Despite reports of Rohingya refugees being exploited in camps in and around Cox’s Bazar, the U.S. State Department upgraded Bangladesh’s rating on Thursday as it released its annual report gauging how countries worldwide are performing in combating human trafficking.
While Bangladesh moved up to Tier 2 from the Tier 2 Watch List, four Southeast Asian countries did not change their standing from the 2019 report. The Philippines stayed at Tier 1, while Indonesia and Thailand stayed at Tier 2 and Malaysia remained on the Tier 2 Watch List in the State Department’s 2020 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report.
One of only 22 countries across the globe to improve their ranking, Bangladesh received praise for convicting more human traffickers, by modestly increasing the number of victims identified and establishing seven anti-trafficking tribunals as stipulated in Bangladesh’s anti-trafficking law.
But the more than 500-page report pointed out that Bangladesh fell short elsewhere.
“Law enforcement decreased investigations into trafficking cases, continued to deny credible reports of official complicity in trafficking, and, despite hundreds of credible reports of forced labor and sex trafficking of Rohingya, did not open investigations to verify these reports,” it said.
In addition, the government did not make efforts to identify victims or investigate persistent reports of child-sex trafficking, the report stated.
“Many officials did not understand human trafficking and at times conflated it with migrant smuggling. Some officials continued to deny the existence of internal trafficking, especially child sex trafficking, despite observers recording multiple cases of child sex trafficking in licensed brothels each month,” the report said.
While Bangladesh moved up, Malaysia remained on the Tier 2 Watch List over concerns that “the government did not make sufficient efforts to prosecute official complicity in trafficking-related crimes or make public the results of investigations into such crimes.
“Because the government has devoted sufficient resources to a written plan that, if implemented, would constitute significant efforts to meet the minimum standards, Malaysia was granted a waiver per the Trafficking Victims Protection Act from an otherwise required downgrade to Tier 3. Therefore Malaysia remained on Tier 2 Watch List for the third consecutive year,” the report said.
Human trafficking in Malaysia is particularly notorious along the border with Southern Thailand. In May 2015, the neighboring Southeast Asian nations were at the center of a scandal three years ago when scores of unmarked graves of trafficked Rohingya and Bangladeshi people were uncovered at jungle camps on both sides of their shared frontier.
Tier 3, the lowest ranking, includes Myanmar, China, North Korea, Russia, Iran and Syria.
The U.S. Congress enacted the Protection Act about two decades ago to prevent trafficking, aid victims and punish traffickers. It requires the Secretary of State to produce an annual report on human trafficking and to rank foreign governments based on anti-trafficking efforts.
The TIP reports assesses the records of more than 180 countries in fighting human trafficking.
“We take government-sponsored trafficking very seriously. It’s a perversion of any government’s reason for existence: to protect rights, not crush them,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in announcing the 20th edition of the Trafficking in Persons Report. “The United States will not stand by as any government with a policy or pattern of human trafficking subjects its own citizens to this kind of oppression.”
Report offers praise, concerns
The Philippines, a Tier 1 country since 2016, was praised for improving the coordination of services for returning Filipino migrant workers who were victims of trafficking overseas; convicting and punishing traffickers, including an official complicit in sex trafficking and labor traffickers; increasing assistance to survivors who provide testimony; and increasing the use of prosecution procedures that reduce the potential for further harm to trafficking victims.
The report faulted the government for not vigorously investigating and prosecuting officials allegedly involved in trafficking crimes, consistently criminally prosecuting fraudulent recruiters and other labor traffickers, or increasing support for specialized protection and assistance services for child victims of cyber-facilitated sex trafficking.
Tier 2 Indonesia was praised for providing more victims with protection services through the social affairs ministry and assisting more victims exploited overseas than in previous years. Concerns included fewer prosecutions and convictions in trafficking cases for a second consecutive year along with complicity in trafficking cases.
“Although the government reported ongoing investigations, it did not report any prosecutions or convictions of officials allegedly complicit in trafficking,” the report said.
Thailand, another Tier 2 nation, was praised for providing anti-trafficking training to judges. It also investigated more suspected trafficking cases and sentenced those convicted to significant prison terms while increasing compensation to trafficking victims.
The report also highlighted shortcomings by the Thai government.
“Officials continued to conflate trafficking and smuggling during the reporting period, effective victim identification remained inadequate and the government did not provide adequate psycho-social care to victims or provide victims residing in government shelters sufficient freedom of movement,” it said.