U.S. trafficking report gives Myanmar lowest ranking, fails to accurately assess Thailand, Malaysia

(Bangkok, July 1, 2016)—Myanmar, Thailand, and Malaysia failed to sufficiently combat human trafficking and protect survivors in 2015, Fortify Rights said today. The U.S. State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report objectively downgraded Myanmar to the lowest status—reserved for the world’s worst offenders—but failed to accurately assess Thailand and Malaysia’s efforts to combat human trafficking. 

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry released the report in Washington, D.C. yesterday, downgrading Myanmar from Tier 2 Watch-List to Tier 3 status, upgrading Thailand from Tier 3 to Tier 2 Watch List, and keeping Malaysia at Tier 2 Watch List. This year’s rankings are based on governments’ efforts and actions to combat trafficking from April 1, 2015 to March 31, 2016.

“Myanmar’s downgrade is overdue. The military has long been one of Southeast Asia’s worst perpetrators of human trafficking,” said Matthew Smith, chief executive officer at Fortify Rights. “The military is an unreformed institution, continues to use forced labor with impunity, and needs to do more to end the practice.” 

The Myanmar military, border guard forces, and non-state ethnic armies used forced labor in 2015. For instance, Fortify Rights documented how the Myanmar Army forced ethnic-Rakhine civilians, under the threat of death, to carry weapons and rations in an armed-conflict zone in Rakhine State and to dig graves for soldiers killed in conflict in December 2015 and January 2016.

 Fortify Rights also documented how transnational criminal syndicates and complicit authorities in Myanmar and Thailand trafficked tens of thousands of Rohingya men, women, and children who fled Myanmar in 2015. 

The government continues to deny citizenship to more than 1 million Rohingya, and confines more than 120,000 Muslims—mostly Rohingya—to more than 40 internment camps, putting them at heightened risk of human trafficking. More than 100,000 Kachin and Shan civilians remain displaced by armed conflict on the Myanmar-China border, where they too face heightened risk of human trafficking 

The Government of Thailand’s upgrade this year from Tier-3 to Tier-2 Watch List was premature, Fortify Rights said. 

In May 2015, when human traffickers abandoned at sea boats carrying thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshi survivors of trafficking, Thailand reinforced its borders and refused to allow the disembarkation of survivors. By failing to prioritize the protection of survivors of trafficking, Thailand’s actions resulted in an untold number of deaths at sea. 

To this day, Thailand maintains a “help on” or “push back” policy with regard to refugees arriving by boat, which puts lives at risk and fails to ensure the protection of possible survivors of trafficking.

In 2015, Thai authorities also reportedly obstructed and prematurely closed a police investigation into the trafficking of Rohingya and Bangladeshi nationals and failed to provide protection to witnesses at risk in the country’s largest ever human trafficking trial. Although Thailand passed Cabinet Resolution no. 11/B.E. 2559 in March 2016, providing automatic protection under the Ministry of Justice to witnesses in human trafficking cases and temporary legal status to survivors of human trafficking, its provisions have yet to be implemented.

Thailand also continues to indefinitely detain Rohingya refugees and survivors of trafficking in inhumane conditions in poorly equipped detention facilities as well as government-run shelters. Thai officials described to Fortify Rights the process of screening for survivors of trafficking as arbitrary, leaving some survivors to be wrongly categorized as “illegal migrants.”

“2015 was an historically bad year for human trafficking in Thailand. Thai government actions directly contributed to the ‘boat crisis’ that rocked the entire region last year,” said Matthew Smith. “Thailand has made important strides in recent months but an upgrade for its performance in 2015 is premature and sends the wrong message to the government.” 

 The Department of State should have downgraded Malaysia to Tier-3 status—the ranking Malaysia should have received last year and continues to deserve for its failure to adequately prevent human trafficking, protect survivors, and prosecute perpetrators. 

Malaysia failed to conduct an effective investigation into human trafficking networks operating within its territory, despite the discovery of mass graves within trafficking camps in Malaysian territory in 2015.

When thousands of survivors of trafficking were stranded at sea during the May 2015 boat crisis, Malaysia eventually allowed them to disembark, but only after first towing boats out of Malaysian territorial waters and into the open sea, putting hundreds of lives at risk and drawing international condemnation. 

Malaysian authorities continue to indefinitely detain thousands of Rohingya refugees and survivors of trafficking in poorly equipped detention facilities. Tens of thousands of unrecognized Rohingya refugees living in Malaysia are at risk of arbitrary detention and other forms of abuse. 

According to the TIP report, “more than 150,000 registered refugees and asylum-seekers in Malaysia lack formal status or the ability to obtain legal work permits, leaving them vulnerable to trafficking.” 

Refugees and survivors of trafficking in Malaysia told Fortify Rights they do not report instances of abuse, exploitation, or human trafficking to Malaysian authorities out of fear of detention. 

In last year’s TIP report, the U.S. upgraded Malaysia to Tier-2 Watch List apparently to make it eligible for inclusion in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement—US law would have excluded Tier-3 governments from the trade deal. In February, the U.S. passed legislation that would allow Tier-3 governments to participate in the TPP. 

In 2015, Malaysia decreased its number of investigations into human trafficking and convicted only seven individuals for crimes related to trafficking. 

“Malaysia’s upgrade last year cast a dark shadow over efforts to combat trafficking in the country. By maintaining Malaysia at Tier-2 Watch List status for another year, the U.S. government compounded its error,” said Matthew Smith. “The U.S. should have taken this opportunity to press Malaysia to finally get serious about combating trafficking”. 

Human trafficking is defined as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons,” by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, or abuse of power “for the purpose of exploitation.” All forms of forced labor constitute trafficking in persons.

The TIP report ranks governments’ on their efforts to combat human trafficking according to standards set forth in the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protect Act. Tier 1 governments meet the minimum standards; Tier 2 are making significant efforts to meet the minimum standards; Tier 2 “Watch List” deserve special scrutiny; and Tier 3 countries have governments that fail to comply with the minimum U.S. standards and are not making significant efforts to do so. 

Tier-3 countries are subject to sanctions at the discretion of the President of the United States. 

On March 22, 2016, Matthew Smith testified at a Subcommittee hearing of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs, recommending Tier-3 status for Myanmar, Thailand, and Malaysia for another 12 months. The testimony outlines how Myanmar, Thailand, and Malaysia failed in 2015 to meet the minimum standards for the elimination of human trafficking set forth in the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act. Fortify Rights published and submitted a 14-page written testimony to the Subcommittee.

“Most governments take the TIP report seriously, and inaccurate rankings are ultimately felt by survivors,” said Matthew Smith. “We hope this year’s report will serve as a catalyst to spur positive action from all governments, including the U.S.”

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