Economy Worsens Trafficking

Hard times are abetting the massive global slave trade, according to a new U.S. report on human trafficking.

Burmese-Trafficked-Kids-305.jpg Children of Burmese migrants working in Thailand's commercial fisheries industry.
Kay Chernush for the U.S. State Department

WASHINGTON—People in danger of falling prey to human traffickers are even more vulnerable as a result of the global economic downturn, according to a new State Department report that downgraded Cambodia and Malaysia for failing to do enough to fight the multi-billion dollar global trade in humans.

"Economic pressure, especially in the global economic crisis, makes more people susceptible to the false promises of traffickers," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in releasing the 2009 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report here.

"Trafficking has a broad global impact as well. It weakens legitimate economies, fuels violence, threatens public health and safety, shatters families, and shreds the social fabric that is necessary for progress," Clinton told a news conference.

...Vulnerable populations are becoming even more susceptible to exploitation as a result of the financial crisis."
U.S. Ambassador-at-Large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons Luis de Baca

The TIP report, which details government efforts to fight human trafficking, called both Malaysia and Cambodia “destination and…source and transit [countries] for women and children trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation and forced labor.”

Under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, governments with a Tier 3 rating, the lowest that can be assigned by the report, can be subject to sanctions including the suspension of U.S. aid.

In April, Malaysia’s prime minister said his government would investigate a blistering report by a U.S. Senate panel that said thousands of Burmese migrants have been handed over to human traffickers and sent to work in the Thai sex industry.

The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, after a year-long review, said illegal Burmese migrants had been deported from Malaysia, handed to human traffickers, and forced to work in brothels, fishing boats, and restaurants in Thailand if they didn’t have enough money to buy their own release.

U.S. Ambassador-at-Large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons Luis CdeBaca said Malaysia's poor treatment of refugees is an issue that the U.S. State Department has been following for years.

During a briefing he called attention to authorities' use of a volunteer security force, the People's Volunteer Corps (RELA), to stage raids on suspected illegal immigrants. The group is given wide-ranging powers by immigration officers, including the right to bear arms, but provided with little professional training.

Rights groups say children, pregnant women, and United Nations-screened refugees awaiting resettlement, have all been detained in such raids.

"The presence of a 500,000-person-strong militia that has basically deputized, and in the past has actually gotten 'head money' for the aliens that they catch, is something that seems to have contributed to a zone of impunity around that refugee population," CdeBaca said.

"We’d certainly like to see more movement as far as [the Malaysian government's] investigation of the official complicity that’s been reported," he said.

Burma this year remained on Tier 3, where it has been ranked since the report was first compiled in 2001.

While Burma has made progress in curbing the international trafficking of women and children into the sex trade, the military regime hasn't stopped forced labor and the unlawful military conscription of children, the report said.

Cambodia meanwhile also dropped to Tier 3, based on what the report described as a lack of government progress in prosecuting human traffickers and protecting trafficking victims.

China remained a Tier 2 country 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.

"Some experts and NGOs suggested trafficking in persons has been fueled by economic disparity and the effects of population planning policies, and that a shortage of marriageable women fuels the demand for abducted women, especially in rural areas,” the report said.

It said girls from the largely Muslim Uyghur ethnic group in China’s northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region have been forced to work in factories in eastern China on false pretenses and without regular wages.

Global economy

CdeBaca said economic factors were likely to have a ripple effect throughout the trafficking industry.

"Our report staff, as they surveyed the field, have seen how vulnerable populations are becoming even more susceptible to exploitation as a result of the financial crisis," CdeBaca said in an interview.

As western Europe’s construction industry contracts, workers returning from eastern Europe are displacing Asian workers who had taken up the slack.

"It will be very interesting to see what happens in the coming year to those Asian workers, whether they will be exploited in eastern Europe or return home to countries even worse off now than when they left," he said.

CdeBaca welcomed the work of international organizations and NGOs in combating human trafficking but called on governments in the region to do more instead of simply relying on foreign assistance.

"At the end of the day, it’s the governments’ responsibility to engage. Governments with crushing problems of poverty, if they have political will, can own the issue and respond to the issue of trafficking," CdeBaca said.

He cited impoverished Moldova as an example, noting that it had taken steps to aid victims of trafficking.

"If Moldova can do it, then we would hope similar countries in Asia would be able to find the political will rather than simply being dependent on the international community," CdeBaca said.

"It doesn’t create a sustainable anti-trafficking movement to outsource [this]…We don’t want years, we want decades, and the only way to do that is to get the government involved."

Little change in North Korea, Laos, Vietnam

The report kept North Korea at the lowest ranking, citing estimates that 80 percent of the tens of thousands of North Korean refugees in China 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.

The TIP report kept 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 a severe lack of resources, poor training of officials, and ongoing corruption still impede the government’s ability to combat trafficking.

Vietnam also remained at Tier 2, prosecuting sex-trafficking offenders and making efforts to protect victims. But the report cited few gains in prosecuting labor-traffickers and protecting victims.

The United Nations defines human trafficking as the recruitment, transfer, or harboring of people by means of coercion for the purpose of exploitation.

The United Nations has said human trafficking remains the second largest illegal trade next to drugs, with traffickers earning an estimated U.S. $10 billion annually. It also estimated that 2.5 million trafficked people worldwide come from the Asia-Pacific region.

Written for the Web in English by Joshua Lipes. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.


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