Myanmar improves in U.S. slavery rankings as reforms continue
* Myanmar up, Syria down in U.S. global slavery report
* U.S. sees some encouraging signs on enforcing anti-slavery laws
* Estimates say between 21-27 million still enslaved worldwide
By Andrew Quinn
WASHINGTON, June 19 (Reuters) - Myanmar was upgraded in the annual U.S. global slavery report released on Tuesday, boosted by the Southeast Asian country's pledge to outlaw state-sponsored forced labor as it pursues rapid democratic reforms.
But the report downgraded Syria, naming it as among the worst offenders, as President Bashar al-Assad's government devotes its energies to violently suppressing widespread popular protests.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the State Department's 2012 "Trafficking in Persons" report (www.state.gov/j/tip), which gives a detailed account of slavery, sex trafficking and forced labor for 186 countries around the world.
"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," Clinton said.
Ambassador Luis CdeBaca, the U.S. coordinator for human trafficking issues, said the 2012 report revealed some small signs of progress but stressed that the problem remained huge with estimates of between 21-27 million people in forced servitude around the world.
Identification of victims - key to enforcing anti-trafficking laws - had risen to 42,291, an increase of 28 percent over 2011, while convictions were also up by about 10 percent at 3,969, CdeBaca said.
"We do think that we are seeing some real positive movement as far as those numbers are concerned," CdeBaca told a news briefing.
Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, saw its ranking improve, moving from the lowest "tier three" alongside countries such as North Korea, Syria and Yemen, up onto a watch list of countries with slightly better records.
CAN NOT OFFER ASSISTANCE
The United States is bound by law to oppose most assistance to "tier three" countries by international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
Myanmar's military-dominated government has over the past year enacted rapid reforms, including freeing hundreds of political prisoners, signing peace deals with ethnic minority rebel groups and holding by-elections dominated by Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition party.
The U.S. report did note a range of problems remain in Myanmar, including forced labor, sex trafficking and the recruitment of child soldiers.
But it also noted new steps to fight human trafficking, including victim-protection laws, a hotline to report abuses, and a pledge to end state-sponsored forced labor by 2015, which prompted the International Labor Organization (ILO) this month to lift punitive restrictions imposed on the country more than a decade ago..
"What we've seen over the last year is that the government in Burma has taken a number of significant and frankly unprecedented steps in advancing these reforms," CdeBaca said.
Altogether, 29 countries were upgraded in the 2012 report, including some such as Venezuela and Nicaragua that are often critical of the United States.
Others such as North Korea remain on the blacklist, while Syria was downgraded to "tier three", with political violence exacerbating the plight of vulnerable populations including Syria's large Iraqi refugee population.
CdeBaca said the United States was increasingly concerned that Pyongyang, long accused of relying on forced labor within the country, was now exporting slavery through work projects in the Middle East and Russia.
"When the North Koreans send workers overseas, they send the police with them and keep them under surveillance and retaliate against them if they fight for their rights or if they try to leave," CdeBaca said, calling the situation "very grave".
(Editing by Philip Barbara)
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