A First: U.S. Included In Human Trafficking Report

The State Department's annual report on human trafficking covers countries around the globe. This year, the U.S. decided to rate itself, too. Activists say by admitting it faces this issue, the U.S. has a powerful diplomatic tool to encourage others to help tackle modern slavery.

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DEBORAH AMOS, host:

Now, we go from drug trafficking to human trafficking. For the past decade, the State Department has put together an annual report on human trafficking around the globe. This year, the Obama administration took the unusual step of reporting on itself, pointing out that the United States is one source of the problem. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: At a ceremony to unveil this year's human trafficking report, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said this is a problem Americans can't ignore.

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (Department of State): In some cases, foreign workers, drawn by the hope of a better life in America, are trapped by abusive employers. And there are Americans, unfortunately, who are held in sexual slavery. Some find themselves trapped, through debt, to work against their will in conditions of modern-day bondage.

KELEMEN: The lead author of the report, Luis CdeBaca, is a former prosecutor who dealt with trafficking cases and now runs the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.

Mr. LUIS CDEBACA (Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, Former Prosecutor): It's important to highlight the significance of the U.S. ranking. As we work towards a lead-by-example diplomacy, it was common sense to include ourselves in this year's report.

KELEMEN: The report says there are homegrown traffickers enslaving people in various segments of the U.S. economy - in hotels, strip clubs, hair and nail salons, and on farms.

A group of activists from Florida came to the State Department yesterday with their mobile museum to share information about seven cases of modern-day slavery - some involving migrant farm workers, another involving homeless American men held in debt on a Florida farm. The museum is housed on a truck, similar to one that carried forced laborers in one of the cases.

Mr. LUCAS BENITEZ (Co-Founder, Coalition of Immokalee Workers): (Spanish spoken)

Unidentified Woman (Translator): You can feel how hot it is in here, already.

Mr. BENITEZ: (Spanish spoken)

Unidentified Woman: And you can imagine having to sleep in here - because it was locked from the outside.

KELEMEN: That's Lucas Benitez, a former tomato picker from Mexico who co-founded the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, in Florida. That's one of the organizations recognized by the State Department for fighting human trafficking.

Mr. BENITEZ: (Spanish spoken)

Unidentified Woman: On the one hand, it was great to receive recognition for the work that we and others have been doing for so many years. But at the same time, it's really sad that in 2010, we're still giving out awards or recognition for fighting against slavery in the United States and in the world, and we shouldn't have to do that.

KELEMEN: According to the State Department, 12.3 million people are trafficked each year, around the world.

David Abramowitz, of the advocacy group Humanity United, says the report also states clearly that no country has come up with a comprehensive solution.

Mr. DAVID ABRAMOWITZ (Humanity United): We still haven't really come up with a way to firmly get grips on this issue. It was - I thought it was useful that the department itself called that out. And then, of course, there are a lot of countries, as it goes on to say, where, you know, they've just barely begun to work on this issue.

KELEMEN: Thirteen countries got the worst grade, including Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Sudan, Eritrea and Myanmar. The Democratic Republic of Congo was among those singled out for using child soldiers. That list was new, Abramowitz says. As for the U.S. rating itself, he called it a powerful diplomatic tool for the Obama administration to encourage countries to work with the U.S. to stamp out modern slavery.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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