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July 1, 2021

Our Response to the 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report

Today the U.S. State Department released its annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, which serves as a critical tool to both better understand the current scope of human trafficking around the world and to hold countries accountable for their actions or inactions to prevent this crime and care for survivors. In spite of a global pandemic and a change in administration, the country narratives in the 2021 TIP Report remain extremely detailed and will help governments and civil society improve their efforts to prevent trafficking, protect survivors, and prosecute perpetrators. We also appreciate that the 2021 TIP Report highlights the significant negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on efforts to address and prevent human trafficking.

The credibility and integrity of the report does not solely rest on having detailed narratives, but also on how countries are ranked, given the reputational and diplomatic implications associated with the different tiers. While most of the rankings this year were noncontroversial, there are a few we want to highlight, including some which we believe missed the mark.

Humanity United agrees with Qatar remaining on Tier 2. While Qatar did pass a law in 2020 to allow workers to change jobs without their employer’s permission in the form of a “No-Objection Certificate,” the law has been poorly implemented. In practice, migrant workers are still being asked to provide documentation from their current employers to request a job change, and employers are using absconding charges or threats of deportation to prevent their employees from changing jobs. Additionally, non-payment of migrant workers’ wages remains persistent, which is a key indicator of trafficking. Prosecutions of forced labor cases also continue to lag. 

For Qatar to successfully implement its reforms, it is imperative that migrant workers are able to report labor abuse and exploitation by employers without fear of reprisal. The recent arrest of migrant rights defender and Kenyan security guard Malcolm Bidali for documenting and speaking out about his living and working conditions was deeply concerning. Although he’s been released after several weeks reportedly spent in solitary confinement, the actions taken by the Qatari government—clearly intended to silence critics—could have a chilling effect on other workers coming forward with grievances. 

We also applaud the decision to downgrade Malaysia to a Tier 3 ranking. Malaysia has long had forced labor in its agriculture, construction, electronics and textiles industries, and in domestic in-home services. During this reporting period, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection issued multiple Withhold Release Orders on palm oil from Malaysia while also issuing a forced labor finding to seize shipments of disposable gloves from the country. 

Thailand and Taiwan are two countries impacted heavily by human trafficking in their seafood sector. We believe Taiwan should have been downgraded but are pleased to see Thailand added to the Tier 2 Watch List. Partly as a result of its 2014 downgrade to Tier 3, Thailand had been making strides to improve its anti-trafficking policies. However, as Thailand has begun to climb in the TIP Report rankings, we have seen a stark decline in political will to translate policy into practice. The country’s failure to meaningfully resource, implement, and enforce the legal and regulatory reforms for the seafood sector suggests these changes were more of a public relations maneuver, rather than a genuine attempt to make concrete progress. Forced labor prosecutions, particularly of major perpetrators, remain too low, and our partners report decreases in victim identification coupled with a rise in exploitative labor practices, making workers vulnerable to debt bondage. Migrant workers are also not afforded the same freedom of association rights as Thai citizens, resulting in added vulnerabilities to trafficking. 

Similarly, Taiwan’s distant water fleet is rife with forced labor, a fact highlighted by the U.S. Department of Labor’s inclusion of fish caught by the Taiwanese distant water fleet in its 2020 List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor. Of note, Taiwan uses a two-tiered system of recruitment for fishers, with migrant workers employed in the distant water fleet not given the same legal protections as Taiwanese citizens or migrant workers working within Taiwan’s Exclusive Economic Zone.

We were equally concerned with the rankings for both Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Both countries have long-standing documented abuses of migrant workers. Neither their policies or practices warrant a Tier 1 and Tier 2 ranking, respectively.

Finally, we were also disappointed by the Tier 1 ranking for the United States. The report rightfully noted a number of positive steps the United States took last year to better combat trafficking, including the increase in actions to stop the import of goods made by forced labor. However, there remain deficiencies that cause the United States to fail to meet its own minimum standards. On prosecution efforts for trafficking, the United States continues to lag significantly–and declined for the third consecutive year. On prevention and protection efforts, during the majority of the reporting period, there continued to be a range of harmful immigration policies that increased vulnerability for trafficking victims and negatively impacted the ability of many survivors to get assistance, including access to T visas which would have allowed them to receive services and assist in the prosecution of their perpetrators. Additionally, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice thus far have failed to establish victim screening protocols, in spite of statutory mandates to do so. For the report to be effective, it must be credible. Therefore, it is vital that the United States authentically measure its own work and progress and help preserve the report’s integrity.

We also continue to call on the Biden Administration to prioritize appointing an ambassador to the J/TIP office, a critical role in the U.S.’s effort to combat trafficking.  

While there has been progress made globally to prevent forced labor and to protect survivors and potential victims, as the TIP report makes clear, the COVID-19 pandemic has made these efforts more difficult. In many cases around the world, trafficking conditions have worsened, and there is an even greater need to bring protections back to pre-pandemic levels, and ideally, make further improvements.

This is a critical moment for the global community, as parts of the world are slowly emerging out of the pandemic. We must act to ensure that survivors and potential victims of trafficking are not overlooked or left behind by recovery efforts.

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