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Human Trafficking Report Faults US Gulf Allies, India

The State Department's annual report on human trafficking worldwide ranked several of the United States' Gulf allies, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar, in the lowest category and subject to possible sanctions. In sheer volume of cases, India was said to have the world's worst trafficking problem. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

The State Department's rankings, mandated by an act of Congress in 2000, authorize only mild sanctions for the worst offenders, and officials here say the main purpose of the exercise is to focus attention on the problem of human trafficking, including forced labor and the international sex trade.

At a news conference introducing the report, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said partly because of the annual assessments more countries are beginning to see human trafficking for what it is, a modern-day form of slavery.

"When we first began tackling this issue several years ago, the idea of human trafficking was akin to a global family secret," said Rice. "It was known, but not often discussed publicly."

"I am proud that our office in just a few short years has brought global attention to this problem. Millions more people know about human trafficking today that when the first report was issued in 2001. And we hope that this greater awareness translates into greater prevention," she added.

Rice paid tribute to several governments including Georgia, Hungary, Slovenia, Israel, Taiwan, Indonesia, Brazil and Bolivia which she said have moved to tackle trafficking problems raised in previous U.S. reports.

But she also lamented what she said was disturbing evidence that trafficking prosecutions around the world have leveled off over the past year, and she said in some countries with major problems only a couple of offenders have been prosecuted.

The 2007 report, rating 164 countries in all, lists 16 countries in its lowest "Tier 3" category, making them subject to possible cutoffs of non-humanitarian U.S. aid, if applicable.

Among countries getting the lowest grade for the first time were U.S. Gulf allies Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar along with Algeria, Equatorial Guinea and Malaysia. They joined long-standing offenders including Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, Sudan, Uzbekistan, Burma, North Korea, Cuba and Venezuela.

Secretary Rice's new senior adviser on trafficking in persons, Mark Lagon, said the listing of the many wealthy Gulf Arab states reflects a chronic problem in the region, which imports large numbers of foreign workers.

"What we found as a general pattern in this report is an endemic problem in the way foreign workers are treated in the Persian Gulf, in Middle Eastern States," said Lagon.

"Three is a recruitment pattern of unsuspecting people who are offered jobs as secretaries, maids. They end up being sex slaves or put into domestic servitude in an involuntary way. That is seen throughout the region," he continued.

Lagon said India has the world's largest problem with hundreds of thousands of sex trafficking victims, and millions of bonded laborers including children, and no national anti-trafficking effort.

India was ranked for a fourth consecutive year in the report's second worst category, the so-called Tier 2 Watch List. Lagon said India could be downgraded unless the New Delhi government, with which the United States has increasingly close ties, becomes more responsive.

"The relationship, the level of communication between our two governments is such that it can stand some serious frank talk about a problem like bonded labor or sex trafficking," said Lagon. "And we are going to lay out, working with them, a kind of action plan, for steps forward on this."

On the plus side, three countries placed in the lowest category last year - Zimbabwe, Belize and Laos - were promoted to Tier 2 for improved records on trafficking.

Though the Zimbabwe government of President Robert Mugabe is a frequent target of U.S. human rights criticism, the report said it has displayed a "more vigorous" commitment to addressing trafficking problems and protecting victims.