October 2017

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By Leanne McCallum, Senior Associate and Brooke Ward, Interim Social Media Director

The much-anticipated U.S. Department of State (DOS) Trafficking in Persons Report 2017 was released earlier this June to a cacophony of criticism. As in past years, anti- trafficking organizations were vocal about the perceived politicization of the tier rankings of several countries. The TIP Report is a mandate of the U.S. Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000. The annual report created by the DOS that analyzes country-level anti-trafficking efforts for countries around the world. It ranks each country’s efforts to combat human trafficking through the “3 P’s”: Prosecution, Protection, and Prevention. The ranking system includes the following classifications: Tier 1, Tier 2, Tier 2 Watch List, Tier 3, and Special Case with Tier 1 being the best ranking and Tier 3 being the lowest ranking*. This year’s report covered April 1, 2016 through March 31, 2017. There were even more tier changes than last year’s report with  21 countries downgraded and  27 countries upgraded.

Praise and critique followed the release of the 2017 TIP Report. The report itself was praised for including survivor language and recognizing survivor leaders. Anti-trafficking organizations commended the report for downgrading the Democratic Republic of the Congo to a Tier 3 and downgrading Bangladesh to Tier 2 Watch List. The report has gained widespread critique from anti-trafficking activists over several politicized rankings including upgrades to Burma, Malaysia, and Qatar and the failure to downgrade Thailand. This inconsistency in rankings has caused some organizations to question the integrity of the report. The ranking process is intended to be objective, however, questionable rankings point to uneven application of tier criteria and unjust political influence.

Here are the most controversial country narratives and rankings from the 2017 TIP Report:

Burma (Myanmar) Upgraded to Tier 2 Watch List

Anti-trafficking organizations have criticized this year’s upgrade of Burma to Tier 2 Watch List after only 1 year at Tier 3. This may not be a shocking upgrade as the 2016 report stated Burma was downgraded because it had been on the Tier 2 Watch List for too long. The DOS is required to downgrade a country if it ranked as Tier 2 Watch List for two or more years in a year. Anti-trafficking organizations are still extremely disappointed in this upgrade. Human Rights Watch stated the upgrade was premature and undermined efforts to combat the use of child soldiers in warfare. The United Nations has documented Burma’s armed forces recruiting child soldiers, and reported on the release of children from the Burmese army earlier this June. Despite this evidence, Burma was removed from the list of governments using child soldiers. Under the Child Soldiers Prevention Act (CSPA) the DOS is required to identify governments that recruit and use child soldiers in their armed forces, or that support militias using child soldiers. The CSPA list is published in the TIP report each year. Burma has been included on the list since its inception in 2010. Burma and Iraq were removed from the list after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reportedly overruled DOS officials and senior U.S. diplomats.

Burma’s ongoing internal conflict with ethnic minorities has also created large vulnerable populations who have been displaced by violence, and social and political unrest. Ethnic minorities are particularly vulnerable to human trafficking in Burma, like the Rohingya ethnic group dubbedthe most persecuted people on Earth.

Malaysia Upgraded to Tier 2

Anti-trafficking organizations have denounced Malaysia’s upgrade to Tier 2. This is the second upgrade in the past three years for the country. Activists believe the justifications given for the upgrade are weak and contradict the reality on the ground.

The 2016 TIP Report highlighted the problem of mass graves found along the Thai-Malaysian border in trafficking camps, which were purported to be mass graves of Burmese Rohingya human trafficking victims. No Malaysian officials have been prosecuted for their involvement in the trafficking camps or mass graves. Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director of Human Rights Watch, declared this government failure was, “a testament to odious impunity to commit trafficking abuses, and demonstrates a fundamental lack of political will by the Malaysian government.”

The Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking (ATEST) and the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) believe this upgrade ignores the exploitation of migrant workers in debt bondage and forced labor. They believe the 1,500 victims identified pales in comparison to the millions of vulnerable migrants in Malaysia. Malaysia has between 3 and 5 million migrant workers, most of whom are undocumented. Migrant workers easily fall into debt bondage from the levy they must pay to work. The migrant levy was has increased since last year, increasing vulnerability.

Qatar Upgraded to Tier 2

Qatar has been upgraded to Tier 2, a ranking Humanity United, ATEST and the ILRF have all condemned. The upgrade is justified in the report by reforms to the sponsorship system that “significantly reduce vulnerability to forced labor.” However, the reforms are incomplete, not fully implemented and have not demonstrated any impact on the ground. The sponsorship system has not been fully abolished; workers still have no substantive ability to change employers, and migrant workers still have no real freedom to exit the country or their employers. Additionally, high recruitment fees and passport confiscation remain commonplace. The labor law does not protect domestic workers, among other workers, leaving them at increased risk of exploitation.

Thailand Maintained Tier 2 Watch List

Despite widespread calls for the country to be downgraded, Thailand was again placed on the Tier 2 Watch List. Last year Thailand was upgraded from Tier 3 to Tier 2 Watch List, a move denounced by labor trafficking organizations and organizations focused on the Thai fishing industry. Activists proclaimed the upgrade was “premature” and warned it could prevent or delay actual improvements needed to address human trafficking. The DOS’s failure to downgrade Thailand has been condemned by civil society.

The report praised the Thai government for investigating and prosecuting people in the fishing industry complicit in forced labor, but criticized them for failing to prosecute corrupt officials. The managing director of Humanity United, David Abramowitz, declared the new laws passed in Thailand have had almost no impact and that little change has been observed in the field. The ILRF referenced high recruitment fees, lack of freedom of movement, and degrading working conditions as indicators human trafficking has remained prevalent in Thailand. Executive Director Judy Gearhart stated, “Unfortunately in 2016, Thailand was a country in which workers were prosecuted for reporting human trafficking to a Thai-government body and traffickers were allowed to go free because of flawed interpretations of what forced labor is. Until migrant workers are able to secure justice when they are exploited, Thailand belongs on the lowest ranking of the TIP Report.”

United States Maintained Tier 1  

The United States received a Tier 1 ranking, as it always has. Despite this top ranking, the report highlighted several significant failures of the U.S. to combat human trafficking. These failures centered on a lack of protections and services for survivors. Such as the continued arrests of human trafficking survivors, and prosecution of survivors for crimes they were forced to commit by their traffickers. Legal protections are also lacking and funding for victim services is deficient. H-visa program workers are still being charged fees despite legal prohibitions. The U.S. continues to largely focus on sex trafficking as indicated by the disparity in federal prosecutions for labor trafficking as compared to sex trafficking. In light of these significant failures there has been surprisingly little to no outcry. ATEST critiqued the removal of LGBTQI vulnerability to trafficking from the U.S. narrative, but was not critical of the Tier ranking. However, the ILRF believes the U.S. should be considered for a downgrade if it does not increase protections for migrant workers.

*For more information about the tier system and ranking process, please refer to the TIP Report’s methodology section.

Photo Credit: U.S. Department of State


About the Human Trafficking Center

The Human Trafficking Center, housed in the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, is the only two-year, graduate-level, professional-training degree in human trafficking in the United States. One way graduate students contribute to the study of human trafficking is by publishing research-based blogs. The HTC was founded in 2002 to apply sound research and reliable methodology to the field of human trafficking research and advocacy.

Founded in 1964, the Josef Korbel School of International Studies is one of the world’s leading schools for the study of international relations. The School offers degree programs in international affairs and is named in honor of its founder and first dean, Josef Korbel.


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