Burma and Vietnam have been upgraded from their low rankings in an annual U.S. report on human trafficking as the two countries were highlighted Tuesday for taking effective steps to check the scourge.
Burma was cited for repealing an antiquated law used to justify forced labor and replacing it with a legislation expressly forbidding the practice while Vietnam received praise for introducing a sweeping law to check human smuggling.
North Korea continued to languish in a blacklist for its forced labor and human trafficking, with the situation in the impoverished and nuclear-armed nation described as “very grave.”
China remained on the so-called Tier 2 watch list, for countries in danger of falling down to the Tier 3 black list. Tier 3 countries do not comply with any of the minimum standards required to contain the human trafficking problem and are not working towards that goal.
Burma this year improved to the Tier 2 watch list, after being ranked Tier 3 since the report was first compiled in 2001, due to steps taken by the new nominally civilian government to keep citizens away from human trafficking syndicates abroad.
U.S. Ambassador-at-Large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons Luis CdeBaca said that the State Department had been particularly concerned in recent years by “state-sponsored forced labor” in Burma which had been allowed to continue under the 1907 Villages and Towns Acts.
“What we’ve seen over the last year is that the government in Burma has taken a number of significant and, frankly, unprecedented steps in advancing these reforms,” he said.
“We’ve seen improved victim protection measures for victims who have come back from other countries, we’ve seen the inauguration of a new hotline which has led to the rescue of 57 victims, and most important, this notion of repealing that antiquated law so there is no longer state-sponsored forced labor that is legal in Burma.”
The report also applauded the government for beginning to address the “systemic political and economic factors” that cause many Burmese to seek employment through both legal and illegal means in neighboring countries, where some become victims of trafficking.
But trafficking within Burma by both government officials and private actors continues to be a problem, it said, and military personnel and militant insurgents conscripting children are the leading perpetrators of forced labor in the country.
“The climate of impunity and repression and the government’s lack of accountability in forced labor and the recruitment of child soldiers represent the top casual factors for Burma’s significant trafficking problem,” the report said.
The Burmese government does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, the State Department said, but “it is making significant steps to do so.”
CdeBaca also praised the work of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi in combating human trafficking and forced labor in the country, noting that after travel restrictions were lifted against her, the Nobel Laureate first went to Thailand to address abuse against Burmese migrant workers housed in camps across the border.
Vietnam’s upgrade to Tier 2 from the Tier 2 watch list last year was based on the country’s new “comprehensive” anti-trafficking law, which was adopted in March 2011 and took effect in January this year.
In 2011, the government finalized and disseminated a five-year national action plan on human trafficking, which covers all forms of trafficking and coordinates the government’s anti-trafficking responses through a national steering committee.
The report noted that trafficking-related corruption appeared to continue at the local level in Vietnam, where officials at border crossings and checkpoints took bribes from traffickers and, at times, opted not to intervene on victims’ behalf when family relationships existed between traffickers and victims.
A lack of financial resources, trained personnel, poorly coordinated enforcement, and an obsolete legal structure all remain obstacles to greater progress in the country’s anti-trafficking efforts, it said.
China remained on the Tier 2 watch list for the eighth consecutive year in the report, which cited forced prison labor, abduction of children for forced begging and thievery, and involuntary servitude of children, migrant workers, and abductees.
“The Chinese government made minimal efforts to prevent trafficking in persons during the reporting period,” the report said.
China was “granted a waiver of an otherwise required downgrade to Tier 3,” it said, because its government has a written plan that would demonstrate a significant effort to comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, if implemented.
The report said trafficking is most pronounced among China’s internal migrant population, which is estimated to exceed 221 million people.
“Forced labor remains a problem, including in brick kilns, coal mines, and factories, some of which operate illegally and take advantage of lax labor supervision,” it said.
Cambodia, meanwhile, remained a Tier 2 country, based on what the report described as a lack of government progress in prosecuting human traffickers and protecting trafficking victims.
“Endemic corruption at all levels continued to impede anti-trafficking endeavors and local observers believe it to be the cause of impunity afforded to firms engaging in illegal recruitment practices that contribute to trafficking,” the report said.
It also noted that the country’s “weak and corrupt” judicial and law enforcement systems, lengthy legal processes, credible fears of retaliation, and the lack of witness protection and access to resources continued to hinder victims’ willingness to cooperate in cases.
But the State Department acknowledged “significant progress” in the government’s efforts to combat the transnational labor trafficking of Cambodians.
The report kept North Korea at the lowest ranking, citing estimates that as many of 70 percent of the thousands of undocumented North Korean refugees in China are females, many of whom are trafficking victims.
Pyongyang also uses forced labor and recruits citizens to work abroad for North Korean entities, often withholding their wages until they return home.
Most commonly, women and girls from one of North Korea’s poorest border areas cross into China and are then sold and re-sold as “brides.”
North Korea’s government does not acknowledge the existence of human trafficking either within its own borders or transnationally and actively punishes trafficking victims for acts they commit as a direct result of being trafficked, the report said.
Cdebaca said that the U.S. continues to see the situation of forced labor and human trafficking in North Korea as “very grave.”
“With most countries, when they send workers overseas, it’s between the workers, the recruiters, and the employers,” he said.
“When North Korea sends workers overseas, they send the police with them and keep them under surveillance and retaliate against them if they try to fight for their rights or if they try to leave.”
The TIP report maintained Laos at Tier 2, citing "significant" efforts by the government to fully comply with minimum standards to eliminate trafficking.
Laos stepped up efforts to investigate trafficking offenses and to prosecute and punish traffickers, it said.
But trafficking laws do not fully protect all victims, the report said, adding that neither proactive identification measures nor systematic monitoring efforts were implemented during the current year.
It said inefficiencies within the Lao bureaucracy delayed approvals for nongovernmental organizations to implement anti-trafficking projects and that the prime minister has yet to approve a final draft of the anti-trafficking national plan of action.
The United Nations has said human trafficking remains the second largest illegal trade next to drugs, with traffickers earning tens of billions of U.S. dollars annually. It also estimated that 2.5 million trafficked people worldwide come from the Asia-Pacific region.
Reported by Joshua Lipes.