MADRID – MADRID (AP) — Traffickers who subject women and children to prostitution and forced labor are engaged in one of Europe's most lucrative crimes — a €2.5 billion a year, modern-day slave trade whose victims are growing by 50 percent annually, a United Nations agency said Tuesday.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimated that more than 140,000 people are currently controlled by organized gangs. Many victims are tricked into leaving lives of poverty in eastern Europe, Africa and Latin America with bogus promises of work.
"Europeans believe that slavery was abolished centuries ago. But look around — slaves are in our midst," UNODC executive director Antonio Maria Costa said in a statement accompanying the report.
Costa said one big problem is that governments in industrialized countries have only recently passed tougher laws to crack down on trafficking in people.
"It is a very recent recognition of a very old problem," Costa said later to the Associated Press, adding that arrests and convictions of traffickers are rare. "I could count them on one hand."
Worldwide, his agency estimated several million people have fallen victim to traffickers.
American actress Mira Sorvino, who serves as a goodwill ambassador for the UN agency, said she met in Madrid with women who have been rescued from trafficking gangs in Spain and their stories were heartbreaking.
One Romanian woman was beaten so badly while being smuggled to Spain that her ribs were broken. Despite the injury, she still had to service clients in a roadside brothel while she recovered, Sorvino said.
Another woman, from Nigeria, was fooled into traveling to Spain with a promise of work so she could support her daughter back home. After traveling to Spain in the cargo hold of a ship, and seeing several travel mates die along the way, the woman learned there was no work waiting for her. She ended up as a prostitute and was told she had a €50,000 debt to pay off.
People back in Nigeria who had promised to care for her daughter instead had a chilling new message.
"If you do not pay, we will kill your daughter," Sorvino quoted the woman as recalling.
And when the woman called home periodically to speak to her daughter, traffickers would beat the little girl while the mother listened. As the Nigerian told her story, Sorvino said, "she cried a little. I cried a lot."
The UN report said that 51 percent of victims in Europe come from the Balkan countries or the former Soviet Union, with another 13 percent coming from Latin America, 7 percent from Central Europe and 5 percent from Africa.