Click here to listen to the audio file.
Moderator: Good morning from the U.S. Department of State’s Asia-Pacific Media Hub in Manila. My name is Mary Martin, and I want to thank you all for joining this briefing. Today we are pleased to be joined from Washington, D.C. by Dr. Kari Johnstone, the Acting Director of the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.
We will begin today’s call with opening remarks from Dr. Johnstone. We will try to get to as many questions as we can during the time that we have.
Finally, as a reminder, today’s call is on the record. And with that, I will turn it over to Dr. Kari Johnstone.
Ms. Johnstone: Thank you so much, Mary, and good morning to all of you in East Asia. Thank you for joining this call as well. I am pleased to join you from Washington, where Secretary Blinken released the State Department’s 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report, or the TIP Report, just a few hours ago. This report examines the government’s efforts to combat human trafficking using a three-P framework of prosecuting perpetrators, protecting victims, and preventing this crime. And it reflects the U.S. Government’s commitment to global leadership on this key human rights, law enforcement, and national security issue. It remains our principal diplomatic and diagnostic tool to guide our relations with foreign governments on human trafficking.
This year’s report covers 188 countries and territories, including the United States, and the introduction focuses on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on trafficking trends and anti-trafficking efforts around the world. The introduction outlines how the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated trafficking situations and significantly increased the number of people worldwide at risk to exploitation, and how traffickers adapted their methods to take advantage of these circumstances. The introduction also illustrates the innovative ways that many adapted their anti-trafficking efforts. It emphasizes lessons learned from practitioners, offers way to rebuild strong anti-trafficking strategies, and focuses on ways governments can prevent the compounding effects of crises on trafficking victims and vulnerable individuals.
Beyond our introduction, I would like to share some noteworthy results and tier movement within our report. Overall there are approximately the same number of downgrades and upgrades as in prior years. Six countries received downgrades from Tier 1 to Tier 2, as the department assessed that the governments of Cyprus, Israel, Norway, Portugal, Switzerland, and in this East Asia-Pacific region, New Zealand, did not meet all four of the minimum standards and were not making appreciable progress compared to the previous year. Therefore, these six countries were downgraded from Tier 1 to Tier 2.
Twelve countries were downgraded from Tier 2 to the Tier 2 Watch List. For the East Asia region this included Palau, Thailand, and Tonga. Other countries downgraded to Tier 2 Watch List include Burkina Faso, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Haiti, Liberia, Sint Maarten, South Africa, Trinidad and Tobago, and Zimbabwe. And finally, two countries were downgraded to Tier 3, Guinea-Bissau and Malaysia.
The State Department also made the determination that 11 countries continued to have a government policy or pattern of trafficking. These governments were themselves part of the problem, directly compelling their citizens into sex trafficking, forced labor, or child soldiering. We found that officials used their power to exploit their nationals or foreign citizens ranging from forced labor in local or national public works projects, military operations, economically important sectors, or as part of government-funded projects or missions abroad, as well as sexual slavery on government compounds. These countries that were determined to have a government policy or pattern of human trafficking include Afghanistan, Cuba, Eritrea, Iran, Russia, South Sudan, Syria, and Turkmenistan, and specifically for the East Asia region, these countries include Burma, China, and North Korea. As a result of this government policy or pattern of human trafficking, all 11 of these countries remained on Tier 3 in this year’s TIP report.
We also included a box in the introduction on state-sanctioned trafficking in persons, and one specifically on forced labor in China’s Xinjiang region and beyond. In Xinjiang, detention in camps is intended to erase ethnic and religious identities under the pretext of vocational training, and forced labor is a central tactic used for this genocide. And in North Korea, reports indicated the government utilized the COVID-19 pandemic to increase the number of political prisoners, thereby expanding its existing government policy or pattern of forced labor and mass mobilizations of adults and children in prison camps as part of an established system of political repression in labor training centers and through its imposition of forced labor conditions on North Korean overseas workers.
This year 15 governments were also included on the 2021 Child Soldiers Prevention Act list for having governmental armed groups or supporting nongovernmental armed groups that recruit or use children in armed conflict. This year the State Department added Pakistan, Turkey, and Venezuela to this list, all of which are being listed for the first time, and removed Cameroon and Sudan. For the East Asia region, Burma remained on this list.
On a positive note, there were several noteworthy upgrades due to tangible progress governments made to combat trafficking around the world. We saw progress even in some countries where the trafficking challenges have been intractable over many years. For the East Asia region, Fiji was upgraded to Tier 2, and Papua New Guinea to Tier 2 Watch List.
Finally, I would like to take a moment to highlight one of the 2021 TIP Report heroes, who is from Japan, Mr. Shoichi Ibusuki. Since 2004, the TIP Report has included TIP Report heroes to highlight the importance of individual action to combat human trafficking. The TIP Report heroes have cared for victims, demanded legal and social change, held governments to account, and educated the public about human trafficking in their countries and around the world. Often working at great personal expense and risk, the TIP report heroes are an incredible testament to the idea that the efforts of a single person can make all the difference in the individual lives of victims and the broader fight against human trafficking.
Mr. Ibusuki has been an unrelenting champion of protecting foreign workers’ rights, and he has worked tirelessly for years on behalf of foreign technical trainees, to assist victims of forced labor, and prevent abuse within Japan’s technical intern training program. He is the co-president of the Lawyers Network for Technical Intern Trainees, the president of the Lawyers Network for Foreign Workers, and a prominent legal expert in foreign labor issues. Mr. Ibusuki has sought justice on behalf of countless foreign workers by providing legal representation for those who are taking action against former employees for labor law violations.
Mr. Ibusuki not only has represented trafficking victims, many of whom participated in Japan’s Technical Intern Training Program, but also has been an outspoken advocate about the presence of forced labor in the program. He has worked with the Japanese Government to encourage changes to the Technical Intern Training Program by testifying as an unsworn witness in numerous Diet sessions regarding the abuse foreign workers face.
Thank you again for your interest in this topic, and I’d be happy to take some questions.
Moderator: Thank you. We will now begin the question and answer – excuse me – the question and answer portion of today’s briefing. Just a reminder that if you are asking a question, please state your name, media affiliation, and location.
Our first question will go to Jaeyeon Moon.
Question: Hello. Can you hear me?
Moderator: Yes. Jaeyeon Moon?
Question: Yes. This is Jaeyeon Moon.
Moderator: Could you let us know what outlet you are from?
Question: Yes. I’m from Herald Business in South Korea, and I have one question related to North Korea. Could you tell where the State Department gathered the sources that the COVID-19 kind of triggered North Korea to pull over more – put people more in political prisons? How does the state government – I mean State Department – is gathering information on North Korea’s policy on foreign workers?
Moderator: Dr. Johnstone?
Ms. Johnstone: Yes. Thank you so much. Thank you for that question. We remain very concerned about these issues in North Korea. As you pointed out, we did determine that there was a government policy or pattern of forced labor that continued through the government’s mobilizations of adults and children in prison camps, in labor training centers, and through the imposition of forced labor conditions on DPRK overseas workers. We generally collect information through a wide variety of sources, including through a Federal Register notice in which we solicit information from civil society organizations, advocates, experts from around the world, and we are fortunate to get information from a wide variety of organizations and experts along those lines.
We also do tremendous research as we gather data and analyze trafficking trends and government efforts, and in this case government behavior when the government itself is perpetrating forced labor. So we do rely on a wide variety of sources, including the media, like yourselves, as well as our contacts and experts and advocates that do research and gather their own analysis.
Moderator: Thank you. For our next question, let’s go live to Shefali Rekhi of Straits Times in Singapore.
Question: Hi there. It’s good morning here; it should be good evening there. I wanted to better understand the impacts of the pandemic on human trafficking, especially as far as Asia is concerned, and your assessment of how things will play out in the coming years as major segments of the world are still to be vaccinated.
Ms. Johnstone: Thank you very much for that question. This year’s introduction to the TIP report documented the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on human trafficking overall, and the individual country narratives for those 188 countries and territories that we cover capture specific country circumstances with respect to the pandemic and how it affected trafficking trends and anti-trafficking efforts.
COVID-19 generated conditions that increased the number of people who experienced vulnerabilities to human trafficking, and it interrupted existing and planned anti-trafficking interventions. Governments around the world, including East Asia, diverted resources to address the pandemic, often unfortunately at the expense of anti-trafficking efforts, resulting in decreased protection measures and service provision for victims, reduction of preventive efforts, and hindrances to investigations and the prosecutions of traffickers. Victims and survivors also faced heightened risk of revictimization and obstacles accessing assistance and support as lockdowns, social distancing protocols, and a lack of resources caused service providers to close shelters and reduce other services.
At the same time, human traffickers quickly adapted to capitalize on the vulnerabilities and risks exposed and exacerbated by the pandemic. Despite the added challenges and risks that the pandemic has presented, we have also witnessed the adaptability among those continuing to fight human trafficking, and their dedication to ensuring a continuation of anti-trafficking efforts, and to minimize the effects of the pandemic on victims in the broader anti-trafficking community. Technology was widely utilized to safely continue to combat trafficking in persons, including to resume prosecution efforts and prevent further court backlogs through virtual investigative and court proceedings.
Regarding the future, we are always reluctant to predict – and I certainly think that it’s hard to predict in these circumstances – but what we have observed over time, including in this unexpected pandemic, is that traffickers adapt. They adapt their tactics, they take advantage of new risks and new vulnerabilities that emerge, and that it is incumbent upon governments and all of us who care about human trafficking to similarly adapt and respond to prevent trafficking, prosecute the traffickers, and protect victims. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you. Our next question was submitted in advance by NPR’s Julie McCarthy in the United States. “Can you describe the scale of trafficking in persons in Southeast Asia? How would you characterize the problem in the Philippines? Who is most likely to be trafficked in the Philippines, and to where?”
Ms. Johnstone: Thank you so much for this question. One of the biggest challenges for the entire anti-trafficking community is measuring the scale or prevalence of human trafficking. This is a hidden crime. Often it goes unreported or it’s reported as other crimes, such as rape, fraud, labor violations, rather than as human trafficking. Victims of human trafficking rarely come forward and self-identify to authorities, unlike, say, victims of abuse or theft or other forms of violence. Trafficking victims may not able – may not be able to come forward to authorities to self-identify. They are often afraid to – their traffickers lie to them and tell them they’ll be deported or arrested if they come forward to authorities. And unfortunately, that is often the case. So it is particularly challenging to measure the scope or the scale of the problem.
The international community often quotes a global estimate of approximately 25 million human beings that are trafficked or victims of trafficking. This estimate is provided by the International Labor Organization and the Walk Free foundation. That was an estimate that was created in 2017.
We can say that based on the data we collect in individual country narratives in the East Asia-Pacific region that for us includes 29 countries within the TIP Report, so it’s wider than Southeast Asia but the East Asia-Pacific region more broadly, we documented that this year, the governments in the region identified 2,884 victims, of which 691 were identified as victims of forced labor. Globally, we documented the identification of 109 – 216 – sorry, 109,216 victims, of which 14,448 were identified as victims of forced labor. All of these numbers are too low given the estimated scale of human trafficking overall, and reflect the challenges that governments face in identifying and finding these victims and the challenges that victims have in coming forward to identify themselves to authorities.
Regarding your question specific to the Philippines, human traffickers exploit domestic and foreign victims in the Philippines, and traffickers also exploit victims from the Philippines abroad. A significant number of Filipino migrant workers become victims of sex trafficking or labor trafficking in numerous industries, including industrial fishing, shipping, construction, manufacturing, education, home health care, and agriculture, as well as in domestic work, janitorial service, and other hospitality-related jobs, particularly in the Middle East and Asia but also in other regions.
Traffickers, typically in partnership with local networks and facilitators and increasingly using social media site – networking sites – sorry, social networking sites and other digital platforms, recruit unsuspecting Filipinos through illegal recruitment practices such as deception, hidden fees, production of fraudulent passports, overseas employment certificates and contracts to exploit migrant workers in both sex trafficking and labor trafficking.
Within the Philippines, traffickers exploit women and children from rural communities, conflict- and disaster-affected areas, and impoverished urban centers in sex trafficking, forced domestic work, forced begging, and other forms of forced labor in tourist destinations and urban areas around the country. Traffickers also exploit men in forced labor in the agricultural, construction, fishing, and maritime industries, sometimes through debt-based coercion.
And finally, indigenous persons and many of the approximately 340,000 internally displaced persons in Mindanao are at risk of trafficking, including through fraudulent promises of employment. Thank you.
Moderator: For our next question, let’s go to Chayut Setboonsarng of Reuters in Bangkok, Thailand.
Question: Hi. Hi, Chayut here. My question is about Southeast Asia, particularly Thailand and Malaysia, which have the two downgrades. Can you talk about the sectors or the segments of society where you saw most of the trafficking occur, was it labor, agriculture? In which segments was it? And was there something to be said about the demand for labor that propels more trafficking by the perpetrators? And what can you say about the profile of these victims? Where were they from? Were they mostly men or women? And what was, like, the destination? Thank you.
Ms. Johnstone: Thank you very much for that question. I’ll probably address it separately for each of those countries, although there are some commonalities.
In Malaysia, the majority of trafficking victims are foreign victims although there are also domestic victims in Malaysia, and to a lesser extent traffickers exploit victims from Malaysia abroad. As I said, the overwhelming majority of victims in Malaysia are among the estimated 2 million documented and an even greater number of undocumented migrant workers in Malaysia. Foreign workers constitute more than 30 percent of the Malaysian workforce, as you may know, and typically migrate voluntarily, often through irregular channels. They tend to come from other countries in Southeast Asia such as Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam, as well as broader Asian countries like Bangladesh, China, and India. The sectors primarily where we see the greatest forced labor, which is the predominant form of the crime within Malaysia, include on palm oil and agricultural plantations, at construction sites, in the electronics, garment, and rubber product industries, as well as in homes as domestic workers. I think that was the total of your questions, or at least the primary questions on Malaysia.
And in Thailand, we see some similar overlap in terms of the sectors. I would add for Thailand, we also see that many trafficking victims, both Thai and foreign-born, are also subjected to forced labor in agriculture as well as the fishing industry. Trafficking victims within Thailand come from a variety of countries – in addition to Thailand itself, from many other Southeast Asian countries as well as Sri Lanka, Russia, Uzbekistan, and some African countries. Members of ethnic minorities, highland persons, and stateless persons in Thailand have also experienced instances of abuse that are indicative of human trafficking. North Koreans working in Thailand may have been forced to work by the North Korean Government as well. And here we do see in addition to many sectors the include forced labor in Thailand, trafficking victims are also subjected to sex trafficking in brothels, massage parlors, bars, karaoke lounges, hotels, and private residences. Thank you.
Moderator: For our next question let’s go to Alyaa Alhadjri from Malaysiakini.
Question: Hi. Good evening. My question builds on the previous question on Malaysia. So I would like to know, how do you foresee Malaysia’s downgraded ranking impacting trade ties with the U.S.? Can we foresee maybe for the sanction of Malaysia’s exports to the U.S., including, as you identified, some of the rubber industry like rubber gloves or other [inaudible]?
Ms. Johnstone: Yeah, thank you very much for that question. So countries that are placed on Tier 3 within the TIP Report may carry restrictions of non-trade and non-humanitarian aid as well as potential limitations on U.S. voting for loans in international financial institutions. Tier 3 restrictions for countries on Tier 3 in the TIP Report do not include import limitations specifically. The U.S. Government does have other tools to combat forced labor in global supply chains that may be used to limit the import of goods that are furnished in whole or in part with forced labor, but that is not specifically tied to a Tier 3 ranking in the TIP Report.
Moderator: We have time for one last question. The last question goes to Nursyazwani Roslan of the Brunei Post.
Question: Hello? Hi. I have one question concerning [inaudible] of Rohingya refugees. Because these people in our life, they become one of the targets, okay, the targets by the traffickers, such as from Malaysia and Bangladesh. So is there any action that has been taken to protect these people? Thank you.
Ms. Johnstone: And you are absolutely right that Rohingya are disproportionately targeted by human traffickers as well as the Government of Burma itself that was also placed on Tier 3 due to a government policy or pattern of forced labor, including of Rohingya and other citizens and other people who live in Burma. Outside of Burma, Rohingya, unfortunately, because of their vulnerability and limited access to other jobs and education opportunities, are disproportionately targeted by traffickers within neighboring countries such as Bangladesh or Malaysia, and unfortunately, they are also subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking in countries farther away from Burma or the region. We are very concerned about the vulnerability and the known cases of human trafficking of Rohingya both in the region and more broadly.
We engage actively with governments that host Rohingya, including Bangladesh and Malaysia, and urge them to take proactive steps to identify trafficking victims among the people who are living in their country, particularly among Rohingya, and to take active steps to investigate traffickers to try to keep them safe and – not the traffickers but the Rohingya themselves – and to combat the crime as fully as they can to keep Rohingya as safe as possible from human trafficking. And if they are already victims of human trafficking, to identify them proactively and get them in care that they need due to the trauma that they have experienced.
Moderator: Thank you, Dr. Johnstone. Would you like to give any final remarks?
Ms. Johnstone: Yeah, thank you so much, Mary. I really just want to thank all of you very much for your time today and for your attention to this issue of human trafficking. This is a crime that unfortunately occurs around the world, and it is through people like you, the role that you as journalists play in helping raise awareness and pushing all of us governments to do better – we all can do more and can and should improve our efforts to fight human trafficking and protect the victims and survivors – and you all have an incredibly important role to play to hold us accountable, all of our governments, and to raise awareness and hopefully help us prevent the crime in the first place. So thank you very much for your attention to this issue. And with that, I wish you all a wonderful Friday.
Moderator: Well, thank you. That concludes today’s briefing. I would like to thank Acting Director of the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons Kari Johnstone, and I would also like to thank all of you for participating in this briefing, and I apologize if we were not able to get to your question today. Please stay on the line for information regarding access to an audio recording of the call. Also, please be aware that a transcript of the call will be posted to our social media platforms and sent out to all of you, usually within a day. If you have any questions about today’s call, you may contact the Asia-Pacific Media Hub at AsiaPacMedia@state.gov. Thank you.