Human trafficking is probably far more prevalent in New Zealand than most people realise, says Sigma Huda, the United Nations' first special rapporteur on human trafficking.

Most people thought of human trafficking as forcibly smuggling women across borders to work as prostitutes, she said, but it was much broader than that. It could also count among its victims mail-order brides - "you have lots of ads for those in New Zealand" - migrant workers, foreign fishermen and those in arranged marriages.

While people could enter such situations quite willingly, said Mrs Huda, they could lose their autonomy and freedom, become trapped, and become trafficked.

Trafficking was "the biggest crime that's going on in the world - billions of dollars are earned out of the flesh trade", said Mrs Huda, 60, a high-powered lawyer and long-time social campaigner in her native Bangladesh.

"You have a lot of trafficking [in New Zealand] but you have not been focusing on it as trafficking," she said. For example, illegal migrant prostitutes were often seen as immigration problems rather than trafficking victims. Migrant woman who might, say, be working legally in a bar could be forced into other work: "They are in a situation where they can't choose their options".

Although Mrs Huda is holidaying in New Zealand - her brother, a doctor, lives in New Plymouth - she is a self-confessed workaholic and has held various informal fact-finding meetings.

One was with the Human Rights Commission. Terry O'Neill, from the commission, said New Zealand's relative wealth made it potentially attractive to traffickers. Although no new cases had come to light since one involving Thai prostitutes in 2001, that didn't mean the trade was non-existent, he said.

Mr O'Neill said police were concerned that decriminalising prostitution had removed a tool for keeping informed about its workers.

Other risk areas, said the commission, involved Chinese, Brazilian and Czech sex workers, foreign agricultural workers, and the possibility of inter-student extortion and sexual exploitation in English-language schools.

Mrs Huda is one year into her three-year UN term, and has reported on trafficking in Lebanon and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

"When I caution a government that we have a set of allegations, they have to respond," she said, stressing that her job was about defining good anti-trafficking strategies as well as problems.

Mrs Huda is married to a Bangladeshi Government minister, Nazmul Huda; they have two daughters aged 25 and 19. She said her human rights activism sprung from a privileged childhood, when her father often reminded his children that their good fortune required them to give plenty back.

BILLION-DOLLAR TRADE


* Human trafficking is one of the fastest-growing areas of international crime. Large scale and clandestine, it features migration within or between countries involving selling or buying; force, coercion, deception or violence; and exploitation ranging from domestic labour, prostitution, organised begging and bonded labour to organ harvesting.

* The United Nations says two million people every year are falling victim, many from Southeast Asia and most are women.

* Trafficking is fuelled by factors such as poverty, economic instability, local beliefs and customs, and domestic violence.

Source: Human Rights Commission, from the Regional Workshop on Human Trafficking and National Human Rights Organisations, Sydney, November 2005, Herald archives.