The United Nations aimed the spotlight on human trafficking Tuesday. From VOA's New York Bureau, correspondent Barbara Schoetzau reports the General Assembly devoted the entire day to discussing the issue of forced labor and exploitation.

The United Nations estimates that at any given time 2 1/2 million people find themselves in situations that are defined as forced labor or sexual exploitation. Fifty-six percent, 1.4 million, are in Asia and the Pacific.

The global organization says human trafficking affects more than 160 nations that serve either as a source, a transit point or a destination.

General Assembly President Srgjan Kerim says the full-day debate on the issue is the first time the General Assembly has dealt with human trafficking in a comprehensive way.

"If there is an evil on earth which we are facing nowadays as nations and as peoples and individuals, then together with drug trafficking and illicit trade, it is human trafficking," he said.

According to figures from the International Labor Organization, the majority of trafficking victims are between the ages of 18 and 24. The United Nations Children Funds, UNICEF, estimates that 1.2 million children are trafficked each year. Another recent study says that 95 percent of trafficked people experience physical or sexual violence.

Actress Ashley Judd spoke to General Assembly in her capacity as a board member of Population Services International (P.S.I.), a group with health programs in 65 nations worldwide. She says she stumbled upon the issue of human trafficking while working with P.S.I.

"I have been to 12 countries worldwide and spent a great deal of time in brothels, slums, hospices, youth drop-in centers, in both public hospitals as well as rural clinics. It is very difficult to leave behind people I know are victims of human trafficking. I defy anyone to walk out of a brothel or to walk out of an orphanage leaving those people behind. So I have been making a series of sacred promises: I will never forget you' and 'I will tell your story.' I know that the unheard are helped when they are heard," he said.

UN studies show that the estimated annual global profit from trafficked people is almost $32 billion. Almost half of that is generated in industrialized economies.

The Foreign Affairs Minister of the United Arab Emirates Anwar Gargash says economically successful countries will always face problems such as human trafficking. He says the use of imported children as jockeys in camel racing first brought the issue to the fore in the UAE.

"We realized that tackling that problem means for us to look beyond what a traditional sport is. At the same time, to understand that we cannot tackle these issues except through international partnerships. This is what we did with UNICEF. We are starting to tackle the other forms of human trafficking. Mostly what we have is the issue of sexual exploitation. We understand that it is not a stigma to have human trafficking, but the stigma is not to do anything about it," he said.

So far, 116 nations have ratified a UN protocol against trafficking, the only international agreement that addresses human trafficking as a crime. The Trafficking Protocol requires ratifying nations to criminalize human trafficking and help victims.