London — "Internal trafficking is often overlooked, and in some countries completely ignored," said special rapporteur Maria Grazia Giammarinaro
Countries are ignoring the growing number of people trafficked within their own borders, focusing instead on the international trade in human beings, a top United Nations official said.
U.N. special rapporteur Maria Grazia Giammarinaro said children were also increasingly vulnerable to exploitation by traffickers, be it for sex, begging or even their organs.
"Internal trafficking is often overlooked, and in some countries completely ignored ... it just isn't on their radar," the Italian judge told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
Across sub-Saharan Africa, for example, more people are trafficked on home soil, forced to work in mines or as maids, or sold for sex, yet authorities struggle to respond, said Giammarinaro, the leading U.N. official on human trafficking.
Be it British teenagers used as drug mules, South American women trapped in local sex work or the widespread deployment of child soldiers by armed groups, the dynamic of the crime has evolved hugely in recent years, according to academics.
Globally, the proportion of victims who were trafficked and detected at home rose to 58 percent in 2016 - more than double the share in 2010 - according to an annual report by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) that was published this month.
The shift could reflect tighter border controls and a lack of political will from many nations to tackle related issues, such as migration and labour regulation, said Giammarinaro.
"Too many countries still don't understand the issue, or what they need to do. They need to introduce or reform laws to adapt - at present they are only tackling part of the problem."
Despite the global increase in victims, convictions remain very low in many nations - especially across Africa and the Middle East - according to the UNODC's report.
And in Europe, convictions fell to 742 in 2016 from 988 in 2011, despite a concomitant 4.3 percent increase in the number of identified victims to 4,429, showed data from the UNODC.
Giammarinaro said this could be addressed by introducing or improving laws to combat trafficking in all forms, and protecting victims rather than treating them like criminals.
"Victims are not ready to denounce exploitation if they have been criminalised ... whether for having false documents or prostitution," Giammarinaro said. "Impunity is still widespread - we simply don't know the real scale of this phenomenon."
"Governments must show more political will to tackle trafficking," she said. "Corruption, and competing and conflicting political and economic interests, are barriers."
About 40 million people worldwide are living as slaves - trapped in forced labour or forced marriages - according to a landmark estimate by Australian rights group the Walk Free Foundation and the U.N. International Labour Organization (ILO).
The world in 2015 agreed to a U.N. target of ending modern slavery and forced labour by 2030.
Yet the emergence of trafficking in conflict zones, where militants keep women as sex slaves and use child soldiers, as well as a general increase in the number of children controlled and exploited globally, are alarming, Giammarinaro said.
"The rise in child trafficking is a major concern, whether sexual exploitation, labour exploitation, forced begging, being made to commit crimes or even organ trafficking," she said.
"I urge states to adopt consistent policies to protect children from trafficking," Giammarinaro added.
"They need proper guardians and defenders."
- Reporting by Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths