By Umberto Bacchi
TBILISI, Jan 15 (Openly) - Anti-slavery groups urged Uzbekistan on Friday to step up action to tackle baby trafficking after government figures revealed an "alarming" number of infants were being sold in the country.
Uzbek authorities recorded 185 such cases during the past four years, the interior ministry said last week, with officials citing difficult financial and social conditions as one of the main factors behind the crime.
While the annual average was little changed from the previous three-year period, trafficking experts said many cases may go undetected and expressed concern that hardships caused by the COVID-19 pandemic could fuel the illegal baby trade.
"The numbers might go up in case we do not take immediate action," said Sanjarbek Toshbaev, who heads the U.N. International Organization for Migration (IOM) office in the Central Asian nation, describing the situation as "alarming".
As in neighbouring countries, measures to curb the coronavirus have hit Uzbekistan hard, pushing poverty levels up, as exports and remittances from migrant workers dwindled, and forcing many businesses to close, the U.N. development agency (UNDP) said in July.
Cases unearthed by police in recent months showed families could make several thousand dollars from selling a baby, according to local media reports. Monthly wages in the former Soviet republic average $300, according to official data.
"The government must ensure that women ... are able to look after themselves and their children without resorting to such extreme and desperate illegal activities," said Tsitsi Matekaire of women's rights group Equality Now.
The Uzbek government, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment, has been providing some assistance to families affected by the pandemic, said Nodira Karimova, director of local anti-slavery group Istiqbolli Avlod.
Uzbekistan has boosted its anti-trafficking efforts in recent years as part of a drive by President Shavkat Mirziyoyev to open up the nation after decades of isolation and economic stagnation, but some structural problems remain, experts say.
The adoption process is overly bureaucratic and opaque, said Karimova - pushing some families to cut corners and attempt to buy children instead, added Toshbaev.
Gaps in the registration of pregnancies and births as well as poor coordination between government agencies are also an issue, the head of Uzbekistan's human trafficking commission, Tanzil Narbayeva, told local media in December.
Many people are also unaware that buying and selling babies is against the law, Toshbaev said.
"Not all the persons selling their babies might understand to the full extent that this is a crime," he said, adding that authorities had only started to openly acknowledge the issue in recent years.
"If the government has started to discuss this problem, this is progress for the better," Karimova said.
(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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