The UN crime-fighting office has said that 2.4 million people across the globe are victims of human trafficking at any one time, and 80 % of them are being exploited as sexual slaves.
Yuri Fedotov, the head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, told a daylong General Assembly meeting on trafficking on Tuesday that 17 % are trafficked to perform forced labor, including in homes and sweat shops.
He said $32 billion is being earned every year by unscrupulous criminals running human trafficking networks, and two out of every three victims are women.
Fighting these criminals "is a challenge of extraordinary proportions," Fedotov said.
"At any one time, 2.4 million people suffer the misery of this humiliating and degrading crime," he said.
According to Fedotov's Vienna-based office, only one out of 100 victims of trafficking is ever rescued.
Fedotov called for coordinated local, regional and international responses that balance "progressive and proactive law enforcement" with actions that combat "the market forces driving human trafficking in many destination countries."
Michelle Bachelet, who heads the new UN agency promoting women's rights and gender equality called UN Women, said "it's difficult to think of a crime more hideous and shocking than human trafficking. Yet, it is one of the fastest growing and lucrative crimes."
Actress Mira Sorvino, the UN goodwill ambassador against human trafficking, told the meeting that "modern day slavery is bested only by the illegal drug trade for profitability," but very little money and political will is being spent to combat trafficking.
"Transnational organised crime groups are adding humans to their product lists," she said. "Satellites reveal the same routes moving them as arms and drugs."
Sorvino said there is a lack of strong legislation and police training to combat trafficking. Even in the United States "only 10 % of police stations have any protocol to deal with trafficking," she said.
M Cherif Bassiouni, an emeritus law professor at DePaul University in Chicago, said to applause that "there is no human rights subject on which governments have said so much but done so little."
Laws in most of the world criminalise prostitutes and other victims of trafficking but almost never criminalise the perpetrators "without whom that crime could not be performed," he said.