THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C. (Virtual)
MODERATOR: All right. Hello and welcome to the Foreign Press Center’s briefing on the 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report with Dr. Kari Johnstone, acting director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. My name is Wes Robertson and I’m the moderator for today’s briefing.
And now for the ground rules. This briefing is on the record. We’ll post a transcript and video of this briefing on our website, which is fpc.state.gov. Please make sure that your Zoom profile has your full name and the media outlet you represent. First we’ll hear from Dr. Johnstone, then we’ll open it up for questions.
Over to you, Dr. Johnstone.
MS JOHNSTONE: Thank you so much, Wes, and thank you all for joining us today. The Trafficking in Persons Report or the TIP Report is the U.S. Government’s principal diplomatic and diagnostic tool to guide relations with foreign governments on human trafficking. It is also the world’s most comprehensive resource of governmental anti-trafficking efforts and reflects the U.S. Government’s commitment to global leadership on this key human rights, law enforcement, and national security issue.
This year’s report, the 21st installment, includes the narratives for 188 countries and territories, including the United States. A country’s tier ranking reflects the State Department’s assessment of that government’s efforts during the reporting period to meet the Trafficking Victim Protection Act, or the TVPA, minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking in persons. The department strives to make the report as accurate and objective as possible, documenting the successes and shortcomings of government anti-trafficking efforts, and does not make assessments based on political considerations.
The TIP Report assesses a country’s efforts against the TVPA minimum standards and against its own efforts during the previous reporting period. It does not compare countries. It also takes into account a country’s resources and capacity when weighing factors. All governments should strive to continually improve their efforts across the 3Ps of prosecution, protection, and prevention. In fact, the TVPA requires governments to demonstrate continual progress to retain rankings on Tier 1 or Tier 2.
Tier 2 Watch List rankings are time-limited, as governments can only retain this ranking for three years; thus, here too ongoing efforts to improve are critical. For Tier 3 governments, those that are assessed as failing to make significant efforts and not meeting the minimum standards or determined to have a government policy or pattern of trafficking – for those Tier 3 countries, restrictions on assistance may apply.
The TIP Report introduction this year focuses on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on trafficking trends and anti-trafficking efforts around the world. It 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 ways to rebuild strong anti-trafficking strategies, and focuses on ways governments can prevent the compounding effects of crises on trafficking victims and vulnerable individuals.
We saw, for example, the governments of countries such as Paraguay identify significantly more trafficking victims through routine screening at pandemic quarantine facilities, or in Turkey, where the government trained shelter staff on pandemic mitigation efforts and provided COVID-19 tests and personal protective equipment to victims staying at those shelters.
Mexico secured its first trafficking in persons conviction from a virtual court session in June 2020, just weeks after resuming legal proceedings following a two-month shutdown related to the pandemic.
Lebanon and the Czech Republic extend the ability of migrants to stay in the countries for their safety and adjusted the limits of their respective visa regimes due to the pandemic.
These are but a few examples. The report outlines several more.
The introduction also sought to elevate other important themes such as the struggle to realize racial equity, the importance of survivor leadership, the harmful effects of conspiracy theories related to trafficking, and the reality of familial trafficking. We also included a box on state-sponsored trafficking in persons in the introduction and, due to the scale of the problem, one specifically on forced labor in China’s Xinjiang region and beyond.
I would also like to share some noteworthy results in tier movement within this year’s report. Overall, there are approximately the same number of downgrades and upgrades as in prior years. On a positive note, there were several upgrades due to tangible progress governments made to combat trafficking around the world. We saw progress even in countries where the trafficking challenges had been intractable over many years. Several governments received upgrades to Tier 2 for increasing efforts to address trafficking, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Dominican Republic, Jordan, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan.
Not all countries made such progress. Six countries received downgrades from Tier 1 to Tier 2 as the department assessed that the governments of Cyprus, Israel, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, and Switzerland did not meet all four of the minimum standards and were not making appreciable progress compared to the previous year.
Twelve countries were downgraded from Tier 2 to Tier 2 Watch List: Burkina Faso, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Haiti, Liberia, Palau, St. Maarten, South Africa, Thailand, Tonga, Trinidad and Tobago, and Zimbabwe. And two countries were downgraded to Tier 3. They were Guinea-Bissau and Malaysia.
The department also made the determination that 11 countries continue to have a government policy or pattern of trafficking and inadequate enforcement mechanisms. Some government officials in these countries were themselves part of the problem, directly compelling citizens or foreign nationals into sex trafficking, forced labor, or use as child soldiers. We found that officials used their power to exploit their citizens or foreign nationals, 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 11 countries that had such a government policy or pattern included Afghanistan, Burma, China, Cuba, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Russia, South Sudan, Syria, and Turkmenistan.
In Xinjiang, detention in these 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 repression. And the Cuban Government increased the number and size of overseas medical missions. Dozens of country reports include information regarding the Cuban medical mission program’s lack of transparency, unaddressed labor violations, and forced labor.
This year, 15 countries were also included on the 2021 Child Soldier Prevention Act list for having governmental armed groups or supporting nongovernmental armed groups that recruit or use children in armed conflict.
Finally, the department is recognizing eight heroes who devoted their lives to the fight against human trafficking. The 2021 TIP Report Heroes come from Albania, the Central African Republic, Gabon, Japan, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Qatar, and Spain. These individuals inspire each of us to do more to advance the global fight against human trafficking and protect the victims and survivors of this crime.
Thank you very much. With that, I will turn it back over to you, Wes.
MODERATOR: Thank you. So now we’ll take some questions. If you have questions, please go to the participant field and virtually raise your hand. We will call on you and you can unmute yourself and ask your question. You can also submit questions in the chat box. If you have not already done so, please take the time now to rename your Zoom profile with your full name and the media outlet you represent.
And also, just as an additional reminder, Dr. Johnstone is prepared to take questions on the TIP Report, but is not able to comment on specific bilateral relationships or other fields beyond the scope of the report.
Just to get us started, I do have a few questions that were submitted earlier. The first one is: “The State Department has put out this report for many years now, so what is new this year?”
MS JOHNSTONE: Thank you very much for that question, whoever submitted it. This year, the TIP Report introduction highlights some new trends, particularly the COVID-19 pandemic, which was just starting when we prepared and released the 2020 TIP Report. So this year’s report, the 21st TIP Report, focuses much attention on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. It also talks about some other important themes such as the effect of systemic racism on anti-trafficking efforts and trends and some other important issues. So I think this year through the introduction is where you will see what is most different this year.
You will also find that a lot of things are the same. We use the same minimum standards across the board from year to year to assess government efforts. Again, we’re not comparing those countries, but we are comparing governments’ effort from one year to the next, and we do so in a consistent way from year to year, and that has indeed endured this year. But we did see some important themes, particularly the impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic.
MODERATOR: Thank you. We’ll now go to our first question from participants. Pearl Matibe from Power FM, if you would like to unmute yourself and ask your question.
QUESTION: Thank you very much, Dr. Johnstone, for doing this. I really appreciate your time. My question is: You mentioned Zimbabwe and South Africa in one of your lists that you just read out in your opening remarks. Was that in reference to downgrading them or upgrading them? Because at the moment in your report, they are at Tier 2. I somehow thought that they were at that same tier last year. I’ve also seen them maybe as a Tier 1, but I seem to recall was that they’ve remained at Tier 1 and are still one of the better ones. What other countries in sub-Saharan Africa are at Tier 1?
Also, your report is somewhat different from last year’s. Last year’s had a visual map where I understand that while you do not compare country to country and you prepare – rather, are comparing year to year of a country, as reporters and journalists, our analysis is usually comparative, so we do still have that eye where we are comparing country to country, although you may not. So I hope you understand my question there.
So my concern is I just want to see what is substantially different in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly some of the countries that you mentioned in the Southern African area there. And I’m also concerned about Eswatini. We know that they’re – I just don’t know how successful they have been, but please do comment on South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia especially since they’re a Tier 1. I appreciate your time.
MS JOHNSTONE: Yeah, thank you so much for that question. I appreciate very much that while we don’t focus on comparing countries from year to year, that is a natural tendency of analysts and journalists to look at trends both regionally, sub-regionally, and across the globe.
Just to clarify, you did ask about those tier rankings in particular. South Africa was indeed – I noted that it was downgraded. Last year, it was on Tier 2. This year, it is on Tier 2 Watch List, as is also Zimbabwe. Both of those countries were downgraded. You rightly noted that Namibia, which was upgraded last year to Tier 1, remained on Tier 1 this year. So for your specific questions about tier rankings, I noted specifically South Africa and Zimbabwe because they were both downgraded this year from Tier 2 to Tier 2 Watch List.
In terms of broader trends, we do see that within the region – again, although we don’t compare country to country, we do see that there has been some progress within the region, including Namibia last year. That was the real progress star within the broader region of Africa, not only in the southern part of Africa.
And sadly, we do see that some countries like South Africa and Zimbabwe were not able to sustain their efforts and saw decreases and therefore were downgraded this year.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MODERATOR: All right. Next, we have a question from Alex from Turan News, if you want to unmute yourself and ask your question.
QUESTION: Yes, Wes, thank you so very much and great to see you. This is Alex Raufoglu from Azerbaijan’s independent news agency, Turan.
Dr. Johnstone, the Trump administration has placed Azerbaijan on its Watch List. It was, I think, for three years in a row. And as we were explained back then, you have to have a waiver to stay in the same list for a third year. And as I understand now that the State Department has changed the rules, I think, you mentioned perfectly clear that the country can be – stay in this for three years before being upgraded or downgraded. I think it is (inaudible) Tier 3 triggers sanctions or aid cuts. If that’s the case, I wonder: How are you going to count it for next year? Or what’s the strategy into Azerbaijan?
I have another question. If you please, go ahead answer to this one. Thank you.
MS JOHNSTONE: Sure. Thank you very much for that question. You rightly noted that the length of time that a country can stay on Tier 2 Watch List is time limited. It’s not a decision by the State Department but the U.S. Congress. They actually changed the law, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act that I mentioned earlier, that establishes what the criteria are, the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.
So as they reauthorized that law and updated that law, they have restricted the length of time that a country can remain to a total of three consecutive years. So this is indeed, this year in 2021, the third year that Azerbaijan is on the Tier 2 Watch List. So next year, we will be hoping to see enough progress that we will be able to recognize that with an upgrade to Tier 2. If not, we will not be able to leave Azerbaijan for a fourth consecutive year on Tier 2 Watch List next year in 2022, as you said, and our options will either be to upgrade it if we see enough progress and it meets the criteria for a Tier 2 ranking, or, unfortunately, we will be required to automatically downgrade it to Tier 3.
QUESTION: Right. Thanks so much. And I have one question about methodologies, if I may, that you have emphasized to identify violations. There is a belief in context of Azerbaijan that the scale of human trafficking is probably higher than the official figures suggest, due to certain shortcomings of the identification procedure and also the insufficient attention to international trafficking. I wonder how these – where these in your report? Thank you so much again for this opportunity.
MS JOHNSTONE: Yeah, thank you for that question. It is an important one. Measuring the scope and scale of human trafficking is a true challenge globally for the anti-trafficking community, whether for governments, experts, advocates, service providers, survivors themselves. Human trafficking is a hidden crime. Victims don’t tend to come forward like they do for many other crimes like theft or assault, and in many ways they cannot. Often, they cannot or they are afraid to do so. Traffickers often lie to their victims and tell them that if they come forward or tell anyone about their exploitation that they may be deported or arrested, which, sadly, does often happen. So it is incumbent upon governments to proactively identify those victims. That makes it really hard to measure the scope and scale of the crime.
And you are probably right that most government estimates – certainly the number of victims that are officially identified – probably are much lower than the actual number of victims that occur and are exploited in any given country. The TIP Report focuses on government efforts to address human trafficking across those 3Ps that I mentioned of prosecution, protection, and prevention. It explicitly does not measure the scale and scope of human trafficking in any given country but looks at what governments are doing and if they are meeting those minimum standard criteria that I mentioned earlier as we assess tier rankings.
QUESTION: Thanks so much.
MODERATOR: All right. Our next question is from Free Eurasia Media, if you could introduce yourself and unmute yourself and ask your question.
QUESTION: Great. Hi, yes. Ra Gore from Free Eurasia Media. Thank you, Dr. Kari Johnstone, for this opportunity. I have two questions about two different countries. First is Russia, another is Armenia.
The first question is Russia. Do you have any reports that Russian Government had a pattern of behavior of forced labor from Central Asia and the South Caucasus? I know – I’ve just seen the Northern Korea, but I haven’t seen anything about that, Central Asia and the Caucasus.
The other question is about Armenia. Did you – did you investigate that Republic of Armenia’s role in smuggling Lebanese Armenians and Syrian Armenians to Nagorno-Karabakh? Did you have any findings about what happened to these Armenians of the 2020 Karabakh war? Thank you.
MS JOHNSTONE: Thank you very much for those questions. I want to clarify that I heard you right on the first question. Did you ask if there are victims from Central Asia and the Caucasus in Russia? Was that your primary question about Russia?
QUESTION: Right. Yeah, forced labor, if Russia – Russian Government had any pattern of behavior of using forced labor from Central Asia and the Caucasus.
MS JOHNSTONE: Yeah, thank you very much for clarifying that.
You may have seen that the Government of Russia remains on Tier 3 in the TIP Report this year, as it has for the last several years. For the second year, the State Department determined that there was a government policy or pattern of forced labor. I think that maybe what you’re referring to – you referenced that the report itself specifically focuses on North Korean trafficking victims – that the Government of Russia is actively complicit in their exploitation of forced labor within the Russian Federation territory.
There are, sadly, many trafficking victims we are aware in Russia from Central Asia and the Caucasus. We haven’t seen such a widespread scale, and I don’t think that we have information necessarily about the government’s role specifically of the Government of Russia itself forcing citizens from Central Asia or the Caucasus to engage in forced labor within Russia.
But given the scale and scope of the problem and the lack of independent media and the challenges for civil society and others to operate in Russia, it is very possible that there is more of a role of the Government of Russia in this exploitation. As I said, the Government of Russia has been on Tier 3 and will remain on Tier 3 because it is not meeting the minimum standards and because of the – its role in perpetuating human trafficking.
On your other question about Armenia, I think you had asked about whether particular people were smuggled and the Government of Armenia was involved in that. We assess in the Trafficking in Persons Report specifically the crime of human trafficking, which involves the exploitation of individuals to engage in forced labor, sex trafficking, or to engage – used as child soldiers. The crime of smuggling involves illegally transporting someone across international borders. It does not involve exploitation for forced labor or sex trafficking or child soldiering. So we do not assess smuggling activities of governments within the human trafficking report.
MODERATOR: All right, I see we have a follow up question from Pearl Matibe, if you want to unmute yourself and ask your question, Pearl.
QUESTION: Yes, thank you very much for that opportunity.
Dr. Johnstone, I wonder if you could – I really would appreciate some of your insight, some of your perspective. I just heard you mention that perhaps you don’t really look at child soldiering and so on, although I do have a concern where there – we have more than a hundred armed groups in places like eastern DRC, and there’s a lot of child soldiering and issues like rape and sexual assault as weapons of war. So I guess maybe you’re not looking at those. But perhaps if you could talk about – maybe clarify that point about the child soldiering that you don’t look into, but maybe you talk a little bit about Nigeria. Do you see them favorably right now? Is there anything linked to Boko Haram? Or is Nigeria improving in terms of trafficking?
And what about the question of any people who are transiting through the continent of Africa, i.e. maybe from one point to another to take people elsewhere or to Asia or to the Middle East? I’m quite interested if Africa is being used as a transit route. Thank you.
MS JOHNSTONE: Thank you so much for those questions, Pearl, and particularly the first one gives me an opportunity to clarify. I may have misspoken. I did not say that we are not focused on child soldier concerns. In fact, we are. Many child soldier abuses are a form of human trafficking, and the Trafficking in Persons Report also publishes the Child Soldier Prevention Act list countries where, as I said at the top, governments – either government-armed forces or government-supported armed groups use or recruit children in armed conflict.
So child soldiers we absolutely do cover within the TIP Report. And in general, I would like to add that the Biden-Harris administration has made the fight against human trafficking, including the recruitment or use of child soldiers, a top priority. The United States uses the Child Soldier Prevention Act list to put on notice those countries where we have credible information of the recruitment or use of child soldiers. We monitor unlawful recruitment and use of children, and we regularly call for an end to this horrific practice.
We place great importance on ending this practice which is considered, as I said, a form of human trafficking in many circumstances, and we do so wherever it occurs. Through this abhorrent practice, governments and government-supported armed groups rob innocent children of their childhoods and may cause them to commit terrible violence, in some cases against their own loved ones and communities. So it is indeed a priority issue for this administration, the department, and within the Trafficking in Persons Report.
For your second question about Nigeria, Nigeria I mentioned at the top is indeed improving its anti-trafficking efforts, which is why this year Nigeria was upgraded in the 2021 TIP Report from Tier 2 Watch List to Tier 2. The progress that the government made specifically included convicting more traffickers and sanctioning the majority of the perpetrators with significant prison terms, it prosecuted officials suspected of being complicit in trafficking crimes, and also officials increased collaboration with foreign governments on international trafficking investigations. These are some of the ways that the Nigerian Government improved its efforts to combat human trafficking and protect the victims, which is why it was upgraded from Tier 2 Watch List to Tier 2 this year.
You also asked about smuggling and patterns of smuggling from and through African countries. Again, the TIP Report focuses on the exploitation of human trafficking that may involve movement, and sometimes there is some overlap with smuggling crimes and the illegal movement of people across borders, but we focus primarily on the crime of human trafficking and exploitation through forced labor, sex trafficking, or the use of children in armed conflict, rather than on smuggling, which is a separate crime against countries’ migration practices or laws.
Thank you very much.
MODERATOR: All right, I have one question that was submitted from Mike Wagenheim from, let’s see – sorry, that’s i24 Israel. His question is: “Thanks for doing this. Secondly, I’m looking at Israel’s profile as it was downgraded to Tier 2. Is there any coordination between Israel and the Palestinian Authority on anti-trafficking efforts?”
MS JOHNSTONE: Thank you very much for that question, and you rightly noted that this year Israel was downgraded from Tier 1 to Tier 2 because the Government of Israel did not meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, although it did make significant efforts to do so. Because the government decreased its efforts in several areas, it was downgraded to Tier 2.
I’ll be a little more specific. In particular, the government’s victim identification policies sometimes re-traumatized trafficking victims and delayed access to necessary care, sometimes for years, which meant the trafficking victims did not get the care that they need, often for great periods of time.
In addition, the government decreased overall efforts to investigate, prosecute, and convict traffickers. For the fifth consecutive year, the police anti-trafficking coordinating unit, which was the only authority to officially recognize victims of trafficking, remained severely understaffed, which further affected the efficiency of victim identification procedures and referral of victims to protective services – the care that I mentioned.
And finally, government policies toward foreign workers increased their vulnerability to trafficking, and the government did not consistently investigate trafficking cases that were referred to them by NGOs.
MODERATOR: I don’t see any additional questions at this point, so we’ll give it a second or two. If you have additional questions, please raise your hand and we will call on you. There’s one more from Pearl if we have time for that. All right, go ahead, Pearl.
QUESTION: Dr. Johnstone, if you can bear with me, I’m quite happy to ask many more questions. But I know you said – we were told at the top that you’re going to focus specifically on the TIP Report, but obviously there’s still, like – I still wonder about where and how this report is used as a diplomatic tool. Like, what is an example? Like, maybe give us a basic idea to help us as journalists to understand, so that when we’re reporting we have a clearer picture. This tool – how – what examples, for example – you’ve done all this work, all this fantastic work. Help us understand where this tool and how this tool might be used, or maybe cite a past example.
MS JOHNSTONE: Yeah, thank you so much for that question. This is something that we focused on ourselves as we work so hard year-round with our colleagues throughout the State Department and our embassies overseas, both to engage on human trafficking and to gather and asses information for the Trafficking in Persons Report. We do, in fact, see that there is impact, that our engagement and the TIP Report as well as our foreign assistance programs, both at our office and other colleagues throughout the federal government, have specifically to help governments and civil society improve their anti-trafficking framework and their efforts so that they can both prosecute the traffickers as well as find and protect victims with the kind of comprehensive, trauma-informed care that the victims need.
We have many examples, thankfully, that we can share and that the report highlights of progress. I noted a few of those in my opening remarks where we saw progress this year, and we believe that at least some of that is the impact of the broader anti-trafficking community and that this report helped shine a spotlight, and that the specific recommendations that we include every year for governments that are tailored to the particular issues in those country, we hope that those recommendations – and believe that they are also making a difference.
So some of the specific ways – I mentioned at the top some adaptations that governments have made specifically during the COVID-19 pandemic. I won’t repeat those but will again maybe suggest if you’re interested in looking at those in more detail, the introduction of this year’s report outlines some more of those examples.
In addition, we also saw that many governments have adopted or further refined their anti-trafficking legal framework that gives them better tools to both prosecute the traffickers, bring them to justice, hold them accountable, and also to find and protect the victims. And indeed, many governments did do just that. They increased their ability to identify and care for victims through increased shelters that they had provided, fuller and more comprehensive care for those victims. Some governments also passed laws that made it not legally possible to punish trafficking victims for crimes that traffickers compelled them to commit. So we do see that there is impact across a wide array of government commitments across the 3Ps of prosecution, protection, and prevention.
MODERATOR: All right. Well, I don’t see any additional questions at this time, so I want to say thank you. Do you have any closing remarks or statement you’d like to make, Dr. Johnstone?
MS JOHNSTONE: I really just want to thank all of you for your time and your attention to this issue. It is truly a partnership between our government and other governments and the important role that journalists play in raising awareness about these crimes, about the abuse and exploitation that victims endure, and holding all of us accountable so that all of us continue – can continue to improve our own efforts. We all have room for improvement. So thank you very much for the important role that you play in combating this horrible crime, and thanks again for your time.
MODERATOR: All right, this concludes our briefing. I want to give special thanks to our briefer for sharing her time with us today, and thank you to all of you who participated. Thank you and have a good day.