WASHINGTON -- As many as 50,000 women and children from Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe are brought to the United States under false pretenses each year and forced to work as prostitutes, abused laborers or servants, according to a CIA report that is the government's first comprehensive assessment of the problem.
The exhaustively researched, 79-page agency report -- "International Trafficking in Women to the United States: A Contemporary Manifestation of Slavery" -- paints a broad picture of this hidden trade and of the difficulties that government agencies face in fighting it.
Law enforcement officials have seen episodic evidence for years of trafficking in immigrant women and children, some as young as 9. But the report says that officers generally do not like to take on these slavery cases because they are difficult to investigate. What's more, it says, the nation does not have sufficient laws aimed at this problem, meaning that the penalties are often insubstantial.
Two years ago, Attorney General Janet Reno chartered an interagency task force to attack the problem, saying, "We are not interested in containing modern-day slavery; we want to eradicate it."
During the past two years, while up to 100,000 victims entered the United States to be held in bondage, federal officials estimated that the government prosecuted cases involving no more than 250 victims.
A government official who wanted the report's findings publicized provided a copy.
It describes case after case of foreign women who answered advertisements for au pair, sales clerk, secretarial or waitress jobs in the United States but found, once they arrived, that the jobs did not exist. Instead, they were taken prisoner, held under guard and forced into prostitution or peonage. Some of them were sold outright to brothel owners, the report says.
"Examples of this may include Latvian women threatened and forced to dance nude in Chicago," the report says. Thai women were brought to the United States "but then forced to be virtual sex slaves." Chinese-Korean women were "held as indentured servants." And "Mexican women and girls, some as young as 14," were promised jobs in housekeeping or child care but, upon arrival, "were told they must work as prostitutes in brothels serving migrant workers."
Girls from Asian and African countries, some as young as age 9, were essentially sold to traffickers by their parents, "for less than the price of a toaster," one government official said. This happens mainly in cultures where female children are not valued.
A Nigerian smuggling ring, the report says, citing an Immigration and Naturalization Service case, charged parents from that country $10,000 to $12,000 to bring their children to New York so they would have "better educational opportunities." But once here, the smugglers "forced the Nigerian children to work as domestics."
At a conference in Manila, Philippines, last week, delegates from 23 Asian countries met to discuss the problem and called on governments to seize the profits of the crime syndicates involved. A Filipino group estimated those profits at up to $17 billion a year.
Frank E. Loy, undersecretary of state for global affairs, told a congressional subcommittee in February: "It seems incomprehensible that at the dawn of the 21st century, the primitive and barbaric practice of buying and selling human beings occurs at all. Yet international trafficking in persons, predominantly women and children, is a widespread and, by all indications, a growing reality."