The United States said Thursday that the coronavirus pandemic has created an "ideal environment" for human trafficking to thrive as governments divert resources to the health crisis and traffickers take advantage of vulnerable people.
The State Department's "2021 Trafficking in Persons Report" also downgraded several countries and upgraded others for their efforts to combat the scourge of human trafficking.
Releasing the annual report, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said nearly 25 million people worldwide are estimated to be victims of human trafficking.
"Many are compelled into commercial sex work," Blinken said. "Many are forced to work in factories or fields or to join armed groups.
"It's a global crisis," he said. "It's an enormous source of human suffering."
The State Department report said the Covid-19 pandemic had "generated conditions that increased the number of people who experienced vulnerabilities to human trafficking and interrupted existing and planned anti-trafficking interventions."
"Governments across the world diverted resources toward the pandemic, often at the expense of anti-trafficking efforts," it said.
"At the same time, human traffickers quickly adapted to capitalize on the vulnerabilities exposed and exacerbated by the pandemic," the report added.
Kari Johnstone, acting director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, said this confluence of factors "resulted in an ideal environment for human trafficking to flourish and evolve."
For example, the report said, "in India and Nepal, young girls from poor and rural areas were often expected to leave school to help support their families during the economic hardship.
"Some were forced into marriage in exchange for money, while others were forced to work to supplement lost income," it said.
In some countries, including the United States, landlords forced their tenants, usually women, to have sex with them when they could not pay rent while gangs in some nations preyed on people in camps for displaced persons.
- 'Protect and serve' -
The report ranks countries around the world based on their compliance with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000.
Six countries were downgraded from Tier 1 -- the highest ranking -- to Tier 2: Cyprus, Israel, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal and Switzerland.
Tier 2 countries do not "fully meet" the TVPA's minimum standards "but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance."
Two nations -- Guinea-Bissau and Malaysia -- were added to the Tier 3 list of worst offenders, a list that already included Afghanistan, Algeria, China, the Comoros, Cuba, Eritrea, Iran, Myanmar, Nicaragua, North Korea, Russia, South Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan and Venezuela.
The governments of 11 of those Tier 3 nations were found to have a "policy or pattern" of state-sponsored human trafficking in government-funded programs.
"Governments should protect and serve their citizens, not terrorize and subjugate them for profit," Blinken said.
Four countries -- Belarus, Burundi, Lesotho and Papua New Guinea -- were removed from Tier 3 and placed on the Tier 2 watch list.
The United States may restrict foreign assistance to Tier 3 nations subject to presidential approval.
Turkey, a NATO member, was cited for violations of the Child Soldiers Prevention Act for the use of child soldiers by Turkish-backed groups in Syria and Libya.
"The United States hopes to work with Turkey to encourage all groups involved in the Syrian and Libyan conflicts not to use child soldiers," a senior State Department official said.