U.S. Cites Arab Nations in 'Slave Trade'

The State Department says several Arab nations — including some close allies — are failing to crack down on modern-day slavery: trafficking in humans who are forced into prostitution or indentured servitude.

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The Arab world has come under criticism by the U.S. State department. It's accused several Arab allies of failing to crack down on what it calls modern day slavery, the trafficking of humans to become prostitutes or indentured servants.

NPR's Michele Kelemen has more in the State Department's annual report on human trafficking.

MICHELE KELEMEN: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says the reports mandated by Congress have highlighted an issue that she says was like a global family secret. She says countries are increasingly aware of the problem of human trafficking now, but still aren't doing enough.

Secretary CONDOLEEZZA RICE (U.S. State Department): You will see disturbing evidence in this report that prosecutions have leveled off everywhere. In some cases, there are countries with major human trafficking problems, but only a couple of traffickers have been brought to justice.

KELEMEN: This year's report is dedicated to a 22-year-old man from Burma whose case was never prosecuted. Ko Maung left Burma to take a job on a fishing boat, according to the State Department's Mark Lagon.

Mr. MARK LAGON (Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Organization Affairs, U.S. State Department): The good job turned out to be a floating death camp. One by one, the men began to perish, including Ko Maung. His body was dumped overboard, so were the exhausted, malnourished bodies of 29 other modern-day slaves.

KELEMEN: The number of countries that are on the worst offenders list, the so-called Tier Three, has grown to a record level this year. Lagon says there are 16 countries on the list, including Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar, Arab states that rely on foreign migrant workers.

Mr. LAGON: It's especially disappointing that so many wealthy countries in the Near East that aren't lacking adequate resources to make significant progress are on Tier Three. For instance, Saudi Arabia's on Tier Three for the third year.

KELEMEN: South Asians and Africans working in Saudi Arabia often have their passports taken, according to the report, and face conditions of involuntary servitude. Lagon acknowledged that his office has had to get involved after U.S. subcontractors in Iraq face similar allegations. Most recently, the State Department's inspector general was called in to look at a Kuwaiti company's handling of workers at the U.S. embassy compound in Baghdad.

MR. HOWARD J. KRONGARD (Inspector General, U.S. State Department): It is very important that the United States be seen as a partner and that we have a problem at home. We are not just standing with our arms folded, judging others.

KELEMEN: On Capitol Hill, the State Department is facing some criticism with this report. New Jersey Republican Chris Smith complained that many countries, such as India, remain on a watch list rather than being put on the list of countries that could face sanctions.

And Tom Lantos - a California Democrat who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee - said it doesn't make sense that the U.S. is cutting back funds for the office on trafficking just as it reports that more and more countries are failing to act.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

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