Human trafficking rankings in Asia-Pacific spark a flurry of disagreement

Migrants including Myanmar's Rohingya Muslims sit on the deck of their boat as they wait to be rescued by Acehnese fishermen on the sea off East Aceh, Indonesia. Myanmar called sad and regrettable a move by the United States to place the country on a list of the world's worst human trafficking offenders, while rights groups welcome it as long overdue. File May 20, 2015. (Credit: AP Photo/S. Yulinnas)

No one seems happy with the Asia-Pacific rankings in this year’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report compiled by the U.S. Department of State. U.S. lawmakers expressed concern on Tuesday that Malaysia and India have been ranked too highly, while officials in Hong Kong and Myanmar “rejected” their downgrade. At the same time, aid workers are questioning the decision to upgrade the Philippines and Thailand.

“[President Obama’s] legacy on modern slavery may be overshadowed by the politicization of last year’s [Trafficking in Persons] report and failure to make a strong course correction this year,” Kristen Abrams, acting director of anti-trafficking coalition Atest, told the New York Times. “… Congress should intervene and ensure that the State Department bases its rankings of countries’ anti-trafficking efforts on credible evidence, not politics.”

Allegations that the rankings were politically motivated are an echo from last year. For example, Malaysia was promoted in 2015 over objections from experts amid the discoveries of mass graves of trafficking victims and reports by rights’ groups of continued forced labor. This year, Congress again questioned whether Malaysia’s sustained ranking was influenced by Obama’s support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, which includes Malaysia.

Lawmakers and rights groups also questioned India’s ranking, citing its estimated 12 million slaves.

At Tuesday’s hearings, Susan Coppedge of the State Department’s trafficking office responded to Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs committee members that both countries had made improvements.

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Aid workers in the Philippines – a strong U.S. ally – are also skeptical of the nation’s new Tier 1 ranking, due to its burgeoning cyber sex industry and the high risk of slavery for the 10 million Filipinos working overseas, largely domestic workers, according to Reuters.

“Tier 1 does not mean the Philippines is already free of trafficking,” Darlene Pajarito, executive director of the Philippines’ Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking, told Reuters. “… But we have increased [the]government’s capacity to stop illegal activities, put more people in prison and make (sic) more people aware of trafficking.”

Meanwhile, Myanmar has promised to improve its human trafficking record, despite doubts that it deserved the lowest Tier 3 ranking.

“The U.S. needs to understand that the situation did not go down,” said Zaw Htay, a spokesperson for Myanmar’s National League for Democracy government, to VOA. Instead he attributes the demotion to the fact they could not remain on the Tier 2 Watch List for more than a maximum of four years. The government sidestepped questions of whether the downgrade could be related to trafficking of ethnic-minority Rohingya fleeing persecution, VOA reported.

Hong Kong, one of the region’s most affluent cities, has also soundly rejected their demotion to Tier 2 Watch List, where they rank beside countries like Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Even some rights activists are confused by the city’s new ranking.

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“Compared to other countries, to some extent, sometimes it seems unfair. We sometimes don’t have a clue what is the basis of the U.S. ranking,” Eni Lestari, chairperson of the International Migrants Alliance, told Reuters.

Secretary of State John Kerry maintains that the rankings were not influenced by politics. “There are some tough calls,” he said, according to Reuters. “In the end, they come down to an element of discretion, but not much.”

The State Department’s report, released on June 30, ranks countries in tiers. Tier 1 nations meet the minimum U.S. standards; Tier 2 countries are taking significant strides toward those standards; Tier 2 Watch List nations are under scrutiny; and Tier 3 is the lowest ranking for nations failing to meet minimum standards and are not demonstrating significant efforts to do so.

A low ranking not only hurts a country’s reputation, but may have significant repercussions such as sanctions that limit access to aid from the United States, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

“In a nutshell, the fight to end human trafficking and modern slavery is far from over,” Maria Cecilia Flores-Oebanda, executive director of trafficking victims’ rights group Visayan Forum Foundation in the Philippines, told Reuters. “Next year, we also need to demonstrate measurable progress to retain [a Tier 1]ranking.”

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Joanne Lu

Joanne Lu is a South Carolina-based writer and editor dedicated to global development, poverty alleviation and social justice. After a year in Rwanda, she now covers the Asia-Pacific and economics. Find her on Twitter @joannelu or email joanne@humanosphere.com.