The Trouble with the US Human Trafficking Report

Recent Features


The Trouble with the US Human Trafficking Report

A focus on annual rankings misses the point.

In a world of statistics and records the human desire to rank anything that moves – whether it’s in sports, war, education, medicine, the weather or crime – is often overwhelming and taken to absurd and unnecessary levels.

This was highlighted by the United States this week and the release of its annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, which ranks all countries on one of four levels – Tier 1, Tier 2, Tier 2 Watchlist and the dreaded Tier 3 – on their ability to combat the scourge.

It was galling to watch Malaysia behave like an Olympic medal had been won after it was upgraded from the bottom of the pile to the Tier 2 Watchlist.

Equally so with Thailand, which was “upset” after being left to languish in Tier 3, the only ASEAN country now “ranked” alongside North Korea and Syria on this issue.

Both Southeast Asian countries deserve to be thoroughly thrashed for their treatment of thousands of Bangladeshis and ethnic Royingyas from Myanmar, entrapped by people smuggling rings, a dreadful stain on ASEAN’s short history.

Malaysia’s promotion came despite the discovery of 139 graves at 28 hidden transit camps used by smugglers and traffickers on its northern border with Thailand.

Human rights groups were outraged by the upgrade. Washington defended its actions arguing the latest Rohingya incident had unfolded after deadlines had past for this year’s TIP, which will make the 2016 report a fascinating read.

Point scoring in the human trafficking market like it was some kind of sport does seem to compromise the report’s worth. It trivializes the plight of victims coerced and tricked into poorly paid indentured labor, prostitution or imprisoned for years on fishing vessels plying the region’s waterways.

Half of ASEAN’s 10 countries are in the benign Tier 2 group, including Singapore which lashed-out over its ranking saying it was not an accurate representation of the state’s harsh stance on the issue.

Cambodia was disappointed. It had expected to be upgraded out of the Tier 2 Watchlist, where it ranks alongside Laos and Myanmar. Given Myanmar’s inability to deal with the trafficking of its own people, it seemed absurd that it too was not lumped in Tier 3.

But it was Malaysia’s promotion that generated most interest, with cynics also asking whether the US had been swayed by politics and its need to finalize the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in Hawaii this week.

The TPP, a trade deal between 12 Pacific Rim countries commanding 40 percent of the global economy, is a key plank in U.S. President Barack Obama’s economic agenda. But recent laws have banned the US from negotiating trade deals with Tier 3 countries.

Malaysia’s rank was a problem. But once the TPP is signed, trade will continue as normal even if it falls back to into the Tier 3 category.

Hence Washington should not be surprised by the doubts that surround its report and Malaysia – a country whose government is beset by allegations of corruption and a lack of transparency over issues ranging from human trafficking to downed and missing airliners and scandals involving 1MDB, the acquisition of French submarines and racial and religious tensions.

It’s a situation made all the worse by the jailing of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who won the 53 percent of the popular vote at elections held in 2013.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry says the TIP report is designed to ‘enlighten, energize and empower activists into fighting human trafficking across every continent’.

Yet this form of modern day slavery is flourishing like never before under the same governments ranked by the same report year-after-year.

If the US is serious about it’s own efforts to end the human trafficking and people smuggling rackets, then perhaps it’s time to drop the sporting analogies and ranking systems and deal with this horrific problem by isolating, prosecuting and punishing governments for failing to meet their international obligations, as opposed to trading with them.

Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt