Press Release

U.S.: Don’t Let Trade Trump Human Rights

Annual Human Trafficking Report Lets Malaysia, Myanmar off the Hook

(BANGKOK)—The U.S. State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report fails to accurately assess Malaysia and Myanmar’s efforts to combat human trafficking, Fortify Rights said today. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry released the report in Washington, D.C. on Monday, upgrading Malaysia from Tier-3 to Tier-2 Watch-List status and keeping Myanmar at Tier-2 Watch-List status, despite evidence that each country failed to adequately combat human trafficking in 2014.

Tier-3 is the lowest ranking reserved for governments that fail to meet and work toward the minimum standards to combat human trafficking set forth in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.

“The decisions regarding Malaysia and Myanmar were largely political and don’t reflect either country’s record on human trafficking,” said Matthew Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights. “This decision is a disservice to the many victims and survivors of human trafficking.”

An amendment in April to the U.S. Trade Promotion Authority prevents the U.S. from entering into “fast tracked” trade agreements with Tier-3 countries. A Tier-3 ranking would have excluded Malaysia from the Trans-Pacific Partnership; a controversial trade deal the U.S. is currently negotiating with Malaysia and 11 other countries. Fortify Rights believes the U.S. State Department upgraded Malaysia to spare it from exclusion from the pending trade pact.

Unlike Malaysia, Myanmar is not a party to the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations but the Obama administration regards Myanmar as a U.S. foreign-policy success story, despite its worsening human rights record. National elections in the country are planned for November 8.

“With elections on the horizon, D.C. has brushed aside Myanmar’s systematic use of slave labor,” Matthew Smith said. “Myanmar’s army should immediately stop using forced labor and hold perpetrators accountable, regardless of rank.”

The U.S. Government regards all forms of forced labor as human trafficking. Fortify Rights estimates that in 2014, the Myanmar Army and other state security agencies forced several thousand Rohingya men, women, and children in northern Rakhine State to engage in various forms of uncompensated and exploitative work.

A 25-year-old Rohingya man from Myanmar’s Rakhine State told Fortify Rights how the Myanmar Army forced him to repair roads and maintain military barracks four to five days per week in 2014. “The military would come to the village and make us work for them,” he told Fortify Rights. “Sometimes they would give an order to the village administrator, telling him how many people they needed . . . We cannot say ‘no.’ If we say no, they’d beat us.”

On April 21, Fortify Rights Executive Director Matthew Smith testified before U.S. Congress and shared these and other findings based on hundreds of interviews with witnesses and survivors of abuse in Myanmar, Malaysia, and Thailand.

Fortify Rights also documented the ongoing use of forced labor by the Myanmar Army in conflict zones in Kachin State and northern Shan State. Soldiers have forced Kachin and Shan civilians to porter military provisions and equipment on the front lines of the conflict and to “guide” battalions through landmine-ridden territory. Fortify Rights further documented the use of civilians as human shields by the Myanmar Army.

More than 150,000 Rohingya fled from Myanmar’s Rakhine State since 2012 to escape pogroms, ongoing deprivations in aid, forced labor, and severe persecution, including restrictions on freedom of movement. Human traffickers in Myanmar and Bangladesh bought and sold tens of thousands of Rohingya as well as Bangladeshis, duping them onto modern-day slave ships with promises of lucrative employment in Malaysia. Fortify Rights collected evidence indicating that Myanmar authorities profited from the arrangements and, in some cases, towed ships carrying human cargo out to sea.

Fortify Rights documented how traffickers held survivors of the long and torturous boat journeys in remote jungle camps and squalid apartment flats on the Malaysia-Thailand border. Traffickers demanded upwards of $2,000 from the friends and family of their captives, in exchange for their release. Rohingya women and girls who could not raise the necessary funds were sold into forced marriages. Men were sold to fishing boats and other industries in Malaysia and Thailand.

In May, Malaysia and Thailand authorities discovered mass graves containing scores of corpses believed to be victims of human trafficking. Official responses to the mass grave discoveries disrupted trafficking patterns and led to additional abuses against Rohingya and Bangladeshis, as Malaysian and Thai authorities pushed boats out to sea and denied survivors protection.

Following sustained international pressure, Malaysia allowed boats to disembark but immediately placed Rohingya and Bangladeshi survivors of human trafficking into immigration detention facilities. Thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshi survivors remain in detention in Malaysia.

“Protection for survivors is a key component in fighting human trafficking,” Matthew Smith said. “Malaysia should stop punishing survivors and hold perpetrators accountable for their actions.”

For more information, please contact:

Matthew Smith, Executive Director, +66.85.028.0044 (in Thailand),
matthew.smith@fortifyrights.org; Twitter: @matthewfsmith, @fotifyrights

Amy Smith, Executive Director, +60.11.2301.1870 (in Malaysia),
amy.smith@fortifyrights.org; Twitter: @AmyAlexSmith, @fotifyrights

Background:

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act established the U.S. State Department’s TIP report in 2000. The annual report is intended to hold governments—including the U.S. Government—accountable for human trafficking.

The State Department annually ranks countries on a three-tier system based on the extent to which countries meet minimum standards for combating human trafficking, including those relating to protection for survivors, prosecution of perpetrators, and prevention. Governments that have not fully complied with the minimum standards and have not made significant efforts to do so are ranked Tier-3; governments that have not fully complied with the minimum standards but have made significant efforts to comply are Tier-2; and governments that have fully complied are Tier-1. Tier-3 countries are subject to sanctions at the discretion of the President of the United States.

Malaysia does not recognize refugees under domestic law, is not state party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees or the 1967 Protocol, and has no legal framework in place to regulate the status and protection of refugees. Without legal status, refugees—including Rohingya refugees—are subject to arrest, detention, extortion, and exploitation and are at particular risk of being re-trafficked.

ABOUT FORTIFY RIGHTS

Fortify Rights works to prevent and remedy human rights violations. We investigate and document abuses, provide customized technical support to human rights defenders, and press for solutions. We are an independent, non-profit, nongovernmental organization based in Southeast Asia and registered in Switzerland and the United States.