U.S. says financial crisis adds to human trafficking

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Millions of people around the world are living in bondage and the global financial crisis has made many more vulnerable to labor and sex trafficking, the U.S. State Department said on Tuesday.

Illegal immigrants from Somalia wait before boarding a vessel in the port town of Bossaso March 13, 2008. REUTERS/Stringer

In its annual “Trafficking in Persons” report, which tracks “modern slavery” like forced labor and the sex trade, the State Department said growing poverty around the world has sparked an increase in both supply and demand for human trafficking.

“In a time of economic crisis, victims are more vulnerable, affected communities are more vulnerable,” Luis de Baca said as he presented the report.

“Persons who are under economic stress are more likely to fall prey to the wiles of the traffickers who often get their victims through promises of a better life, promises of better earnings,” he said.

De Baca said human trafficking can be valued at about $50 billion a year. That includes about $31 billion profit earned by the traffickers plus about $20 billion in opportunity cost from lost labor of the people who are put into bondage.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged governments to work to eliminate forms of human trafficking.

“This year, there is a new urgency in this call,” she wrote in a letter prefacing the report.

“As the ongoing financial crisis takes an increasing toll on many of the world’s migrants -- who often risk everything for the slim hope of a better future for their families -- too often they are ensnared by traffickers who exploit their desperation.”

“We recognize their immense suffering and we commit to aiding their rescue and recovery.”

The State Department expanded a blacklist of governments it believes are not doing enough to stop human trafficking to 17, out of 175 countries it monitors in the annual report.

Chad, Malaysia, Niger, Mauritania and Zimbabwe were included among the worst offenders -- putting them at risk of losing some U.S. aid.

Cuba, Myanmar and North Korea have received the lowest ranking in each year they have been included in the report started nine years ago.

The lowest ranking means the United States could withhold aid that is not humanitarian or trade-related.

According to the International Labor Organization about 12.3 million adults and children are in forced labor and sexual servitude at any time in the world. Nearly 1.4 million of those are victims of sex trafficking, ILO figures show.

“They labor in fields and factories, under brutal employers who threaten them with violence if they try to escape,” Clinton said at an event to present the report. “They work in homes for families that keep them virtually imprisoned. they are forced to work as prostitutes or to beg in the streets, fearful of the consequences if they fail to earn their daily quota.”

“This is modern slavery,” she said. “A crime that spans the globe, providing ruthless employers with an endless supply of people to abuse for financial gain.”