As Modi meets Obama, activists call for talks on human trafficking

US President Barack Obama should press the visiting prime minister of India to strengthen his country’s anti-trafficking laws and deliver justice to victims

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US President Barack Obama should press the visiting prime minister of India to strengthen his country’s anti-trafficking laws and deliver justice to victims, human rights campaigners said on Tuesday.

Obama was due to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the White House on Tuesday to discuss economic growth, climate change, clean energy and defense cooperation.

However, activists called on Obama to use Modi’s fourth visit to the United States since becoming prime minister in 2014 to focus on India’s anti-slavery record.

India has the most slaves in the world with more than 18 million people trapped in debt bondage, forced into marriage, sold to brothels or born into servitude, according to the 2016 Global Slavery Index.

“More people are enslaved in India than in any other country in the world, with millions of Indian men, women, and children trapped in debt bondage and forced to perform strenuous work,” said Amy Sobel of the Washington-based Human Rights First pressure group.

“Prime Minister Modi’s trip to the United States is an opportunity for President Obama to raise concerns over India’s progress in combating modern slavery while ensuring that the US-India relationship is grounded in respect for human dignity and fundamental rights.”

Forty percent of the world’s estimated 45.8 million slaves are in India, although the scourge exists in all 167 nations surveyed in last month’s Global Slavery Index, according to researchers behind the list.

The US State Department’s 2015 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report shows that India's primary trafficking problem is forced labor.

Often trapped in debt, victims including women and children are forced to work in brick kilns, rice mills, agriculture, embroidery factories, and other industries to pay off what they owe to their traffickers.

The TIP report ranks India as a Tier 2 country which means the government has not fully complied with US standards but is making significant efforts to meet those standards.

Last week a senior US lawmaker raised concerns over India’s human rights record, noting that the 2015 TIP report indicated that Indian officials at various levels of government were complicit in human trafficking.

“The government did not report investigations, prosecutions or convictions of government officials complicit in human trafficking offences,” said Senator Ben Cardin, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, during a speech in New Delhi.

Indian officials, however, have pointed to a slew of initiatives taken by Modi’s government over the last two years which they said was proof that New Delhi was taking the issue seriously.

These include the introduction of a new anti-trafficking law, an online platform to find missing children and increased focus on the rehabilitation of victims of slavery.

Last week India unveiled a draft of its first comprehensive anti-human trafficking law, which provides for more shelters, a rehabilitation fund, fast-track courts to ensure speedy trials, a federal investigative agency to boost convictions.

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