MODERATOR: Greetings from the U.S. Department of State’s Asia Pacific Media Hub. I would like to welcome journalists to today’s on-the-record briefing with Ambassador-at-Large Cindy Dyer of the Department of State’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. Ambassador Dyer will discuss the 2023 Trafficking in Persons Report and the work the U.S. Government does to combat human trafficking in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond.
With that, let’s get started. Ambassador Dyer, I’ll turn it over to you for your opening remarks.
AMBASSADOR DYER: Good morning. I am pleased to join you for today’s call. On June 15th, Secretary Blinken released the State Department’s 2023 Trafficking in Persons Report, or the TIP Report, which examines government’s efforts to meet the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s minimum standards to combat human trafficking using a three-P framework of protecting victims, prosecuting traffickers, and preventing this crime by dismantling the systems that make it easier for traffickers to operate.
Now in its 23rd year, the report reflects the U.S. Government’s commitment to global leadership on this key human rights, law enforcement, and national security issue. It is our principal diplomatic and diagnostic tool to guide our engagement with foreign governments on human trafficking.
The theme of this year’s report also reflects our commitment to what is often called the fourth P: partnership. This year’s TIP Report introduction highlights and emphasizes the importance of partnership, shares lessons learned, and highlights elements and examples of effective partnerships between governments, international organizations, civil society, private sector entities, and other stakeholders.
This year’s TIP Report elevates important cross-cutting issues, including the non-punishment principle, unscrupulous manufacturers concealing forced labor, the vulnerability of boys to human trafficking, and online recruitment of vulnerable populations for forced labor.
And I want to highlight one rapidly growing and deeply troubling trend: forced labor and forced criminality in cyber-scam operations. Traffickers have leveraged pandemic-related economic hardships, increased global youth unemployment, and international travel restrictions to exploit thousands of adults and children in a multi-billion-dollar industry over the last two years in these operations. Many people have responded to job offers for what they think are work in IT, casinos, or other seemingly legitimate businesses. Often, these individuals are forced to participate in cyber scams under impossible quote arrangements that make them increasingly indebted to traffickers. Traffickers use this debt to exploit victims in forced labor and sex trafficking, including in special economic zones, primarily throughout Southeast Asia, but ensnaring individuals from at least 35 countries and territories.
We will continue to engage governments and authorities on the importance of proactively identifying and assisting victims and protecting people from fraudulent recruitment schemes like these, and we aim to raise awareness on this trend. We are also bringing assistance to bear where we can support government and civil society efforts to address this issue and protect victims.
Turning to the country narratives, this year’s report assessed 188 countries and territories, including the United States. Overall, there are 24 tier-ranking upgrades and 20 downgrades, compared with 21 upgrades and 18 downgrades last year. In the East Asian and Pacific region, there were seven upgrades and four downgrades. The governments of Hong Kong, Indonesia, Palau, and Tonga were upgraded to Tier 2, and the governments of Brunei, Malaysia, and Vietnam were upgraded to Tier 2 Watch List. The Government of Papua New Guinea was downgraded to Tier 3 from the Tier 2 Watch List. The governments of Solomon Islands, Marshall Islands, and Vanuatu were downgraded to Tier 2 Watch List from Tier 2.
Across the globe, downgrades this year highlight systemic gaps – governments not reporting their anti-trafficking efforts, not screening for trafficking indicators, not tackling forced labor adequately, not effectively monitoring protection systems, and not equitably implementing anti-trafficking efforts.
However, in some good news, across all data points included in the global totals tracking prosecutions, convictions, and victims identified, there were increases reported as compared to the 2022 totals. Prosecutions were higher than the years immediately preceding the pandemic, convictions continued to increase, and victim identifications increased by nearly 25,000.
Globally, efforts to prosecute and convict labor traffickers and identify labor trafficking victims were also notably higher than prior years, which we attribute both to ongoing improvements in government efforts in this area as well as better government data collection and reporting. In the East Asian and Pacific region as a whole, there was an increase in the number of traffickers prosecuted, an increase in the number of convictions of traffickers, and an increase in the number of victims of trafficking identified.
These increases are encouraging, but there remains much work to do to address significant human trafficking problems in the region. In addition to forced labor in cyber-scam operations, region-wide issues remain with labor trafficking among domestic workers, forced labor in the agricultural and fishing sectors, and official complicity in trafficking crimes, among other concerns.
Thank you so much for having me here with you today.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Ambassador Dyer. We will now turn to the question-and-answer portion of today’s briefing. I see we have two questions that are closely related, so maybe I will read them both if that’s all right. We had a question submitted in advance from Elaine Kurtenbach at the Associated Press, based in Bangkok, Thailand, who asks: “Is any work being done on the casino zones along Myanmar’s border with Laos and Thailand?” We also have a question from Michael Sullivan from NPR, who asks: “I’m curious how the U.S. is working with Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Myanmar to stop the horrific level of trafficking in the region, specifically Cambodia, the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone in Laos, and on the other side of Thailand’s western border in eastern Myanmar?”
Ambassador Dyer, I’ll turn that over to you.
AMBASSADOR DYER: Thank you. And thank you so much for this really important and timely question. As noted in the TIP Report, we featured an analysis of emerging trends, and one of those was the fraudulent recruitment of individuals from around the world into forced criminality in cyber-scam operations, which I have also heard referred to as “cyber sweatshops,” in several countries and areas, and we even highlighted it in our report in a special interest box.
And as I mentioned in the opening, we know that traffickers have leveraged these pandemic-related economic hardships, global youth unemployment, and international travel restrictions to exploit thousands of adults and children into a multi-billion-dollar industry. As the individuals specifically flagged, cyber-scam operations have been found in the following countries in the Southeast – in Southeast Asia. We have Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, and the Philippines, and specifically in some of those special economic zones.
The report also identifies that the victims of these scams have been identified from 35 countries, well all over the world. And what the U.S. Government, what we are doing to sort of combat this forced labor in these cyber-scam operations – first of all, we are encouraging governments and authorities to prioritize proactively identifying and assisting victims. We are specifically encouraging governments to proactively engage in awareness-raising campaigns to let individuals know that these scams are out there and they’re prevalent. The problem is that individuals – many of them who have education, they have a degree, they might have linguistic skills or IT skills – they are responding to job advertisements that appear to be legitimate. And so we are engaging governments to really proactively warn people so that they are protected from these fraudulent recruitment schemes.
We are also dedicating foreign assistance to build capacity in the region to address this growing trafficking problem and to protect victims. We are also using foreign assistance to help increase that awareness, which I mentioned earlier.
Another thing that we are doing is flagging that frequently, survivors who are able to escape from these situations of trafficking are often met with administrative, criminal charges, or immigration violations once they are actually released. And so we want to encourage governments not to penalize these individuals who have been forced to engage in cyber-crime operations.
We have seen some governments really doing a good job. Some of the ones that we specifically flagged in the TIP Report are Taiwan’s increased efforts to screen for victims in forced labor in cyber-scam operations and provide immunity in cases of forced criminality. We also highlighted Laos’s efforts to cooperate with international authorities to recover Lao victims from the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone; and also Hong Kong’s creation of a web-based application for victims and family members to report cases of cyber-scam operations and actually receive information.
So thank you for an opportunity to flag this really important problem.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question goes to the live queue. We have Eunjung Cho from Voice of America, based in Washington. Eunjung, you should be able to unmute yourself now.
QUESTION: Yes. Ambassador Dyer, thank you for the opportunity. North Korea is ranked Tier 3 country for 21 years, and the TIP Report points out that the North Korean Government itself is systematically involved in the human trafficking of its own citizens. How does the U.S. Government plan to make the North Korean Government accountable for these actions? And the TIP Report also points out that Russia and China are not protecting North Korean trafficking victims, especially with Russia issuing more visas than last year. So how will the U.S. make China and Russia accountable for their actions on these North Korean victims? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR DYER: Thank you for that question. And you are correct that the Government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea did not fully meet the minimum standards and did not make significant efforts to do so. In fact, the Government of the DPRK actually went one step further and was actually – had a government policy or pattern of human trafficking, which is of course one of the worst forms. We specifically saw this in prison camps as part of an established system of political repression, in labor training centers, in the mass mobilizations of adults and children, and through its imposition of forced labor on DPRK overseas workers. We also recognize that other countries who use those DPRK workers are basically helping to sponsor that state-sponsored forced labor to fund – that the government uses.
We are really having to use every resource available to us to try to counteract this problem. One of the things that we do is highlight these issues in the TIP Report. And to the reporter who asked the question, you are so correct that in addition to highlighting this in the narrative of the DPRK, we are also highlighting it in the narratives of other countries who are continuing to use North Koreans even though in 2017 the UN Security Council prohibited UN member states from doing so.
But to the reporter’s point, it is true that some governments are still allowing North Korean workers to continue to enter their countries. In particular, Russia, via fraudulent channels to work informally. And it is true that the DPRK workers are also in other countries, and when we have learned of them, we put that in the TIP Report. In addition to highlighting this in the TIP Report, we are also utilizing the restrictions of assistance. As those reporters may know, when a country is on Tier 3, they – the restrictions require that they are not able to receive forms of assistance that are not for – non-humanitarian, non-trade-related. So this can be a significant tool that we have, which is a financial hammer for being on Tier 3.
But in addition to the TIP Report and the accompanying restrictions, we are also engaging in diplomacy with our bilateral relationships, multilateral diplomacy. We are constantly making sure that people are aware, that governments are aware of what’s happening when they’re using these laborers.
And then finally, we use our grants and programming where we can. We don’t have a huge budget, but we try to make the most with what we have. And for countries that have an ability, and particularly those that really show a will to improve and do better, we can in some cases support them so that they don’t have to rely on forced labor.
So thank you for bringing this up. It is a very challenging problem and we are truly using all the resources at our – that are available.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Ambassador Dyer. Our next question was submitted in advance from Melissa Goh of Channel NewsAsia, based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, who asks, “What is the status of Malaysia in moving back to Tier 1? What else needs to be shown?”
AMBASSADOR DYER: Well, Malaysia, as I’m sure that the questioner knows, was upgraded to Tier 2 Watch List in the 2023 TIP Report. So that is good news. We assessed that while they did not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, but they had made significant efforts to do so and they demonstrated overall increasing efforts compared with the previous reporting period. Therefore, Malaysia was upgraded to the Tier 2 Watch List, up from the very bottom ranking to that next step up.
And I think it’s important to note that some of the efforts that they did were initiating more trafficking investigations, prosecuting and convicting more traffickers, and prosecuting complicit officials. They also identified more victims and they also initiated efforts and provided funding to raise awareness of trafficking on palm oil plantations, which has been a location of increased interest, and they increased training and specifically on trauma-informed approaches.
However, the government does still have really a lot of improvements that we want to see. The full list of improvements is listed in Malaysia’s narrative, but a few to highlight are that they prosecuted criminally a really small number, an insufficient number of labor traffickers in the palm oil sector and in the disposable glove manufacturing industry given the prevalence of forced labor in these two sectors. Additionally, the government did not systematically implement their own standard operating procedures to proactively identify victims, including forced labor victims, during these law enforcement raids or among the other vulnerable populations.
So while we noted some increases and we gave them credit for that, there are significant areas of improvement that we would still like to have, and we are very hopeful that they will make them because it’s important to note that Malaysia will face the TVPA special rule, which means that once you’ve been upgraded from Tier 3 up to the Tier 2 Watch List, you – there will be an increased pressure to demonstrate further progress or we will be required under the TVPA to put Malaysia back down to Tier 3.
MODERATOR: All right, thank you. Our next question comes from Francesca Regalado of Nikkei Asia, based in Bangkok, Thailand, who asks, “What stood in the way of Thailand improving its rating this year?” Over to you, Ambassador Dyer.
AMBASSADOR DYER: Thank you. As I’m sure the reporter knows, Thailand remained on Tier 2 this year. So they did not go up or down. We assessed that the Government of Thailand did not fully meet the minimum standards, but they were making significant efforts to do so. And importantly, the government demonstrated overall increasing efforts compared with the previous reporting period, so therefore, they stayed on Tier 2.
I want to highlight a couple of efforts that we specifically noted. One of them is increasing the number of trafficking investigations, prosecutions, and convictions. Thailand also initiated investigations of 35 allegedly complicit officials. And this is something that we really encourage people to do; we know that in many cases, labor traffickers rely on the complicity of government officials, and so we were very impressed that Thailand initiated investigations of 35 complicit officials and sentenced four of them to terms of imprisonment, which is another thing we’re looking for. Sometimes we see countries that, even if they have a conviction, there’s a very, very low fine or there’s no jail time. And so we were impressed that four of them did receive terms of imprisonment. The government also identified more trafficking victims and began the implementation of a new national referral mechanism. All of those things were real progress.
We did, however, note that the government did not make sufficient efforts to protect trafficking victims exploited in forced labor, specifically in those cyber-scam operations that we were speaking about previously in the neighboring countries, including Thai citizens who entered the country following their exploitation, often without legal status, and instead of identifying them as victims and providing them services, the government officials placed foreign victims in immigration detention centers and actually arrested victims, including Thai citizens, for unlawful acts that they committed solely as a direct result of being trafficked in these illicit operations.
We also noted that significant gaps in service provision did still persist, and we would like to see more comprehensive services available to all victims.
So I appreciate the question and that’s kind of an overview of Thailand.
MODERATOR: All right. We now have a follow-up from Michael Sullivan of NPR, who asks, “How responsive has Laos in particular been given that the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone appears to be a law unto itself? Thank you.”
AMBASSADOR DYER: I know we had specifically noted that a few countries were really doing – that were really trying to do a good job with regard to the repatriation and the protection of citizens who were being released from or who escaped from these cyber scams. I don’t have specific information in front of me right now regarding Laos’s specific efforts in that, but it’s something that I could definitely look into. I just don’t have that specific information about Laos’s response to that right in front of me right now.
MODERATOR: Okay. And our last – oh, our last question comes from Michelle Abad of the Rappler, in the Philippines, who asks, “Good day, Ambassador Dyer. The Philippines is on Tier 1 for the eighth straight year, but trafficking in forms of cyber-sex trafficking of children as well as the trafficking of our migrant workers to cryptocurrency scams in other Southeast Asian countries are still rampant. Just yesterday, we had news of our police rescuing over 2,700 people suspected to be trafficking victims from an online gambling facility right in the capital region. How do we reconcile this? Thank you.”
AMBASSADOR DYER: I actually am so glad that she asked that question because it applies not only to the Philippines, which is a Tier 1 country, but to every other Tier 1 country. And that is even Tier 1 countries have improvements that need to be made. And the TIP Report specifically articulates what those improvements are. They specifically have prioritized recommendations.
So, for example, in the Philippines, we absolutely lauded the government for investigating more trafficking victims, convicting more traffickers, amending its anti-trafficking law, and increasing funding. However, we absolutely noted that the government did not vigorously investigate or prosecute labor trafficking crimes that occurred within the Philippines. Additionally, the government identified fewer victims and prosecuted fewer traffickers. And in concert with what we were speaking about previously, corruption and official complicity in trafficking crimes remain significant concerns.
So while we did assess the Philippines at a Tier 1, we absolutely recognize that the Philippines and every other Tier 1 country absolutely has improvements that could be made, and we call those out in our prioritized recommendations. And importantly, we do that for the United States as well.
MODERATOR: All right. And now, Ambassador Dyer, if you have any closing remarks, I’ll turn it back over to you.
AMBASSADOR DYER: Well, I just want to sincerely thank the folks for listening and for really using your venue and your platform to raise awareness. That’s one of the best things that we can do: to raise awareness about some of these atrocities. So I just appreciate them using their platform and thanks for listening in.
MODERATOR: All right. So that brings us to the end of our time for today. Thank you for your questions and thanks to Ambassador Dyer for joining us. We will provide a transcript of this briefing to participating journalists as soon as it is available, and we’d also love to hear your feedback. You can contact us at any time at AsiaPacMedia@state.gov. Thanks again for your participation and we hope you can join us for another briefing soon.