Despite government efforts last year in several East and Southeast Asian countries to combat human trafficking for sex or labor, progress has stalled in many cases due to complicity or neglect at lower levels of official authority, according to a U.S. State Department report released on Thursday.
The annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report ranks 188 countries—rating them as Tier 1, Tier 2, Tier 2 Watch List, or Tier 3—based on whether they meet the minimum standards set by U.S. law to eliminate human trafficking, as mandated by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA).
Four of the six countries covered by RFA—China, Laos, Vietnam, and North Korea—were placed in the same categories in which they appeared in last year’s report, with North Korea ranked lowest at Tier 3, Laos and Vietnam ranked at Tier 2, and China at Tier 2 Watch List.
Another, Cambodia, moved up to Tier 2 from Tier 2 Watch List status, while Myanmar, called Burma in the report, dropped from Tier 2 Watch List to Tier 3—an automatic drop in rank after lingering on the Watch List for four years.
Tier 2 Watch List countries do not fully comply with the minimum standards set by U.S. law but are seen as making significant efforts to bring themselves in line, while Tier 3 countries have not complied or made significant efforts to do so.
Corruption at lower levels
In China, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam last year, women and girls were forced into sexual slavery after being promised employment in other jobs either at home or in neighboring countries, the State Department said in its report.
Men and boys were meanwhile subjected to forced labor, often through debt bondage, on fishing vessels, in farm work, or in construction.
And though government authorities in these countries made efforts in many cases to bring trafficking under control, their work was hindered by corruption at lower levels or by requirements to provide labor for state-mandated projects, the State Department said.
In Cambodia and in transit-and-destination countries Thailand and Malaysia, “corrupt officials … cooperate with labor brokers to facilitate the transport of victims between countries,” the State Department report said.
“Local observers report corrupt officials often thwart progress in cases where the perpetrators are believed to have political, criminal, or economic ties to government officials.”
Bribes from traffickers
Meanwhile, in Vietnam, “Vietnamese officials, primarily at commune and village levels, facilitate trafficking or exploit victims by accepting bribes from traffickers,” by turning a blind eye to evidence of trafficking and by demanding that victims’ families pay money to be reunited with their loved ones.
Local officials in Laos also profited last year from the trade in humans, “accepting payments to facilitate the immigration or transportation of girls to Thailand,” where they were trapped into sex work or forced labor, the State Department said.
In Myanmar, military and civilian officials continued during the reporting period to compel civilians into forced labor as porters, as workers on public construction projects, and as child soldiers, the report said.
“Despite several laws that prohibit underage recruitment into the military, the government has never prosecuted any military personnel or civilian brokers for child soldiering offenses in civilian courts.”
Reports from China meanwhile showed continued government complicity in forced labor “including through state-sponsored forced labor policies,” the State Department said.
Though China's program of "reform through labor" was formally abolished in 2013, "unverifiable reports continued of forced labor in government detention centers outside the penal process."
“Overseas human rights organizations and media [also] report local officials in Xinjiang coerced Uyghur men and women to participate in forced labor in and outside of the province,” according to the report.
Even in matters brought to the attention of law enforcement authorities, “the [Chinese] government handled most cases with indicators of forced labor as administrative issues and initiated prosecutions of the traffickers in relatively few cases,” the report said.