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Trafficking in humans

A report by the U.S. State Department has focused attention on a tragedy that too many countries have chosen to ignore: the international trafficking in human beings _ mostly women and children _ who wind up in forced servitude or worse. Now the Bush administration should keep the pressure on to make sure that the international community acts on this human rights issue.

The report is the first issued under a law that took effect last fall, and it was unusually candid. The report's authors found that some of the worst offenders are our allies. Among the 23 countries described as making little effort to combat trafficking within their borders are Saudi Arabia, Israel, Greece and South Korea. The report estimates that at least 700,000 persons annually _ primarily women and children _ are kidnapped, tricked or coerced into leaving home and often cross international borders with the promise of bogus jobs that could benefit families back home. Some are sold into outright slavery; others wind up trapped in other forms of human bondage. Approximately 50,000 women and children enter the United States this way each year. Traffickers commonly seize victims' identity documents and enslave them in sweatshops, brothels, farm labor camps or private homes. In a strange country without support systems, where they may not speak the language or know their rights, victims routinely suffer torture, starvation and sexual abuse.

The United States has shown admirable leadership with this report. But it needs to follow up the report with political and economic pressure on countries, particularly U.S. allies, that tolerate this slave trade.

The Bush administration should lead the way in persuading nations to adjust their domestic immigration programs to take into account the special needs of victims. It also should work toward strengthening cooperation with international police agencies to crack down on organized crime rings. Beyond being a human rights tragedy, this shameful practice corrupts nations at both ends of the slavery pipeline.

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