The Best and Worst Countries on Global Slavery List

Player utilities

Listen to the story.

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service PRI and WGBH, Boston. Now here's a top ten list you don't want to be on. It's the annual State Department list of human trafficking worst offenders, that is, countries that aren't doing enough to combat modern forms of slavery. This week in its annual report on the issue the Obama administration added Syria to the list. Other nations like Myanmar or Burma were removed. I'm joined by Ambassador Luis CdeBaca. He's the US coordinator for human trafficking issues. And ambassador, what is the headline from this year's trafficking in persons report for you?

Luis CdeBaca: Well I think the headline is the notion that even transitional countries can and are fighting slavery. When we see countries like Burma, Egypt, Tunisia are stepping up, even a prosecution in Somalia this year. So I think that what we see is that it doesn't matter whether a country is rich or poor, stable or coming out of a transition, the fight against modern slavery is something that all governments can and should be doing.

Werman: Overall is human trafficking growing?

CdeBaca: We're looking at numbers now that seem to be between 21 and 27 million people worldwide. There's estimates it's the most people enslaved as a raw number in human history. But I think sadly what we're coming to realize is that this doesn't represent a growth in human trafficking. It represents the fact that there's so many people who suffered throughout the years without a response that was helping them. And I think that that's what's heartbreaking is to think about the last 100 years most of the countries of the world thought that slavery was over and so we didn't have to work on this. And yet, people were suffering in silence.

Werman: What happens if a country gets on the State Department watch-list? I mean obviously it's embarrassing, but what actions are taken beyond naming and shaming?

CdeBaca: We can't overstate naming and shaming. And then there are sanctions that can be applied to those particular countries, targeted sanctions. For instance, we saw the sanctions in the Democratic Republic of Congo last year were targeted towards the military in [xx] because you had situations where marauding soldiers were enslaving entire villages, everything from prostitution, to cooks, to travelling porters. So in that situation the sanctions that were put into place were specifically put on for military aid for a maximum effect.

Werman: And how did that change thanks ultimately in DR Congo?

CdeBaca: I think that what we're seeing is at more and more there are people who are empowered within these governments who had been wanting to make a change and they used this as one of the ways they do that. We saw that in Burma this year. We lifted the trafficking report sanctions in February of this year. They were the first sanctions the United States lifted in Burma and it's because the Tientsin government had made it illegal, after almost 105 years they had gotten rid of the law that made it possible for state and local officials to enslave the population for whatever they wanted to. Their local mayor could come and force you to work on a plantation. For the first time in the modern history of Burma that is now illegal.

Werman: Luis CdeBaca, at this point where is the country that your department believes has the biggest problem of sex trafficking?

CdeBaca: I think that we continue to see especially in India and other parts of South Asia these brothel districts. I think that those are some of the worst conditions. But sadly what we're also seeing is that the same tragedies happen on the streets of Memphis, on the streets of Washington DC. This is something that we can't simply look overseas and say trafficking and slavery happens over there. It's happening in our own back yards.

Werman: I need to ask you how much, cases like the notorious case in Columbia when Secret Service agents hired prostitutes there, how much that damages what you're trying to do?

CdeBaca: Well I think that what we see is that the increased attention to the situation. And there were some people that were asking what kind of analysis was ever done to see whether those women were adults. Because of course the definition of trafficking of modern slavery when you're looking at sex trafficking, there's the idea that it's consensus in the United States and around the world that a child can never fully consent to being involved in prostitution. And so there was I think some awareness raised by the instance in [xx], but there's other things that we're seeing as well. And we're certainly looking at the governments procurement policies, personnel policies et cetera, to make sure that the tax payer dollars not inadvertently go in any way to support this type of enslavement.

Werman: Ambassador, I'd like to bring another voice in the conversation. Azazet Habtezghi Kidane is an Eritrean nun. Sister Azazet as she's called has led efforts to call attention to human trafficking in Sienna, in Egypt, including sexual slavery and the torture of hundreds of African asylum seekers. And sister Azazet you'll be honored by the State Department this week for your work. Sister Azazet, I'd like to know what your personal connection is to this cause you're fighting. Was there a moment or an episode that really alerted you to the problem?

Azazet Habtezghi Kidane: A woman who was raped and she had a child and crying she told to me, "I am so happy that I can tell what happened to me and to other fellow women and men." 

Werman: Where was she from?

Habtezghi Kidane: She was from Eritrea. And another one, a man, the same thing, "I am so happy to tell you that I am alive today because I was wishing that I could die because I didn't want to face what tomorrow and to be tortured."  He wanted to hang himself but at that moment a new group came and they saved his life, when other three boys that were routinely passed away under torture. And when I interviewed him he said, "I'm so happy I could tell about what happened to my friends. This gave me strength. I have to tell what they are telling me. I cannot keep it for myself." 

Werman: Sister Azazet you said you wanted to get these stories of suffering and slavery out there for the whole world to hear, but what can you do as an activist in this area of human trafficking? What can you do really besides raising awareness?

Habtezghi Kidane: These people in our time, they are suffering, and these people are dying. So our international body has to do something because they are human like me and you.

Werman: Sister Azazet and Ambassador Luis CdeBaca thank you both very much indeed.

CdeBaca: Thank you Marco.

Habtezghi Kidane: Thank you.