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US warns India over 'human trafficking'

The US warns India to act fast on what it calls the "world's largest human trafficking problem" or face sanctions.

world Updated: Jun 26, 2007 15:31 IST
Arun Kumar

The US has warned India to act swiftly on what it called the "world's largest human trafficking problem" involving hundreds of thousands of victims of sexual exploitation and millions of bonded labourers or face sanctions.

An annual US State Department report on human trafficking released by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice Tuesday placed India for the fourth year in a row on a "Tier 2 watch list" for showing signs of failing to make improvements in tackling this "modern-day slavery".

India was not downgraded to the worst Tier 3, despite the fact that the world's "largest democracy" has the "world's largest problem of human trafficking," said Mark Lagon, director of Office to Monitor and Combat Human Trafficking in Persons briefing media on the 236-page report.

The US, he said, needs to "engage in a very serious dialogue with India" on the South Asian nation's trafficking problem, since the countries are "two serious democracies" with a "developing alliance" in areas ranging from counter-terrorism to civilian nuclear cooperation.

The US-India relationship is such, said Lagon, that the "level of communication between our two governments" can "stand some serious, frank talk about a problem like bonded labour or sex trafficking".

"Tier 2 Watch list should be a warning. Unfortunately, too many major countries on Tier 2 Watch List have ignored this warning, year after year," he said naming China, Russia, Mexico, and South Africa among 31 other countries in this category.

"Tier 2 Watch list is not supposed to become a parking lot for governments lacking the will or interest to stop exploitation and enslavement on their soil. We stand ready to cooperate with these nations and support any efforts they make to end this travesty within their borders," he added.

But Lagon suggested that a dialogue could lead to a reassessment of India. "...what's required is that in the context of our overall diplomacy with them, talking about all sorts of serious issues, great power of politics, counter-terrorism, civilian nuclear cooperation and so on, that this has to have high level emphasis as well as a serious problem, but in modesty.

"You know, the United States is not only in a position to point fingers. We need to say we had our legacy of slavery, we had our legacy of segregation, we had our legacy of discrimination," he said explaining why India had not been downgraded despite its poor record.

"Serious democracies have evolved, but we need to ramp up that effort. With a serious sense on the part of the Indian government that, you know, reassessment is a distinct possibility," Lagon added.

While alleging that the Government of India "does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking", the report acknowledged that "it is making significant efforts to do so".

One of the "heroes" highlighted in the report is Kailash Satyarthi of the Indian NGO Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA) who prompted the rescue of 92 Bengali children enslaved in goldsmith and jewellery factories in New Delhi.

Sharing what he called an example that typifies the confluence of officials' complicity in trafficking and indifference in the face of heroism to end modern-day slavery, Lagon related how these children were forced to eat, sleep, and labour in workshops, 10 to a room.

"Dangerous chemicals were used for making gold ornaments in the same rooms that they were kept 24 hours a day. Most of the children were under the age of 14. According to the children, many were physically and sexually abused.

"Just days after this rescue, which didn't result in any arrests in India, the factory owners, managers, and their thugs showed up at BBA's shelter with iron rods, sticks, and bricks. They tried to recapture the children. Shelter staff were injured. When police finally responded, no one was arrested.

"The connections and clout of these traffickers were enough, apparently, to thwart justice," he said suggesting there is no national anti-trafficking effort, no recognition of bonded labour on an official level, and poor efforts against sex trafficking In India.

The report also recalled the services of Vipula Kadri, the founder and national director of Save the Children India, an organisation that works towards preventing the abuse and exploitation of children.

It had brought together representatives from government, law enforcement, civil society, Bollywood celebrities, media, and private industry to raise awareness about trafficking of women and girls into commercial sexual exploitation in India.

The report, mandated by the US Congress, places 24 countries in "Tier 1" - those doing the best job of controlling human trafficking, 75 others including Pakistan and Thailand in an intermediate Tier 2 and 16 countries in the bottom Tier 3.

The report also catalogues US' own trafficking problem, including women and girls who migrate to the US and become prostitutes. An unknown number of US citizens and legal residents are also trafficked within the United States, primarily for sexual servitude and forced labour, the report says but does not assign it a tier rating.