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Senate Committee Examines Human Trafficking in Asia

On April 7, the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs held a hearing on human trafficking in Asia.

“The reports we hear from Asia are disheartening,” said Ranking Member James Inhofe (R-OK). He continued, “As those assembled in this hearing likely already know, no single ethnicity, gender or nationality is immune from the destructive impact of trafficking. Yet, unfortunately, some states are clearly more negligent in their conduct than others. In Burma, the commercial sex trade and forced prostitution are rampant, children are unlawfully conscripted into armed service, and compulsory labor remains a widespread and serious problem, particularly among ethnic minority groups. In Papua New Guinea, crime rings and foreign businesses arrange for women to enter the country, only to bring them to logging and mining camps, fisheries, and entertainment sites where they are exploited in forced prostitution and involuntary domestic servitude. Men, too, are exploited for labor, where some receive almost no pay and are compelled to continue working for the company indefinitely through debt bondage schemes. These reports, and others like them, are commonplace throughout the region. From North Korea to Cambodia and Mongolia to Malaysia, few are left untouched.”

Ambassador-at-Large Luis CdeBaca at the State Department Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons discussed the increasing importance of human trafficking to governments and the effect of the Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, published annually by the State Department. Ambassador CdeBaca noted that “While some countries in Asia have passed legislation to prohibit trafficking, governments as a whole have not yet shown the political will to hold the traffickers to the fullest account by imposing sentences commensurate with the severity of the crimes. Some countries focus solely on sex trafficking, but their efforts are misdirected by treating the women as illegal immigrant prostitutes or criminals rather than recognizing them as victims. Forced labor cases are sometimes treated as administrative violations, if they are addressed at all.”

In speaking specifically about sex trafficking in Asia, Ambassador CdeBaca said, “In South Korea, the government has had some success prosecuting sex traffickers and offering services to the victims. There is a known presence of women and girls in sexual servitude, including foreign women recruited to work on entertainment visas as singers at bars near U.S. military facilities. We know that women such as these often incur thousands of dollars in debts, contributing to their vulnerability to debt bondage upon arrival. The issue of child sex tourism – one that the U.S. government attempts to tackle head-on through extraterritorial application of relevant laws – is also one shared by South Korea and Japan, and the 2010 TIP Report sets forth how men from those countries fuel the demand for sex trafficking in Cambodia and other poorer countries. But unlike the United States, South Korea has never prosecuted one of its citizens for child sex tourism, and Japan’s last prosecution was in 2005. The reality is that enforcement regimes in the Pacific region are woefully inadequate. Resource constraints, corruption, and a lack of political will have created an enabling environment in which sex slavery and forced labor thrives, and exploiters rarely face meaningful penalties.”

Ambassador CdeBaca also highlighted the importance of the TIP report as a tool to eliminate human trafficking: “In the past year, the Philippine government has taken important steps to address the trafficking of its citizens within the country and abroad; the government has publicly linked these efforts to the threat of a downgrade to Tier 3 in the 2011 TIP report. The hundreds of backlogged trafficking cases in the court system are beginning to be fast-tracked, corrupt officials are being identified and punished, the government has increased resources available to combat trafficking, and most importantly, mechanisms to improve the government’s anti-trafficking responses are being institutionalized.” He continued, “In Indonesia, a Tier 3 ranking [in the] last decade led to the establishment of a human trafficking task force and in 2007 the passage of anti-TIP legislation. In 2009 Indonesia prosecuted the largest number of labor trafficking offenders (79) of any East Asian government. Malaysia’s home minister credited the TIP Report as a factor leading to the passage of that country’s 2007 anti-TIP legislation. In 2009, Malaysia was given a Tier 3 ranking based in part on a report issued by this committee implicating Malaysian government officials in a trafficking scheme. Since that ranking, the government has increased the number of investigations and prosecutions, cracked down on trafficking-related corruption in the government, conducted a public information campaign about trafficking, and enhanced collaboration efforts with the NGO community. While ranked [on the] Tier 2 Watch List just a few years ago, perhaps the strongest Tier 1 jurisdiction in the Pacific region is Taiwan – thanks to its political commitment to carrying out a series of tough anti-trafficking reforms. Now, foreign victims of trafficking in Taiwan stand a much greater chance of being identified, subsequently given assistance to get back on their feet, and gain legitimate employment with legal immigration status. Taiwan authorities have made a commitment not just to enforcement, but to victim care, and that’s making them stand out. In a region of the world where the challenge of modern slavery is so great, change is going to be slow and difficult. But we cannot allow slow progress to be used as an excuse to roll back what we know is working. Specifically, it is critical that the TIP report remain a central tool in our government’s anti-trafficking efforts.”

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