ATEST Expresses Strong Support for and Integrity of State Department’s TIP Report

The Honorable John F. Kerry
Secretary of State
U.S. Department of State
2201 C Street NW
Washington, DC 20520

May 15, 2015

Dear Secretary Kerry:

On behalf of the Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking (ATEST), a coalition of 14 human rights organizations that advocate for solutions to prevent and end human trafficking in the United States and globally, I write to express our strong support for the State Department’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, and urge you to maintain the integrity of the TIP Report by keeping the Tier 3 ranking for Thailand and Malaysia and recognizing Cambodia’s progress in addressing the commercial sexual exploitation of children.

The annual TIP Report is an invaluable resource in the fight against TIP and forced labor around the world. We commend the experts at the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (J/TIP) as well as personnel at U.S. Embassies and other Bureaus who contribute to it. The TIP Report has become the “gold standard,” as you referred to it, because in most cases the narrative and tier ranking process reflect the reality of human trafficking and fairly judge governments’ progress or backsliding on treatment of victims, prosecution of perpetrators, and prevention and deterrence of the crime.

There are some occasions, however, in which political considerations have influenced the tier rankings to the detriment of the report’s integrity. This year, given the political debate around trade, there has been discussion of moving both Malaysia and Thailand back up to the Tier 2-Watch List despite the fact that neither country has made significant or effective efforts to combat human trafficking, particularly forced labor and sexual exploitation, in their countries. Such a move would greatly affect the reputation of the TIP report, and weaken the usefulness of the TIP Report as a tool to impact efforts to combat modern slavery globally.

The TIP Report is also an essential tool for recognizing and affirming substantial progress. Cambodia is a country that has made significant progress in combatting the trafficking of children for sexual exploitation. A country that was once “ground zero” for child exploitation is now a model for how to develop effective law enforcement, prosecution, and victim restoration in the fight against trafficking. Without ignoring that Cambodia is still not meeting the minimum standards for labor trafficking, their accomplishments in combatting the sexual exploitation of children should be recognized, studied, and replicated.

As you finalize the review this year, please consider these critical facts as they relate to Thailand, Malaysia and Cambodia:

Thailand: The Government of Thailand was deservedly put on Tier 3 in the 2014 TIP Report, as the country has serious problems with trafficking of migrant workers for forced labor and commercial sexual exploitation, including children forced into the sex trade. Thailand has also major problems of discrimination against the millions of migrant workers in the country, especially Burmese and Rohingya, and against Hill Tribes that leaves those populations vulnerable to severe forms of exploitation, including trafficking in persons. While the government has made some efforts to combat the problem, there is still not enough political will and action to seriously address trafficking in Thailand.

Reports continue of forced labor, debt bondage and extreme physical violence, even murder, in Thailand’s export-oriented fishing, shrimp and seafood industries. In fact, the European Union just issued Thailand a “yellow card” for its failure to control illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing by Thai fishing vessels. Thailand now has six months to take serious steps to address some of the long-standing problems in its fishing industry.

As noted by a coalition of human rights NGOs “Less than a month ago, nearly 550 fishermen trafficked from Thailand to fish in Indonesian waters were rescued from a remote Indonesian island after a report by the Associated Press documented workers being held in cages, subjected to beatings and even murder, and working long shifts for little or no pay. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates there may be as many as 4,000 similar victims of trafficking on other Indonesian islands. Migrant worker advocacy groups in Thailand also continue to find debt bondage, document confiscation and other indicators of human trafficking across other sectors where migrant workers make up a large proportion of the workforce.”

In June 2014, Thailand was the only government to vote against adoption of a new International Labor Organization (ILO) treaty on forced labor. The 2014 Forced Labor Protocol and Recommendation contain key provisions to help address the vulnerability of migrant workers to trafficking, such as the elimination of recruitment fees. Given Thailand’s poor record on protecting migrant workers from human trafficking, its “no” vote was particularly troubling. Following the vote, after pressure from Thai labor unions and others, the Thai government has indicated it will adopt the protocol, but it has yet to do so.

Thai government officials have been implicated in the trafficking of Rohingya refugees on Thai fishing boats. Moreover, whistleblowers, in the form of trade union or NGO activists, journalists, and migrant workers, have been retaliated against and even prosecuted by the Thai government. Just last month, human rights activists were called into a meeting by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) and told indirectly not to talk to the media about human trafficking issues.

An upgrade to Tier 2 Watch List or Tier 2 at this time would be premature, and would effectively reward Thailand for a propaganda campaign that leaves the estimated three to four million migrant workers in Thailand, who comprise about 10 percent of the country’s workforce, increasingly vulnerable to forced labor.

Malaysia: Malaysia is one of the largest destination countries for migrant workers in Asia. There are approximately two million documented and two million undocumented migrant workers, including Indonesians, Nepalese, Filipinos, Indians, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans, and increasingly Vietnamese, Cambodians, Burmese and Laotians. These migrants comprise nearly 30 percent of the Malaysian workforce. While the Malaysian economy thrives on cheap migrant labor, foreign workers in sectors such as agriculture, construction, service, manufacturing, and domestic work often have their rights violated with little recourse under Malaysian laws, policies, and practices. The Malaysian government was put on Tier 3 in 2014 for failing to protect the more than four million migrant workers from severe forms of labor exploitation, including forced labor and debt bondage, as well as sexual exploitation.

NGOs, trade unions, and other key members of civil society in Malaysia report continuous exploitation of migrant workers for sexual exploitation and forced labor in a wide range of sectors including, agriculture, manufacturing, service, construction and domestic work. Even more sophisticated manufacturing, such as in the electronics sector, is rife with labor abuse including systematic use of forced labor based on debt bondage associated with fraud and deceit in the way that foreign workers are recruited, coerced to remain in jobs, and otherwise menaced by authorities and others with power over their circumstances.

Migrant workers in Malaysia consistently face serious violations of internationally recognized labor and human rights. These violations include confiscation of passports, restrictions on movement, and deceit and fraud in wages (including nonpayment), forced labor, involuntary servitude, debt bondage and other forms of trafficking in persons. Physical and mental abuse, including sexual violence, is also a common phenomenon.

Union leaders and migrant workers activists in Asia have criticized the 2007 Malaysian Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act (ATIP) for merging smuggling and trafficking offenses, “making trafficking victims more likely to be treated as undocumented migrants subject to immediate deportation, undermining government efforts to counter trafficking.”

The Malaysian government periodically implements crackdowns on undocumented migrants, most recently in January 2014, where they conducted massive operations to detain and deport hundreds of thousands of migrant workers. However, the Malaysian government does not have adequate screening procedures to ensure that trafficking victims are not also detained and deported. In addition, the deportations often involve leaving migrant workers literally just over the border in Indonesia without any resources or support. Indonesian NGOs report that these migrant workers are then vulnerable to traffickers who promise them new jobs or assistance in getting home.

The Malaysian Trade Union Congress (MTUC), which is active on the promotion of migrant worker rights and the eradication of labor trafficking, notes that the Malaysian government has been blocking the completion of the ASEAN Framework Instrument on the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights, which migrant worker rights activists have been pushing for since 2007.

Finally, as recently as last month, the US ambassador to Malaysia, Joe Yun, publicly acknowledged that the Malaysian government needed to do more and said that the State Department’s Tier 3 ranking would not change unless the Malaysian government made real progress. That has not happened.

Malaysia has done little to nothing over the past year to merit an upgrade to Tier 2 Watch List or Tier 2 in the 2015 Dept. of State TIP Report. Upgrading Malaysia at this time would send a clear message that politics trumps human rights.

Cambodia: A dozen years ago, Cambodia had one of the worst records in the world for commercial sexual exploitation of children. Pre-pubescent children were readily available for exploitation and Cambodia was a magnet for foreign sex tourists, because there was perceived and actual impunity towards this crime. But after more than a decade of concentrated effort by the Phnom Penh government, by NGO’s, and by the State Department, there has been a transformation with regard to the exploitation of children for commercial sex. In short, authorities have made unprecedented gains in victim rescue and restoration, perpetrator accountability, and sustainable deterrence of the crime.

ATEST members with expertise in Cambodia affirm that the government is meeting TVPRA minimum standards with regard to sex trafficking. For example, in the early 2000’s, there were virtually no secure shelters offering trauma-focused, comprehensive care to young children who had been removed by police from sex venues. But over the course of the last decade, capacity among aftercare providers grew to accommodate the particular needs of rescued children, and substantial expertise developed among providers. The best practice models in the world today for short and long-term care of child victims of commercial sexual exploitation were innovated and developed in Cambodia. The World Hope assessment center in Phnom Penh, for example, is a state-of-the-art model that we think should be replicated elsewhere to accommodate the unique needs of child victims of trafficking.

Perhaps the most important indicator of progress in Cambodia is the sustainability of anti-trafficking gains. After many years of collaboration with NGOs on hundreds of individual cases, Cambodia’s Anti-Human Trafficking and Juvenile Protection Police (AHTJP) police are now proactively conducting investigations, rescues and apprehension of suspects entirely without NGO participation. The AHTJP are now regularly calling the Department of Social Welfare (DoSAVY) for social work assistance and ensuring that victims are referred to aftercare. This is the goal of sustainability that NGOs have been working toward, and ATEST members with expertise in Cambodia believe that the Cambodian police will continue to work to achieve it.

Of course, the TIP Report will also address Cambodia’s efforts to combat labor trafficking, which unfortunately are not meeting minimum standards. Cambodia is primarily an origin country for migrant workers traveling mostly within the ASEAN region (often to Thailand and Malaysia). Cambodian men, women and children have been subjected to forced labor, domestic servitude, and debt bondage, in sectors such as fishing, agriculture, manufacturing, and domestic work. Similar to the situation of its neighbors, recruitment agencies play a major role in the trafficking of Cambodian workers. Agencies, along with corrupt local government officials, falsify legal identification documents to facilitate the illegal migration of children. Labor recruiters also charge exorbitant fees to migrant workers. Corrupt Cambodian officials have also been implicated in cooperating with labor recruiters to facilitate the transport of victims across the border into Thailand. The Cambodian government’s response to labor recruiter violations has been weak, and rife with corruption. Cambodian men have also been a large percentage of the victims of forced labor on Thai fishing boats. The TIP report should recommend that the Cambodian government take the lessons learned from effectively combating child sex trafficking to tackling the horrific labor trafficking situation in the country.

We urge you to lift up Cambodia as a successful model of combatting child sex trafficking. Highlighting its progress will bring encouragement and recognition to reformers within the Cambodian government. Cambodia’s success also offers encouragement to other poor countries, showing that dramatic improvement in child protection is possible even in fragile justice systems that have weaknesses and infirmities. Finally, bringing attention to this model will also illustrate the extraordinary impact of the TIP Report has had in encouraging reform.

Members of ATEST know first-hand the positive effects that the annual TIP Report can have in moving countries forward to address one of the worst human rights abuses, trafficking in persons. As a result of the TIP Report, we have worked with governments and civil society in countries that seemed intractable to make progress in preventing TIP, protecting victims, and prosecuting traffickers. Maintaining the integrity of the TIP Report is crucial for this work to continue. We urge you to keep Thailand and Malaysia on Tier 3 and to recognize the progress of Cambodia in combatting commercial sexual exploitation of children to maintain the effectiveness of the report.

We appreciate your consideration of our input.


MS Signature

Melysa Sperber
Alliance to End Slavery & Trafficking