 ranking.
In total, the State Department says 21 of the 188 countries in its report do not fully comply with minimum standards to address trafficking and are not making significant efforts to do so.
Human trafficking is a worldwide problem, with an estimated 27 million people trapped in modern-day slavery. Only a small fraction of them, about 46,000, were identified last year, said Secretary of State John Kerry.
"It's no understatement to say that we are working to tackle an issue that millions of people assumed had been dealt with a long time ago," he told assembled officials and human rights' advocates at the State Department on Wednesday. "But the problem unfortunately persists, and I hate to say in some places can grow, and the challenge continues."
Kerry said a recent study shows that countries are twice as likely to take some kind of action once they receive the Tier 3 designation.
"And we're going to keep engaging with governments on this issue because modern day slavery affects every country in the world, including the United States. And every government is responsible for dealing with it, and no government is yet doing enough," he said.
While calling attention to the issues of trafficking and exploitation, the State Department also recognized nine individuals for their efforts to combat trafficking and help victims.
Among them was Mohammed Bassam al-Nasseri of Iraq, who pressed for the passage of his nation's anti-trafficking law. He personally helped 34 Eastern European construction workers who were trafficked into and then abandoned in Baghdad, without their promised pay or proper housing.
"Imagine for a minute if you got a good job offer, received a good job offer that ended up as a degrading job with no decent or dignified salary. Without wages, you ended up eating dried bread. You have no access to clean water to drink or to bathe," said al-Nasseri.
He said this is the harsh reality for trafficking victims who can find themselves cut off from all they know, trapped in forced labor, involuntary domestic servitude and prostitution.
The State Department says the countries that rank lowest in dealing with human trafficking are Algeria, the Central African Republic, China, Cuba, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Guinea-Bissau, Iran, Kuwait, Libya, Mauritania, North Korea, Papua New Guinea, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Uzbekistan, Yemen and Zimbabwe.
Countries were downgraded when officials determined they had not taken ample steps to fight trafficking. Both Russia and China had been on the Tier 2 Watch List for the past nine years.
The 2013 report says Russia has established a committee to address human trafficking, but the committee has not yet met. It also says prosecution in Russia is low compared to the severity of the nation's trafficking problem.
This year's Trafficking in Persons report notes the Chinese government recently unveiled a national plan to increase protections for trafficking victims and improve cooperation with international organizations. But the report also says the government did not show significant efforts to prosecute traffickers.
Uzbekistan had been on the Tier 2 Watch List for the past six years and was downgraded this year. According to the report, there is government-organized forced labor during the annual cotton harvest, and internal labor trafficking is prevalent during that season. It says the government took steps to reduce forced labor among children, but subjected older teenagers and adults to forced labor during last year's harvest.