The Obama administration has downgraded the ratings of China, Russia and Uzbekistan in an annual report on global efforts to combat modern slavery.
The three-tier ranking puts Russia and China on a list of the world’s worst offenders, such as North Korea and Saudi Arabia, and below second-tier countries such as Rwanda, described in the report as a destination for “women and children subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking.”
About 27 million men, women and children worldwide are trapped in some form of slavery -- South Asian maids confined in Qatari homes against their will, children taken from school to work in Uzbek cotton fields and Paraguayans forced into labor in Argentine sweatshops. Millions of women and children are trafficked for sex. Very few are even identified, a focus of this year’s report.
Ambassador Luis CdeBaca, who heads the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, said identifying victims is a key to fighting the abuses.
“Everything we do is driven by finding and identifying these people,” he said on a call with reporters. Last year, 46,500 of the world’s 27 million victims were identified, he said, indicating the scale of the work ahead.
Of 188 countries examined, 27 were downgraded and 14 moved up in rankings that assess their commitment and success in stopping human trafficking. The report is mandated by Congress and based on information provided by nonprofit organizations, reports from embassies and activists.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said today her country has always been “highly focused” on fighting human-trafficking.
“We are against irresponsible accusations against China on this issue,” Hua said. “The U.S. should treat China’s effort fairly and objectively, and stop making one-sided judgments.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry accused the U.S. of being motivated by “political antipathy” toward Russia and other countries.
“We will respond reciprocally to these unfriendly steps,” the ministry said in a statement on its website today.
Representatives at Uzbekistan’s Washington embassy didn’t respond to requests for comment on the report.
Kerry called the report “tough” and said recent studies have shown that countries are twice as likely to take action once they get the report’s lowest ranking.
This year’s rankings were released amid strains in relations with both Russia and China. The U.S. and Russia are at odds over Moscow’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s war against rebels within his country. The U.S. also is trying to win help from its former Cold War foe to restrain Iran’s nuclear program and enact new controls on the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
A “shirt-sleeves summit” this month between President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping, meant to establish cordial relations, was chilled when Xi questioned U.S. allegations about Chinese computer hacking in light of revelations about U.S. monitoring of computer and telephone use.
Russia and China both had been on the “Tier Two Watch List,” a status that requires improvement within four years before the State Department is required by law to downgrade those countries. This is the first year the provision for mandatory downgrades is in effect.
“We trust that the relationship with these countries is a mature relationship; this is one of many issues with which we deal with these governments,” CdeBaca said. “While sometimes these truths can be hard to tell and hard to hear, at the same time, we need to have an accurate and respectful dialogue with them on what can be done and what needs to be done.”
Non-governmental organizations had some concerns that politics would intrude and countries such as China or Russia would be upgraded despite a lack of improvement.
Karen Stauss, director of programs at the Washington-based advocacy group Free the Slaves, said there was even concern that U.S. allies currently in their last year on the watch list before mandatory demotion, such as Thailand, would be pre-emptively upgraded to avoid offending them next year.
“The political will that this report represents is really something,” Stauss said in a telephone interview. “We were all preparing for the possibility that the downgrades wouldn’t happen across the board.”
“Of the three downgraded, with China and Russia there are strong reasons not to fray relations,” Stauss said.
Before the mandatory demotion to Tier Three this year, Russia had spent nine years on the Tier Two watch list. It ranks among the top 10 countries of origin for trafficked people, with as many as 130,000 victims estimated to be in Moscow alone.
While Russia’s Ministry of Interior estimates that as many as 17,000 children are being forced to work as prostitutes, the actual number is thought to be closer to 50,000, according to Free the Slaves.
The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, has become a driver of abuse. A February Human Rights Watch report documented abuse of workers, including laborers cheated out of wages, deprived of their passports or work permits, and given few days off.
China is cited in the report as a significant source of girls and women subjected to forced prostitution throughout the world. Most of its trafficking occurs among the estimated 236 million internal migrants within Chinese borders, according to the State Department report. They are forced to work in brick kilns, coal mines and factories.
“China does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking,” the report said, and was being downgraded after nine years on the watch list. The report found that the government itself “continued to perpetuate human trafficking in at least 320 state-run institutions.”
Children in “work-study” programs supported by local governments were forced to work in farms and factories and in 2012, some schools were reported for forcing students to work in factories.
In Uzbekistan, the world’s sixth-largest cotton producer and the third-largest exporter of the commodity, the government threatens to jail or withhold social benefits from people who don’t contribute to the country’s cotton harvest quota, according to Free the Slaves. This year, the country is being demoted to the State Department’s Tier Three for continuing to use older children to harvest cotton and weed fields.
The State Department also cited reports that teachers, students and private business employees have been forced by the Uzbek government to work in construction, agriculture and in cleaning parks.
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