Activists fighting to stop human trafficking called yesterday for better cooperation between victims' home countries and Japan, a hotbed for the crime.
"Cooperation among states is essential," Keiko Otsu, a Japanese campaigner to help women who escaped forced prostitution, told a symposium in Tokyo.
"Receiving countries and the countries of origin need to help each other to rescue victims of human trafficking," she said.
Japan has come under intense criticism for its lack of laws to crack down on sexual slavery and labor abuses even after it signed the UN convention against human trafficking in 2002.
Japan was castigated in a 2002 report by the US State Department for its failure to prevent slavery.
The Japanese government finally moved last year to create a law that made the trafficking of people a specific offense and provided for support to victims.
"Before the law was implemented, victims of human trafficking in Japan were treated as criminals" who violated immigration laws and worked as prostitutes, said Otsu, who has run a shelter to women escaping pimps and abusive partners since 1986.
"The enforcement of the law was a significant move because now they are treated as victims, protected legally," Otsu said.
"Efforts are being made at the government level. Now we, as members of the civil community, have to make sure rescued women are living safely and have a stable job after being sent back to their home country," she said.
Richard Danziger, head of counter trafficking division of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said it was extremely difficult to bring human trafficking cases to light.
"Trafficking is often called a modern day form of slavery, and it is," Danziger said.
"I think it's intolerable in the 21st century that slavery exists, not in some countries miles away, invisible, but actually in the cities where we live and where we work," he said.
More than 250 people participated in the symposium organized by the Japanese foreign ministry, IOM and a local women's non-governmental organization.
It is not known how many people are trafficked to Japan as in most cases they quickly go underground. In 2005, 21 women sought refuge at Otsu's shelter, mainly Thais and increasingly Indonesians, she said, likely a mere tip of the iceberg.
Police protected 117 women from nine countries who had been forced into sexual work last year, 40 percent of whom were from Indonesia, while many others were from the Philippines and Thailand, panelist Tsuyoshi Iguchi from the National Police Agency said.