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OPINION: Storm clouds on the horizon for U.S. human trafficking rankings

by Luis C.deBaca | Yale University
Monday, 29 June 2020 13:09 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: Rahana cries as she talks with traffickers from an internet hut in Thae Chaung village, home to thousands of displaced Rohingya Muslims near Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State in western Myanmar January 29, 2015. REUTERS/Minzayar

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The United States must take the Trafficking In Persons (TIP) report as a self-critical call to action, just as it expects of foreign counterparts

Formerly U.S. Ambassador to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, Luis C.deBaca is Senior Fellow at Yale University's Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition.  

Each June, the United States releases the annual Trafficking in Persons Report (“TIP Report”), setting forth each country's response to forced labor and sex trafficking. Mandated by the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 and reflecting the ethos of the United Nations Protocol of that same year, the 2020 TIP Report is a strong document that commemorates and builds on the legacy of the last two decades while not flinching from facts that demonstrate just how far we have to go in this centuries-old fight.  

The Report celebrates the work of anti-trafficking heroes from around the globe and highlights such important topics as trauma bonding, peacekeepers, athletic recruitment, and addiction.

Read over time, TIP Reports reflect each country’s development from initial awareness and legislation to implementation and improvement. They don’t just tell about successes, but expose stagnation and obstacles.

Assembled by a dedicated team under the challenges of COVID-19 lockdowns, this year’s Report, though it commemorates the 20th Anniversary of the modern anti-trafficking movement, should be read not as a triumphalist document but as a warning of storm clouds on the horizon: 

The 3Ps, and Governmental leadership, are under strain.  The Report analyzes countries’ efforts under the “3P” approach (holding that Prevention, Protection, and Prosecution should be co-equal, as opposed to deferring to States’ security interests and prostitution policies over human rights and labor rights in vulnerable communities). But the 2020 Report shows a weakening of victim protections even in countries which were considered models, a seeming lack of urgency on the part of governments to get real results, and a reversion by countries to an almost exclusive focus on sex trafficking. Consumer activism, corporate engagement, and private lawsuits are exciting -- that energy needs to be reflected in governments’ pursuit of victim identification and protection, prosecution, and prevention. If these troubling trends emerge from a Report based primarily on the situation pre-COVID, what will be the fallout as governments take an increasingly authoritarian turn in the pandemic?

What happened to labor trafficking? Bringing sex trafficking under the human rights basis of anti-slavery laws and treaties was meant to extend protection to those victims, not to shift enforcement entirely to sexual exploitation. But this year’s data (admittedly problematic, but a rough guide to countries’ priorities) suggest that carceral and security-based sex trafficking responses predominate, with the fewest number of labor trafficking cases identified in the history of the Report. There were apparently only 28 labor cases brought in the entire Western Hemisphere, with the U.S. appearing to have brought 21 of them. When unscrupulous labor brokers and abusive bosses have nothing to fear from government, it undercuts workers’ ability to organize and protect themselves.

Strong recommendations, misplaced activities. Every TIP Report sets forth particularized recommendations for each country’s anti-slavery response.  This year’s recommendations for the United States call for increased labor trafficking investigations, lowering barriers to immigration protections, delivering on the statutory promise of mandatory restitution, and many other areas, backed up by facts extensively set forth in the U.S. narrative. The Report has been raising red flags on these issues for several years in a row, but the warnings have gone unheeded, with predictable results of fewer prosecutions and less victim protection. 

A loss of focus. Earlier this year, the White House’s much-promoted event to commemorate the 20th Anniversary of the trafficking law veered off into an Executive Order in which President Trump ordered increased activities against online child sexual exploitation. Combatting that heinous practice is important, but conflating trafficking and sexual abuse misdirects important resources, gives a false sense of anti-trafficking action, and distracts from the rights-based approach of the Trafficking Act and the 13th Amendment.

Immigration Enforcement.  Restrictionist immigration policies are at odds with the work of the U.S. Government’s own anti-trafficking experts. Just before the Report was issued, President Trump issued an Executive Order halting work-based visa programs. Such programs aren’t perfect; the TIP Report for years has pointed out how labor and sexual abuse is made easier by guestworkers’ inability to switch employers. But cutting off legal avenues for labor migration, even if imperfect, only strengthens the hand of unscrupulous bosses. This is in keeping with recent practice, as aggressive immigration enforcement undercut worthy anti-trafficking programs, restrictions curtailed victims’ access to immigration relief, anti-family actions skewed the trafficking law’s humanitarian provisions, immigration detainees were subjected to forced labor, and immigration officers failed to screen detainees for trafficking indicia, all while the White House touted partnerships and training numbers that appear disconnected from the shrinking number of victims served and traffickers brought to justice.  

That these critiques are possible shows how worthy an endeavor the TIP Report is; the facts that raise these concerns are from the 2020 Report itself. That truth-telling function -- the Report’s most important feature -- is testament to the expertise and political will with which Trafficking Office staff and their colleagues confront this critical issue.

It is now time for the U.S. Government as a whole to take the TIP Report’s facts and recommendations as a self-critical call to action, just as it expects of foreign counterparts when reading their country’s narrative. By carrying out these crucial recommendations, the United States would not only commemorate the last 20 years of the trafficking movement, but would honor the legacy of all who fought for – and continue to fight for -- their own freedom.