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Report: Human Smuggling Rising

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An increasing number of desperate people are becoming the contraband of smuggling operations worldwide, a State Department report finds.

The "Trafficking in Persons Report" says that poverty, government inaction and the demand for cheap labor are fueling an expansion of illegal networks that lure men, women and children into forced labor or sexual slavery.

"Human trafficking not only continues but appears to be on the rise worldwide," the report states. It estimates that between 800,000 and 900,000 people are smuggled across borders each year, with up to 20,000 of them reaching the United States.

"Traffickers exploit the aspirations of those living in poverty and those seeking better lives," the report reads. "They use dramatic improvements in transportation and communications to sell men, women, and children into situations of forced labor and sexual slavery with virtually no risk of prosecution."

The demand for low-wage workers and the hope for a better life feed the problem, providing ample people willing to take the risk of undocumented travel to richer countries and others ready to take a chance on bringing them there.

The report believes culture and conflict also play roles.

In countries where women are subjugated, there is little hesitancy to sell them into exploitation elsewhere. Popular entertainment that glorifies wealthy living — and is beamed into homes and villages mired in poverty — encourages illegal flight across borders, the State Department contends.

In addition, the report finds, "Sudden political change, economic collapse, civil unrest, internal armed conflict, and natural disasters greatly increase the likelihood that a country will become a source of trafficking victims as displaced populations are highly vulnerable to exploitation, abuse, and trafficking."

"In these environments, the victims may be one of the few resources of marketable wealth," it reads.

For smugglers, high profits and low risk make the journeys worthwhile. Traffickers pocket $7 billion to $10 billion annually, the United Nations estimates — a handsome return for smugglers who, the report says, see "little rule of law, lack of enforcement of existing anti-trafficking laws, and corruption of law enforcement institutions."

Some of those smuggled are injured or killed en route. Those who survive the journey may be held as indentured servants who are forced to work off the debt they owe smugglers. Some are virtually imprisoned and others are beaten.

Besides its effects on individuals, smuggling undermines governments, destabilizes communities and robs countries of human capital, the report states. It can be a risk to public health as well as a boon to other forms of organized crime.

Using reports from diplomatic missions and non-governmental organizations, the State Department generated a list of countries with serious trafficking problems.

The report's authors then ranked those countries according to their approach to combating trafficking: those that met minimum standards for prohibiting and fighting people smuggling, those that made significant efforts to meet those standards, and those that did not.

Countries in the last category could face sanctions that would reduce the types of U.S. aid they received, the report said, unless the president waives those penalties.

The countries facing possible sanctions are Belize, Bosnia and Herzegovnia, Burma, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Greece, Georgia, Haiti, Kazakhstan, Liberia, North Korea, Sudan, Suriname, Turkey and Uzbekistan.

There were improvements and deteriorations in some countries compared to last year's report, including: Armenia, Bahrain, Belarus, Benin, Cambodia, Ghana, Indonesia, Lebanon, Morocco, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Tajikistan. Some countries were not listed in the report at all because of a lack of solid information.

Rights activists faulted the State Department for going soft.

"For the third consecutive year, the State Department report fails to give hard figures on the number of people being trafficked," LaShawn R. Jefferson of Human Rights Watch said in a statement.

"The report gives undue credit for minimal effort and ignores government practices, such as summary deportation and incarceration, that effectively punish trafficking victims."

Among the effective forms of government intervention highlighted by the report were stricter border enforcement, public information campaigns and enlisting the help of transport companies and unions whose equipment is often used for smuggling.

Also crucial are efforts to assist and protect victims of trafficking, which help encourage them to come forward and expose smugglers.

According to the report, several U.S. agencies are involved in the campaign to stop people smuggling.

The Justice Department prosecuted 79 trackers in fiscal years 2001 and 2002 and the Department of Health and Human Services spent $8.4 million in grants to nonprofits that help trafficking victims. Foreign aid spending last year included $10 million for anti-trafficking efforts overseas.

By Jarrett Murphy