Human trafficking concerns appear to have been overshadowed by politics in the newly released State Department Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report. Its upgrade of Malaysia from Tier 3, the lowest designation, to the Tier 2 Watch List and failure to downgrade Burma are inconsistent with how the countries have been responding to increasing evidence of human trafficking.
Advocacy groups, activists, and even members of the US Congress and Members of Parliament from the region have all expressed concern that Malaysia’s upgrade is politically motivated due to a desire for Malaysia’s participation in the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). There is a clause that states that fast track trade deals cannot be conducted with countries that listed at Tier 3, and Malaysia was the only country involved that fell under that category.
Judging based on facts alone, both Malaysia and Thailand should have remained at Tier 3 and Burma should have joined them.
There is clear evidence that trafficking activities were occurring during the TIP reporting period. In May, trafficking camps and mass graves were discovered in jungles along the Thai-Malaysia border, following the boat crisis where thousands of Burmese Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants and asylum seekers were found abandoned at sea. Malaysian Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi confirmed that these camps were not new, saying that he suspected they had been there for at least five years.
Malaysia has not put significant efforts into fighting human trafficking, a sentiment backed up by Malaysian MP Charles Santiago: “One thing is clear – the TIP Report has certainly not taken into account Malaysia’s appalling record when it comes to dealing with trafficking issues. It has dismissed the links between corrupt security officials and traffickers and Malaysia’s lack of political will to tackle this problem.”
Santiago notes that the country’s handling of the mass grave discovery should act as a “hint” for how the government currently tackles anti-trafficking measures: “The government concluded there were no criminal elements leading to the death of Rohingya refugees and Bangladeshi migrant workers whose bodies were exhumed out of mass graves.”
Under Secretary Sarah Sewall denied the notion that politics had anything to do with the upgrade. The report states that although Malaysia is not compliant with the minimum standards for combating trafficking, it is making significant efforts to do so. The government has consulted with civil society stakeholders in 2014 to draft amendments that would strengthen their anti-trafficking law and address concerns outlined in the 2014 TIP Report. Investigations into trafficking suspects also more than doubled.
However, the report also notes that these amendments are still pending and despite the successful increase of investigations, only three traffickers were convicted for forced labor and one for passport retention, less than the previous year, when Malaysia was listed as Tier 3.
Despite growing trafficking concerns, Burma avoided a downgrade from the Tier 2 Watch List level for the fourth year in a row. According to the TVPA, any country at that level for two years in a row is subject to an automatic downgrade, but the State Department has given Burma waivers, citing a written plan, which “if implemented,” meets the TVPA’s minimum standards for combating trafficking.
This year’s TIP Report states multiple ways in which the government is failing to protect its people, primarily ethnic minorities, from human trafficking and how it is also failing to prosecute the crimes. Yet it again cited the written plan as a reason for a waiver, demonstrating that this plan either is not working or has not been executed.
This report barely mentions the Rohingya, other than that their living conditions in Rakhine State make them more vulnerable to trafficking and that “some” may have been exposed to trafficking while trying to make boat journeys into Malaysia. The exodus and trafficking of the Rohingya can be directly linked to the discriminatory policies the Burmese government has toward them, a fact that President Obama has openly stated. Government and military officials are also directly responsible for inciting violence toward the Rohingya and other Muslim minorities. Under the recommendations section of the report, there is no mention of changing policies regarding ethnic minorities to remove the push factors associated with their migration.
Unlike in the Burma and Malaysia sections, the Rohingya are mentioned fairly frequently in the Thailand section of the report. It calls attention to the trafficking of asylum seekers and the lack of services that Rohingya victims were offered by the government. Furthermore, forced labor involving the Rohingya on Thai fishing boats is mentioned. Despite the fact that both Malaysia and Thailand are directly involved in the trafficking of Rohingya, the TIP Report seems to place the majority of the blame onto Thailand.
Ultimately, the upgrade of Malaysia while maintaining Thailand’s place at Tier 3 is inconsistent, as they have both been directly involved with the trafficking of refugees and migrants from Burma and Bangladesh. Neither country has made significant progress in regards to combating trafficking; the boat crisis and discovery of jungle camps and graves in May 2015 provides evidence of this.
The manipulation of TIP report rankings for political purposes greatly calls into question both the integrity and the transparency of not only the report, but the United States’ leadership and commitment to combating human trafficking as a whole.