UNITED NATIONS -- The U.N. crime-fighting office said Tuesday that 2.4 million people across the globe are victims of human trafficking at any one time, and 80 percent of them are being exploited as sexual slaves.
Yuri Fedotov, the head of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, told a daylong General Assembly meeting on trafficking that 17 percent are trafficked to perform forced labor, including in homes and sweat shops.
He said $32 billion is being earned every year by unscrupulous criminals running human trafficking networks, and two out of every three victims are women.
Fighting these criminals "is a challenge of extraordinary proportions," Fedotov said.
"At any one time, 2.4 million people suffer the misery of this humiliating and degrading crime," he said.
According to Fedotov's Vienna-based office, only one out of 100 victims of trafficking is ever rescued.
Fedotov called for coordinated local, regional and international responses that balance "progressive and proactive law enforcement" with actions that combat "the market forces driving human trafficking in many destination countries."
Michelle Bachelet, who heads the new U.N. agency promoting women's rights and gender equality called UN Women, said "it's difficult to think of a crime more hideous and shocking than human trafficking. Yet, it is one of the fastest growing and lucrative crimes."
Actress Mira Sorvino, the U.N. goodwill ambassador against human trafficking, told the meeting that "modern day slavery is bested only by the illegal drug trade for profitability," but very little money and political will is being spent to combat trafficking.
"Transnational organized crime groups are adding humans to their product lists," she said. "Satellites reveal the same routes moving them as arms and drugs."
Sorvino said there is a lack of strong legislation and police training to combat trafficking. Even in the United States "only 10 percent of police stations have any protocol to deal with trafficking," she said.
M. Cherif Bassiouni, an emeritus law professor at DePaul University in Chicago, said to applause that "there is no human rights subject on which governments have said so much but done so little."
Laws in most of the world criminalize prostitutes and other victims of trafficking but almost never criminalize the perpetrators "without whom that crime could not be performed," he said.
Bassiouni said the figure of 2.4 million people trafficked at any time is not reflective of the overall problem because "at the end of 10 years you will have a significantly larger number who have gone through the experience."
He urged a global reassessment of "who is a victim and who is a criminal" and called for criminalizing not only those on the demand side using trafficked women, children and men, but all those in the chain of supplying trafficking victims.
In addition, Bassiouni said, "we must change attitudes of male-dominated police departments throughout the world who place this type of a crime at the lowest level of their law enforcement priorities."
General Assembly President Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged donors to contribute to a new trust fund aimed at helping victims of human trafficking.
At the start of the meeting, Fedotov said the U.N. Voluntary Trust Fund for Victims of Trafficking had pledges of around $1 million but just $47,000 in contributions, and he urged those who offered money to send their checks.
At the end of the meeting, Al-Nasser announced three new pledges – $200,000 from Australia, $30,000 from Russia, and 30,000 Euros from Luxembourg – and encouraged other U.N. member states to follow their example.