The U.S. State Department on Friday upgraded China from the lowest ranking in an annual global survey of human trafficking, saying Beijing was making “significant efforts” to comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of the scourge.
But the move was questioned by the chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee Ed Royce, who feels that human trafficking remains a major concern in the world’s most populous nation.
The State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons placed China on Tier-2 Watch List—the second lowest rank—after dumping it last year to the Tier-3 blacklist of the Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report.
This year's TIP report did not give specific reasons for upgrading China.
But in a general report on the country, it said the Chinese government was ”making significant efforts” to meet basic standards in fighting human trafficking.
“The Government of the People’s Republic of China does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so,” the report said.
It noted that during the reporting period from April 2013 to March this year, China has moved to abolish its controversial "re-education through labor" camp-based punishment system.
Some media and NGOs indicated that the government released detainees from and ceased operations at many such camps while others believed that some of the facilities have been converted into different types of detention centers, some of which employ forced labor, the report said.
It also said Beijing provided limited information about its investigation, prosecution, and conviction of traffickers.
The government’s conflation of trafficking with other crimes also made it difficult to accurately assess law enforcement efforts to prosecute trafficking offenses, it said.
Similarly, the government did not provide sufficiently detailed data to ascertain the number of victims it had identified or assisted.
Chinese authorities also continued to forcibly repatriate some North Korean refugees by treating them as illegal economic migrants—despite reports that many North Korean female refugees in China are trafficking victims, the report said.
Royce, a Republican lawmaker, questioned the State Department’s decision to upgrade China in the trafficking ranking.
“We should ask why China's placement on the TIP Report was upgraded from Tier 3 to the Watch List when China continues to fail on the three core areas of protection, prevention, and prosecution,” he said in a statement.
“We know that the system of state-sponsored forced labor continues unchanged and that victims of trafficking from North Korea are routinely sent back to face further abuses,” he said.
Last year’s TIP report, in demoting China to the blacklist, said Beijing did not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking despite being placed on the Tier 2 Watch List for nearly a decade.
The downgrades on China and Russia in 2013 came after U.S. lawmakers accused the State Department of giving special treatment to the major powers when evaluating their human trafficking record in a bid to avoid imposing sanctions on them for strategic or other reasons.
China and several other countries which had been on the Tier-2 Watch List were accused of exploiting a loophole in the U.S. anti-trafficking legislation by pledging last-minute programs to combat human smuggling but failing to follow through year after year.
So Congress passed a law that came into effect in 2008 for an “automatic downgrade” for any country that had been on the Tier 2 Watch List for two years but had not taken significant anti-trafficking measures.
State Department officials said Friday that President Barack Obama had decided against slapping sanctions on China, Russia and Uzbekistan, another country that was demoted to the bottom of the rankings last year.
“[T]he President decided that it was in the U.S. national interest and would promote the purposes of the trafficking law to waive sanctions against them as well as several other countries,” Luis CdeBaca, U.S. ambassador-at-large for human trafficking issues, said at a media briefing.
“And those are countries that we, again, are very much wanting to and feel we can engage with in order to move forward,” he said.
Thailand and Malaysia were among 23 countries to receive the lowest "Tier 3" ranking in the 2014 TIP report.
Incumbents at that level include Iran, North Korea, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Zimbabwe.
The report said the “tens of thousands” of trafficking victims in Thailand were migrants from neighboring countries such as Myanmar, Cambodia,and Laos who were "forced, coerced, or defrauded into labor or exploited in the sex trade."
A significant number were trafficked into the fishing industry, garment production, and domestic work.
The report cited media reports of "trafficking-related complicity by Thai civilian and navy personnel in crimes involving the exploitation" of Rohingya Muslims who have fled Myanmar by the tens of thousands over the past year.