World, U.S. make progress in fight against modern-day slavery

Published: Tuesday, June 19 2012 7:45 p.m. MDT

Twenty-nine countries made progress in the fight against human trafficking in 2011, but 17 nations are still not making an effort to do basic things such as investigate and punish offenses or offer protective services for victims, according to a U.S. State Department report released Tuesday.

The State Department added Syria to the list of countries that could face U.S. sanctions for not doing enough to combat trafficking. Falsely recruited by employment agencies, thousands of women from countries such as Indonesia and Somalia have been trafficked into forced labor and prostitution in Syria, according to the annual Trafficking in Persons report, which analyzed conditions in more than 180 nations and ranked them in terms of their effectiveness in fighting modern-day slavery. Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime does little to investigate or punish offenses.

Worldwide, an estimated 21 million people live in bondage, according to the report.

“These victims of modern slavery are women and men, girls and boys, and their stories remind us of what kind of inhumane treatment we are still capable of as human beings,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said. “Some are lured to another country with false promises of a good job or opportunities for their families. Others can be exploited right where they grew up, where they now live. Traffickers prey on the hopes and dreams of those seeking a better life, and our goal should be to put those hopes and dreams back within reach."

The United States is a major destination country for human trafficking. Particularly along the U.S.-Mexico border, the report notes, children are being recruited into criminal activity, traveling sales crews and peddling rings at increasing rates. Federal and state law enforcement officials still lack sufficient resources and training to efficiently identify victims.

"Because it's a hidden crime, I don't think to this day we have any idea what we are dealing with," said Luis CdeBaca, U.S. ambassador-at-large for human trafficking issues. But, he added, "I think our response is getting better. We are finding more victims and more traffickers."

The nation ramped up its efforts to fight domestic trafficking in 2011, CdeBaca said. In addition to federal legislation, all states, with the exception of Wyoming, now have laws on the books criminalizing human trafficking. The U.S. Department of Justice launched six anti-trafficking coordination teams in select pilot districts and organized three regional training forums to get law enforcement up to speed on identifying victims and prosecuting perpetrators. Prosecutions and convictions are increasing.

"This isn't just a federal issue anymore. This isn't just a problem someone else will deal with," CdeBaca said. "There is more and more understanding at the local level and I think that's very healthy. It reflects a community standard: we will not tolerate this in our country."

Polaris Project, one of the nation's largest anti-slavery organizations, applauded the State Department for emphasizing the importance of highlighting the responsibility of governments to enforce their anti-trafficking laws and punish traffickers.

"Today's report demonstrates how much notable progress is being made in the fight against modern slavery, and yet the report also provides sobering statistics that serve as a powerful call to action for all of us," said Bradley Myles, executive director of Polaris Project.

With millions estimated to be in slavery and less than 35,000 victims found in 2011, Myles said, "It is clear that only a fraction of these victims are currently being identified and connected with services."

"The report, therefore, rightly calls on the United States to increase data collection, training, and other efforts to better identify and reach survivors," he said. "We must do more to reach those that are still trapped and who have been denied their freedom."

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