Welcome step in war on people trafficking

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 June, 2006, 12:00am

The US State Department's annual people-trafficking report is unlike other documents produced by the world's most powerful government. While other assessments are open to accusations that the only values that count are American ones, this is a critical, generally accurate, look at an issue that regularly needs to be highlighted so that nations do their utmost to take action.

Asian nations, particularly China and India, need to pay particular attention because they feature so prominently.

Trafficking is, after all, one of the worst scourges affecting societies. The exploitation by criminal gangs of the most vulnerable people - the vast majority women and children for prostitution and forced labour - is slavery in a 21st century setting.

No one has an accurate idea of how severe the problem is. Experts know those most vulnerable generally live in the poorer parts of the world and that wealthier nations are most likely to be the places they end up. Beyond that, there is much guesswork.

For these reasons, the State Department could be accused of being presumptuous or even biased, especially as its report is deeply critical of some nations for doing nothing, or not enough, to tackle trafficking. Many of those considered the worst offenders, for example, are coincidentally long-time sworn enemies of the US: North Korea, Myanmar, Cuba and, as of the latest report, Iran and Syria.

No other organisation produces so comprehensive a report on the state of people trafficking, or has access to the intelligence information necessary to compile such a dossier. Bias may be perceived, but that is offset by the fact that some of the US allies also come under fire - among them Saudi Arabia and Japan.

The latter is a case in point; the department's four-tier categorising of the 150 countries assessed puts Japan beside East Timor, Nepal, Thailand and Vietnam as nations needing to do more to clamp down on traffickers. The Japanese government is complimented, however, for having made improvements.

Hong Kong is praised for its efforts and put on the list of best performers - despite questions being raised about organised gangs bringing women here from Southeast Asian countries for prostitution. Mainland China fares poorly, though, being put with Macau, Taiwan, Cambodia, India and Indonesia on a watch list of governments in danger of ignoring their obligations under international treaties.

Trafficking should not be categorised in terms of black, white and shades of grey, though; it is abhorrent and governments must do their utmost to stamp it out. The US is applauded for its efforts to make this happen through such a report, which is clearly having an effect: last year courts handed down more than 4,700 convictions for trafficking-related crimes, up from about 3,000 the year before. The number of governments with trafficking-in-persons laws also rose.

While no document will prevent people from falling prey to traffickers, this one at least has the authority to spur governments to do better.