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Human Trafficking Conference Begins in Bali - 2002-02-27

Representatives from more than 30 countries are meeting to look for ways to prevent criminal networks from exploiting refugees desperate to find a better place to live. The first major international conference on the problem of human trafficking is being held this week in Bali, Indonesia. Migration experts say governments need to do more than just arrest the traffickers.

Experts say it is hard to put precise numbers on the size of the human trafficking problem - which they say can range from thousands of people being trafficked by boat, to millions of people subjected to exploitation in refugee camps.

Wendy Young is with the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children - a Washington-based non-profit research and advocacy group.

"The numbers of trafficking victims worldwide are alarming. Just to the United States alone, it is estimated that 50,000 women and children are trafficked each year. And often they end up in forced labor, forced prostitution; very dire circumstances," she said.

Ms. Young says wherever there are refugee situations, women and children can become victims of trafficking. "Women and children are particularly at risk in any refugee setting because of their gender and because of their age. They are subject to such abuses as recruitment of child soldiers, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced domestic servitude," she said.

Wendy Young says in recent years there have been cases of trafficking from Kosovo, West Africa, Afghanistan, and Burma. Other victims have come from China and Iraq.

Bill Frelick, the director of the U.S. Committee for Refugees, a non-governmental organization in Washington, says traffickers are criminal enterprises. He says they are intent on exploiting refugees and profiting from their plight by enslaving them or otherwise abusing them. He says trafficking tends to involve intercontinental movements of people - such as from Africa, the Middle East or South Asia to Europe or North America.

Mr. Frelick says most governments have tried to tackle the problem through law enforcement; catching and prosecuting the traffickers. He says more needs to be done to help and protect people who may become victims of exploitation.

"We need to set up legal mechanisms to enable those people to be resettled out of the regions in which they find themselves in danger, to be identified and to be helped, so they do not have to put themselves into the hands of traffickers. Or, if they are not able to find a legalized migration mechanism to bring refugees to safety, to actually provide greater security and support and safety in the regions of origin so that people can have meaningful asylum in those areas, so that a person does not feel compelled to have to keep moving onward and to put themselves into the hands of a trafficker who may seek to harm them," Mr. Frelick said.

Mr. Frelick says improving law enforcement is the easier path. It is more difficult and costly to provide alternative legal avenues for refugees to move to new places or to enhance security in refugee camps. But he says he hopes representatives at the conference in Bali will look for more humane solutions.

Wendy Young says it is important to educate people on what to look out for, so they do not become victims of trafficking. In addition, she says victims of traffickers must be given protection so they will come forward and report to authorities without the fear of deportation.

Ms. Young says it is natural for countries not to want to encourage illegal migration, but she says they should not take steps at the expense of refugees' protection. "The problem that we see is that a lot of western countries have actually adopted a lot of migration control measures that, in effect, are actually leading to trafficking and smuggling. In other words, because it is becoming more and more difficult to enter countries like the United States, Australia, Canada, et cetera, people are having to resort to other measures to get access," she said.

Ms. Young says countries should address trafficking in a balanced way - in terms of migration control and refugee protection. After all, she says, there is a human face behind every story of trafficking, and those people should not be returned to a situation where their lives and safety are at risk.