WASHINGTON - 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.
"COVID-19 generated conditions that increased the number of people who experienced vulnerabilities to human trafficking and interrupted existing and planned anti-trafficking interventions," the annual report said.
"Governments across the world diverted resources toward the pandemic, often at the expense of anti-trafficking efforts," the report said.
"At the same time, human traffickers quickly adapted to capitalize on the vulnerabilities exposed and exacerbated by the pandemic," it 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, 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.
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, Burma, China, Comoros, Cuba, Eritrea, Iran, Nicaragua, North Korea, Russia, South Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan and Venezuela.
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. -- Agence France-Presse