By Leanne McCallum, Human Trafficking Index Project Manager
The highly anticipated United States Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP Report) 2016 was released last month to a surprising response. The TIP Report, which was mandated by the U.S. Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000 and subsequently enacted in 2001, is a report produced by the U.S. Department of State that analyzes and ranks country level anti-trafficking efforts. The State Department determines rankings by checking the “3 Ps” of country level anti-trafficking efforts: Prosecution, Protection, and Prevention. Tier rankings range from a scale of Tier 1- the best possible ranking- to Tier 3- the lowest possible ranking that also comes with possible sanctions.* This year’s report covered the period of April 1, 2015 to March 31, 2016. With 27 countries being downgraded and 20 being upgraded, this particular reporting year had the most tier changes overall since 2011, and the second most in the history of the report.
Following the release of the 2015 TIP Report was an especially vehement media flurry of criticism over purported politicization in the tier rankings. As the report’s rankings annually draws criticism for a myriad of reasons, this year’s report yielded an astonishing response: quiet negative and positive feedback. The unexpectedly supportive response by anti-trafficking organizations and other countries have allowed the 2016 TIP Report to avoid much of the scrutiny it usually draws upon its publication. Even with the surprisingly reticent reception of the TIP Report, there are still several countries that drew special attention from the international community.
Here are the country rankings you should know from the 2016 TIP Report:
Anti-trafficking organizations applauded the downgrade of Burma (Myanmar) after 4 consecutive years at a Tier 2 Watch List ranking. While the report stated that the downgrade was automatic due to being on Tier 2 Watch list for too long (the report mandates that if a country is listed on Tier 2 Watch list for 2 or more years in a row, the State department is required to automatically downgrade that country unless there are extenuating circumstances) many organizations felt this downgrade has been long overdue. Burma has been praised in the last several years for the improvements the government has taken to move toward a democratic state, but human rights are still a major issue in the country. The majority of the country struggles with civil war, ethnic tension, and crippling underdevelopment. The Burmese government has been inextricably linked with human trafficking within the country, with reports of government forces perpetrating forced labor, child soldier recruitment, and other forms of human rights violations.
Burma is a source country for human trafficking for men, women and children. Burma’s ongoing internal conflict with ethnic minorities has also created large vulnerable populations who have been displaced by conflict, social and political unrest throughout the country. The TIP Report noted that government military forces are using forced labor and other forms of trafficking as a tactic to push development and stop rebel ethnic groups engaged in civil war. Both government and rebel military groups have been documented using child soldiers. Ethnic minorities are particularly vulnerable to human trafficking in Burma, like the Rohingya ethnic group dubbed “the most persecuted people on Earth”. The Burmese government refuses to acknowledge the ethnic group’s existence, thus it is a stateless population with limited to no citizenship rights. Even Aung San Suu Kyi, a Burmese leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate who has received international acclaim for her democratization efforts in the country, has remained ominously silent about the plight of the Rohingya. With this downgrade to a Tier 3, many hope that the Burmese government will begin to more seriously address its role in human trafficking, and will start to adequately address human trafficking in Burma.
Thailand’s upgrade from Tier 3 to Tier 2 Watch list drew the most vehement negative response of the report this year. Labor trafficking organizations and organizations focused on the Thai fishing industry argue that this upgrade may lead the Thai government to stagnate further improvements in their anti-trafficking efforts. Human Rights Watch, Human Rights at Sea, ATEST, and several other anti-trafficking organizations have issued statements denouncing this upgrade. Following President Obama’s February 2016 signing of the Port State Measures Agreement, an international pact that bans the U.S. from importing fish caught using slave labor, many believed that the US would reflect the same commitment to anti-labor trafficking in the TIP Report ranking. Thailand and the U.S. have had a ‘special relationship’ that dates back to 1818, with military cooperation being a hallmark of the Thai-American alliance. As a result of this historic relationship, some experts argue that Thailand’s upgrade is a politically motivated decision to protect the U.S. from harming diplomatic relations with an important ally.
Thailand is a source, transit and destination country for men, women, children, and transgender people. The TIP Report noted that despite improvements in Thai legislation, official training, and other government level changes to address human trafficking, many anti-trafficking practitioners in the region argue that these changes are merely surface level changes that have had little to no effect on ground level efforts. Government complicity and corruption in human trafficking continues to be a major issue facing the country. The report also said that “trafficking in the fishing industry remains a significant concern.” Within the fishing industry trafficking victims are forced onto boats for months, and up to years, at a time. Wage garnishing, death, and exploitative labor practices are commonplace in the industry. Since Thailand is also an economic hub of Southeast Asia it is a destination for many foreign workers seeking economic opportunity. These workers are particularly vulnerable because of Thailand’s complicated citizenship system. The system has led to marginalization of ethnic minorities and also rendered foreigners without legal rights.
Champions within the international anti-labor trafficking community supported the State Department’s decision to downgrade Uzbekistan from a Tier 2 Watch List to a Tier 3. The country is widely criticized for its internal trafficking problem: namely the use of state mandated agricultural work in the cotton industry. The Uzbek government uses forced labor of government employees like doctors, teachers, and other public servants to pick cotton. Approximately one-third of the country is subjected to this practice, including school children whose schools are shut down during the cotton picking season. Uzbekistan is the 4th largest cotton exporter in the world, so the industry is vital to Uzbekistan’s economy. Though NGOs have documented fewer young children each year being forced into picking cotton, child labor is still a concern. Coercive practices like quotas, fines, prosecution, and job loss are all used in order to make citizens participate in this state sponsored human trafficking. The Cotton Campaign has said that “the scale of forced labour disrupted the delivery of essential public services including education, medical care, transportation and banking. Sending older, 15-17-year-old, children into the fields is also still common. Of particular concern is the fact that the 2015 harvest has been accompanied by a severe crackdown on human rights activists and journalists attempting to document forced labour in the harvest.”
Apart from the government forced labor in agriculture, the country faces other forms of human trafficking. Uzbekistan is a source and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labor and women and children subjected to sex trafficking. The report also notes rampant internal trafficking within Uzbekistan, along with being a source country for male labor trafficking as well as female and child sex trafficking.
Turkmenistan also was downgraded from a Tier 2 Watch List to a Tier 3 country this year. This change was applauded by human rights organizations. The report stated that the country showed little effort in improving anti-trafficking efforts, and after 4 years straight on the Tier 2 Watch List ranking it was automatically downgraded. Turkmenistan, like Uzbekistan, uses state sponsored forced labor in order to pick cotton. According to the TIP Report, ” to meet government-imposed quotas for the cotton harvest, local authorities require university students, private-sector institutions, soldiers, and public sector workers (including teachers, doctors, nurses, and others) to pick cotton without payment and under the threat of penalty. Government officials threatened public sector workers with dismissal, having work hours cut, or salary deductions. Authorities threatened farmers with loss of land if they did not meet government-imposed quotas.” Turkmen farmers are forced by the government to grow rice, cotton, and wheat for annual quotas.
Turkmenistan is a source country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking. Turkmenistani people are prone to forced labor after migrating abroad for employment in the textile, agricultural, construction, and domestic service sectors. Turkmen women and children are also victims of sex trafficking domestically and abroad. Forced disappearances of dissenters and political activists are also commonplace in the country.
Despite calls for Malaysia to be downgraded back to a Tier 3, the State Department maintained the country’s ranking for a second consecutive year. Last year’s TIP Report received a firestorm of criticism over politicization of tier rankings, with Malaysia being at the center of that debate. Many believed that Malaysia was upgraded in order to fulfill the requirement of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which mandates that a country must be a Tier 2 Watch List or better in order to be a part of the partnership. Human rights organizations argue that the dire human trafficking problem within Malaysia, and its clear lack of response to the breadth of the issue, make it unfit for the Tier 2 Watch List ranking. Though Malaysia passed a set of amendments to its current anti-trafficking law in November of 2015, as of March 2016 these amendments had still not been formally adopted. In conjunction, Malaysia saw decreased number of prosecutions and investigations of potential traffickers in its law enforcement side. There were only 7 convicted traffickers in 2016- which is a disproportionate number compared to the rampant human trafficking problem.
Malaysia is primarily a destination country for men, women, and children who are subject to labor and sex trafficking. It has been a destination country for Southeast Asian migrants in search of economic opportunity, with an estimated 2 million undocumented workers in the country currently. Debt bondage, passport seizure, wage garnishing, restricted movement, and significant debts or fees are commonplace for migrant workers. Corruption of government officials and law enforcement remains a problem in the country. The fishing industry also remains a serious problem in Malaysia. The TIP Report also highlighted the problem of mass graves found along the Thai-Malaysian border in trafficking camps, which were purported to be mass graves of Burmese Rohingya human trafficking victims.
*The TIP Report ranking system includes the following classifications: Tier 1, Tier 2, Tier 2 Watch List, Tier 3, and Special Case. For more information about the tier system and ranking process, please refer to the TIP Report’s methodology section.
Photo Credit: U.S. Department of State
The Human Trafficking Center, housed in the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, is the only two-year, graduate-level, professional-training degree in human trafficking in the United States. One way graduate students contribute to the study of human trafficking is by publishing research-based blogs. The HTC was founded in 2002 to apply sound research and reliable methodology to the field of human trafficking research and advocacy.
Founded in 1964, the Josef Korbel School of International Studies is one of the world’s leading schools for the study of international relations. The School offers degree programs in international affairs and is named in honor of its founder and first dean, Josef Korbel.
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