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Russia, China, Turkey among those cited in US trafficking report

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A US State Department report called out the governments of Myanmar, China and Russia for their patterns of trafficking and forced labour and saying in the Chinese province of Xinjiang “the government is the trafficker” citing “a mass detention and political indoctrination campaign against Uighurs, who are predominantly Muslim, and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups”, over the past four years.

The State Department report on global human trafficking released on Thursday also added Turkey, a NATO ally, to the list of countries whose “armed forces, police, or other security forces” recruit or use child soldiers.

The designation could mean sanctions on military aid or sales for those countries unless the US president issues a waiver.

“We document 11 countries where the government itself is the trafficker. For example, through forced labour on public works projects or in sectors of the economy that the government feels are particularly important,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during a news conference.

“For the 10th year in a row, the report documents how the Cuban government has profited from exploitative overseas medical missions.”

In all, the Biden administration said, 17 countries were not doing enough to combat human trafficking.

The 2021 annual report also shone a spotlight on people made more vulnerable by global crises like the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and “systemic racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination” that create inequitable societies, Blinken said.

The annual Trafficking in Persons report (TIP), published since 2001, uses the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA) to define “severe” human trafficking as “sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act” is not 18.

The definition also includes “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude”.

Though exact figures are unknown, “the estimate we often cite is that nearly 25 million people worldwide are victims of human trafficking”, Blinken said.  “Many are compelled to commercial sex work. Many are forced to work in factories, or fields, or to join armed groups. Millions of trafficking victims are children. This crime is an affront to human rights.”

Tier lists

The TIP report ranks countries in tiers based on their compliance with the minimum standard for eliminating human trafficking according to the TVPA.

There are three tiers. Tier 1 includes governments that wholly meet the minimum standards. Tier 2 includes governments that do not meet the requirements “but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance”, the report says.

There is a Tier 2 watchlist, which includes states where the “estimated number of victims of severe forms of trafficking is very significant or is significantly increasing” and those that fail “to provide evidence of increasing efforts to combat severe forms of trafficking in persons from the previous year”.

The worst rank, Tier 3, is for countries “whose governments do not fully meet minimum standards “and are not making significant efforts to do so”. Being ranked in this tier means countries “may be subject to certain restrictions on foreign assistance” should the president decide to withhold hold.

The State Department downgraded Malaysia and Guinea-Bissau to Tier 3 this year.

A girl helps her parents work on a palm oil plantation in Sabah, Malaysia, in 2018. With little or no access to daycare, some young children in Indonesia and Malaysia follow their parents to the fields, where they are exposed to toxic pesticides and fertilisers [File: Binsar Bakkara/AP Photo]
The move comes after the US banned three Malaysian companies in the palm oil and electronics industries in the last year over concerns about forced labour and abusive working and living conditions.

Azry Akmar Ayob, a member of the Malaysian police’s anti-trafficking in persons and anti-smuggling of migrants division, told Reuters news agency on June 30 that such labour issues were not widespread.

The lowest tier also includes US adversaries China – whose treatment of the Uighur minority was highlighted – Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Nicaragua, Syria, Russia, Venezuela, and others.

COVID’s impact

The report particularly highlights the pandemic’s effect on trafficking and those working to stop the crime.

Women and children were severely affected by the pandemic, according to the report, along with those facing food and economic insecurity.

The lockdowns meant to stop COVID-19’s spread, made for “a lack of credible and accurate data” which “posed a challenge to effective and efficient anti-trafficking efforts around the world” and exacerbated economic insecurity, the report said.

“It was clear that COVID-19 exacerbated the vulnerabilities of millions of individuals and adversely affected efforts to combat human trafficking,” it continued.

A woman wearing a face mask is seen in a street after the lockdown was lifted in Wuhan, capital of Hubei province and China’s epicentre of the COVID-19 outbreak, on April 14, 2020 [File: Aly Song/Reuters]
It cites a report from the Office of Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and UN Women which “highlights that almost 70 percent of trafficking survivors from 35 countries reported that their financial well-being was heavily affected by COVID-19”.

Still, anti-trafficking organisations and governments found “ways to adapt and forged new relationships to overcome the challenges”, the report claims.

“Some governments and organizations conducted in-depth assessments to identify the changing trends. Others leveraged technology to drive innovative solutions.”

Blinken also honoured eight “TIP Report Heroes”, which included survivors, government employees and non-governmental organisation employees.

Among those was Mohammed al-Obaidly, an assistant under-secretary within Qatar’s Ministry of Administrative Development, Labor, and Social Affairs.

The TIP report acknowledges that Qatar has not yet solved all its “human trafficking” or labour rights problems, but al-Obaidy “and his team at the Ministry have continued to strive toward the goal of increasing transparency and protections against forced labor for migrant workers”.

While the TIP report focuses on global efforts to combat human trafficking, Blinken recognised the US’s own shortcomings.

Improving cooperation with global partners must “include coming to terms with our role in having perpetuated violence and dehumanized people, and we must work to right these past wrongs”, Blinken said.


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