Better data is needed to determine the magnitude of human trafficking and some countries are not taking the problem as seriously as they should be, the U.N.'s top anti-crime official said Tuesday.
"We only see the tip of the iceberg, but we have not succeeded in pushing this iceberg out of the water," Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the Vienna-based United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, said in an interview.
Costa, who described human trafficking as possibly the most difficult issue his office deals with, made his comments before a conference on the matter to be held in Vienna next month.
The three-day gathering, which starts Feb. 13, is being organized by the United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking, launched by Costa's drugs and crime office in March 2007 to increase knowledge and awareness of the issue, promote effective responses and foster joint action partnerships.
"We need to mobilize people by understanding better and we need better statistics so as to identify specifically what is going on," Costa said, while acknowledging that the matter was "murky" and often difficult to quantify.
"We are dealing with human beings, we are not dealing with commodities and that makes it difficult to measure — but we will succeed," he said.
'Benign neglect' by some
In preparing the meeting, known as the Vienna Forum to Fight Human Trafficking, Costa said organizers have run into countries that appeared not to fully grasp the severity of the problem.
"We did run into some member states that, how can I say, maintain ... a sort of benign neglect who say, for instance, 'Well, this is not human trafficking or slavery — it's just prostitution,'" Costa said.
"I sense that greater educational efforts on our part are needed to make sure that the crime is fully understood and the severity fully appreciated," he added.
Costa declined to divulge any names, saying he did not want to "shame" anyone.
"Those are limited cases, but in some instances they are important cases, countries well known to us," he said.
Others 'militant' in efforts
Costa also noted that some states — such as Moldova, Belarus and Nigeria — were becoming very "militant" in their efforts to stop trafficking.
All three were ranked as recruiting countries in a report by the drugs and crime office released in April 2006. The report showed that most victims of human trafficking are women and children who are abducted or recruited in their homelands, transported through other countries and exploited in destination countries.
The report also found that the trafficking of people for sexual exploitation or forced labor affects virtually every region of the world and called on governments to do more to reduce demand, protect victims and bring perpetrators to justice.
On Tuesday, Costa also noted the existence of a U.N. protocol designed to combat human trafficking, adding that it called for better statistical evidence.
"We would like now, on account of this protocol, (to) put additional pressure on member states so that we can get ... basic information," he said.