UNITED NATIONS - Trafficking in people is now the fastest-growing business of organized crime, and it is being run by new, barely understood networks that have sidelined traditional criminal syndicates, the top anti-crime official at the United Nations said last week.
Pino Arlacchi, an Italian sociologist who worked closely on fighting the Mafia before becoming director general of the U.N. Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention three years ago, said in an interview Thursday that the deaths last week of 58 Chinese migrants trying to reach Britain was "just the tip of the iceberg, and one of several recent accidents that show the magnitude and seriousness of the problem."
He said reliable estimates indicate that 200 million people may now be in some way under the sway or in the hands of traffickers of various kinds worldwide.
He said that while four centuries of slavery moved about 11.5 million people out of Africa, in the past decade more than 30 million women and children may have been trafficked within and from Southeast Asia for sexual purposes and sweatshop labor. Rates are also high in the countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
"This is the fastest-growing criminal market in the world, because of the number of people who are involved, the scale of profits being generated for criminal organizations - and because of its multifold nature," said Arlacchi, a U.N. undersecretary-general. "We don't have just sexual exploitation. ... We have also a lot of exploitation of migrants. And we have classic slavery.
"If you put all this together under the same concept, you get the biggest violation of human rights in the world," he said.
Among the proposals he is making to governments is that anti-slavery laws be reintroduced where they have lapsed or been taken off the books. He is also considering recommending granting temporary residence to illegal immigrants who cooperate with authorities in identifying criminals who are trafficking in people.
"This a measure that in some countries, like Italy and Austria, is showing very important results in understanding the nature of networks - how the victims are attracted, how they are recruited and the way they are exploited," Arlacchi said.
"It is a sensitive political issue. No country likes to admit to having sexual exploitation and human trafficking." In Europe, he said, many migrants are arriving from Africa, the former Soviet bloc, China, Southeast Asia and, lately, India.
Narcotics are still a bigger source of profit for organized crime than trafficking in people, he said. But the trade in human beings is growing quickly enough to demand more precise estimates of its value and better information about the links that smuggling networks have with other types of international crime, he said.