Objective rankings critical to end abuses, promote progress

(Washington, D.C., March 22, 2016)—The U.S. Department of State should assign the governments of Myanmar, Thailand, and Malaysia the lowest ranking in its forthcoming Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, Fortify Rights said today. The Department of State should take special care to ensure TIP rankings are objective and based on actions and efforts to combat human trafficking.

Fortify Rights Executive Director Matthew Smith testified today at a Subcommittee hearing of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs, outlining how Myanmar, Thailand, and Malaysia failed in 2015 to meet the minimum standards for the elimination of human trafficking as set forth in the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act. Fortify Rights also published and submitted a 14-page written testimony to the Subcommittee recommending Tier-3 status for the three countries.

“Each of these countries demonstrated a callous disregard for survivors of trafficking last year,” said Matthew Smith. “Governments aren’t impervious to TIP rankings. The process can work when it’s objective, and this year will be particularly important for Southeast Asia.”

The governments of Myanmar and Malaysia are currently ranked Tier-2 Watch List, and the Government of Thailand is Tier-3, the lowest designation. This year’s rankings will be based on government efforts and actions to combat trafficking in 2015.

The Government of Myanmar must be either upgraded to Tier-2 or downgraded to Tier-3 this year. It has already received the maximum two consecutive waivers to remain at Tier-2 Watch List.

Human trafficking is defined as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring 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.

Fortify Rights highlighted the continued use of forced labor with impunity in Myanmar. The Myanmar Army, border guard forces, and non-state ethnic armies still use and recruit child soldiers, and forced labor continues with impunity by the military as well as in public works projects. 

Fortify Rights and its partners recently documented how the Myanmar Army forced ethnic-Rakhine civilians, under 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 2015, Fortify Rights documented how tens of thousands of Rohingya men, women, and children fled Myanmar, many into the clutches of transnational human trafficking syndicates who abused, bought, and sold them in masses.

Boat departures from western Rakhine State have drastically slowed over the past ten months, but this was not due to actions taken by the Government of Myanmar, which continues to commit abuses that put the population at risk of human trafficking.

The National League for Democracy (NLD) is currently transitioning into power in Myanmar following a landslide victory in November 8 elections. Meanwhile, unelected military appointees continue to hold a quarter of the seats in Parliament, and the military controls the key ministries of Home Affairs, Defense, and Border Affairs.

“We’re hopeful about the incoming NLD government, but the Myanmar Army remains Southeast Asia’s biggest perpetrator of forced labor,” Matthew Smith said. “The Myanmar military should be given 12 months at Tier-3 to prove it’s willing to work closely with the new government to end human trafficking.” 

Fortify Rights also called on the Department of State to maintain Thailand’s Tier-3 status, noting Thailand’s role in the “boat crisis” in the Andaman Sea last year. Last May, following the discovery of mass graves on the Thailand-Malaysia border, trafficking routes were disrupted and thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshi survivors were abandoned at sea. Instead of prioritizing protection, Thailand reinforced its borders and refused to allow disembarkation, resulting in untold deaths at sea.

Thailand still 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.

Fortify Rights said Thailand showed signs of progress in the last year, noting the prosecution of 92 defendants accused of trafficking Rohingya refugees and Bangladeshi nationals. Thailand has also cooperated with search and rescue initiatives and adopted new policies to improve protections in the fishing sector and for survivors of human trafficking.

Nevertheless, authorities reportedly obstructed and prematurely closed the police investigation into the trafficking of Rohingya and Bangladeshi nationals and failed to provide protection to high-risk witnesses in the mass trafficking trial. Thailand also continues to indefinitely detain Rohingya refugees and survivors of trafficking in poorly equipped detention facilities and government-run shelters.

Fortify Rights is in discussion with Thai officials about improving protections for witnesses and survivors of trafficking.

“Recent developments in Thailand are encouraging, but the government’s actions in 2015 contributed to a major regional crisis and failed to protect survivors,” said Matthew Smith. “Thailand’s commitments need to take root before it receives an upgrade.”

Fortify Rights also called on the Department of State to downgrade 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.

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

The Government of Malaysia was upgraded to Tier-2 Watch List in 2015, apparently to make it eligible for inclusion in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, as law excluded Tier-3 governments. In February, U.S. legislation passed whereby Tier-3 governments can now participate in the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

“Malaysia’s upgrade last year cast a dark shadow over efforts to combat trafficking in the country. It was a mistake that shouldn’t be repeated,” Matthew Smith said. “Malaysia needs to protect survivors, prosecute perpetrators, and finally get serious about ending trafficking.” 

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