Human trafficking worsened considerably in Southeast Asia in 2021, with the United States government adding Vietnam, Cambodia, and Brunei to its trafficking in persons blacklist and downgrading Indonesia.
In this year’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, released on Tuesday, the U.S. State Department scrutinized 188 nations’ efforts to halt human trafficking and punish those responsible.
The report sorts nations into three tiers, with its lowest grade – Tier 3 – reserved for “countries whose governments do not fully meet the minimum [anti-trafficking] standards and are not making significant efforts to do so.”
In this year’s report, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Brunei were both dropped down to Tier 3, while Indonesia was lowered from Tier 2 to the Tier 2 watchlist. Tier 3 status opens nations to a range of potential sanctions and penalties, though Washington often waives sanctions for close partners and other nations that promise to take swift remedial action.
These three nations joined their Southeast Asian neighbors Malaysia and Myanmar on the Tier 3 blacklist, bringing the number of Southeast Asian nations in this category to five out of 11 – a remarkable indictment of the region’s efforts to stem labor and sex trafficking. Malaysia was downgraded last year, while Myanmar has been at Tier 3 since 2018. Only two of the region’s countries – Singapore and the Philippines – were designated Tier 1.
In launching this year’s report, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that it represented a “mixed picture of progress.” Describing the TIP report as “one of the most comprehensive sources of information anywhere on anti-trafficking efforts by governments,” he earmarked corruption as a primary challenge in anti-trafficking efforts.
“Corruption continues to be a top tool of traffickers,” he said. “Complicit government officials may turn a blind eye to illicit activities, provide false documents for workers, tip off traffickers to impending raids. Corruption allows traffickers to continue to act with impunity.”
Corruption is certainly at the heart of Southeast Asia’s dire performance in this year’s TIP report. In Cambodia, the TIP report stated, “endemic corruption continued to impede overall law enforcement operations, holding traffickers accountable, and victim service provision.”
Specifically, it impeded efforts to help thousands including children trafficked to entertainment establishments, brick kilns, and online scam operations, the latter of which has grown to a gargantuan scale in 2022, as this recent Al Jazeera documentary makes clear. “Authorities often overlooked, denied, or downplayed labor abuses – including forced child labor – in factories and at brick kilns and colluded with brick manufacturers to arrest, jail, and return indentured laborers who had attempted to escape,” the report stated.
In the case of Vietnam, the report said that the government took no action against a Vietnamese labor attache stationed at Vietnam’s embassy in Saudi Arabia and another embassy staffer who was accused of complicity in trafficking several of their citizens. Despite Vietnam being an increasingly close partner of the U.S. the report concluded that it “does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so.”
It also noted that the government of Brunei for the fifth consecutive year “did not convict any traffickers under its trafficking statute,” and for the second consecutive year, “did not identify any trafficking victims.” It added, “corruption and official complicity in trafficking crimes remained significant concerns, inhibiting law enforcement action.”