February 12, 2009 / 5:47 PM / in 9 years

Many countries ignore human trafficking: U.N

VIENNA (Reuters) - Human trafficking for the sex trade or forced labor market appears to be getting worse because many countries are ignoring the globalized problem, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime said on Thursday.

It gave no figure for the number of people trafficked every year, but a U.S. State Department report has put it at 800,000 compared with the International Labor Organization's estimate in 2005 that 2.5 million people were being trafficked annually.

The UNODC study said 40 percent of affected countries had not registered a single conviction, crucial to deterrence.

"On his 200th birthday, Abraham Lincoln must be turning in his grave," UNODC chief Antonio Maria Costa told Reuters. "The Great Emancipator did not end slavery. It is alive and well in the form of human trafficking -- a crime that shames us all."

UNODC said although sexual abuse was suffered mainly by women and girls, women accounted for the majority of traffickers in almost a third of the 155 countries surveyed.

Twenty percent of victims were children, but they were the majority in Southeast Asia's Mekong region and parts of Africa.

"Children's nimble fingers are exploited to untangle fishing nets, sew luxury goods or pick cocoa. Their innocence is abused for begging or exploited for sex as prostitutes," UNODC said.

About 79 percent of human trafficking involved sex slavery while 18 percent covered forced or bonded labor, forced marriages and organ removal.

"Public opinion is waking up to the reality of modern slavery but many governments are still in denial. There is even neglect when it comes to reporting on or prosecuting cases of trafficking," Costa said in the report.

"We fear the problem is getting worse but we cannot prove it for lack of data, and many governments are obstructing."

'BLIND TO THE PROBLEM'

UNODC said 63 percent of the countries covered by the report had enacted anti-trafficking laws since a special U.N. protocol against the crime took effect five years ago.

The number of convictions was rising but most occurred in only a few states. Many others, especially in Africa, lacked legislation or the will to crack down on human trafficking.

Conviction rates in most states rarely exceeded that for much rarer crimes such as kidnapping, and were far lower than the estimated number of victims, UNODC said.

"Either these countries are blind to the problem, or ill-equipped to deal with it, or both," Costa said.

"Some countries, including a few very large ones, do not even inform us about the problem in their midst. Either they are too disorganized to collect information or are unwilling to share it, perhaps out of embarrassment."

The UNODC report included country-by-country snapshots but singled out none for criticism. Last year's U.S. report branded Algeria, Cuba, Iran, Moldova, Myanmar, North Korea, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Syria as the worst offenders in trafficking.

UNODC said China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Libya, Tunisia, Madagascar and some Central African states either declined UNODC's request for information or had no data to contribute.

Costa said it was urgent for social scientists and governments to step up information-sharing and legal crackdowns. "If we do not overcome this knowledge crisis, we will be fighting the problem blindfolded," he added.

In a ceremony on Thursday at the United Nations in New York, Costa appointed American film actress Mira Sorvino as UNODC ambassador to fight human trafficking, a cause in which she has been active.

Sorvino, who won a supporting actress Oscar for her role in Woody Allen's "Mighty Aphrodite," said she would join a "vital battle against one of the worst sins our age is shamed with."

Additional reporting by Patrick Worsnip at the United Nations; editing by Todd Eastham

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