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TOKYO — Mitsuko Horiuchi of the International Labour Organization’s Tokyo office described the plight of a woman she recently worked with.

The woman, while living in Thailand, was offered a job in a Thai restaurant in Japan. She took the job and traveled on a forged passport with a man posing as her boyfriend. He kept the passport.

Once here, she was handed to another person and told she owed nearly 5 million yen [about $46,300] for her trip. Instead of working as a waitress, she was forced into prostitution.

The woman escaped and, using her basic English skills, caught a taxi to her embassy, where she was rescued.

The woman is one of millions in the same situation around the world, Horiuchi told journalists Friday as officials wrapped up the “Strategies for Combating Human Trafficking in Asia” conference. In Japan, women from Asia, Europe and South America are coerced into prostitution — the problem is so prevalent that no one knows how many women are involved, Horiuchi said.

“The trafficking of human beings has become an urgent global challenge,” said Melanie Verveer, chairman of the nonprofit Vital Voices Global Partnership organization. “It is a profound violation of human rights, and it is increasingly a global health problem.”

To raise awareness of trafficking, Verveer’s group joined governmental and nongovernmental organizations for the two-day conference last week in Tokyo. The International Labour Organization and the U.S. Embassy also participated.

The conference was created to highlight some of the issues contributing to trafficking: Supply is fueled by poverty; governments are not doing enough to prosecute criminal networks behind the industry; and markets and demand are growing.

Verveer said all nations must find ways to combat the problem.

One way, she said, is treating women as victims rather than immigration violators. Offering them appropriate support will help them to assist prosecutors, she said, adding that societies also must help prevent the problem by creating better situations for the poor women who often are tricked into the trade.

Nations also must increase prosecution and legislation against trafficking in human beings and the sex trade, she said.

This month, the State Department released its latest survey on countries participating in the trafficking of human beings. Japan ranked poorly on the list, largely because of a dearth of legislation to stop the problem, the survey noted, making it a destination for human traffickers.

In 2002, the Defense Department’s Office of the Inspector General determined that military participation in the sex trade was contributing to the problem in South Korea and demanded commands crack down on the issue there.

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