BHUTAN: Tier 2 Watch List

The Government of Bhutan does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so. The government demonstrated significant efforts during the reporting period by maintaining two women and child protection units and funding an NGO to provide shelter to women and child victims of crime, including human trafficking. The government also conducted an awareness event in partnership with NGOs and UNICEF for 200 drayang (karoke bar) dancers and their employers and continued to provide Bhutanese migrant workers with information about destination countries and migrant worker rights. However, the government did not demonstrate increasing efforts compared to the previous reporting period. The government did not report initiating any new trafficking case investigations or prosecutions, convicting any traffickers, or identifying any victims during the reporting period, despite an increase in media reports of possible trafficking cases. While the government continued to work with an international organization to draft standard operating procedures (SOPs) for victim identification and referral, for the third consecutive year it had not finalized and adopted the SOPs. The government’s laws did not criminalize all forms of trafficking, and understanding and awareness of trafficking crimes remained low. Therefore Bhutan was downgraded to Tier 2 Watch List.

Finalize and disseminate SOPs for proactive victim identification and referral to protection services; amend penal code sections 154 and 227 and section 224 of the Child Care and Protection Act to bring the definition of human trafficking in line with the 2000 UN TIP Protocol; vigorously investigate and prosecute trafficking cases; train officials on the implementation of anti-trafficking laws and victim identification and referral procedures; take steps to eliminate all recruitment fees charged to workers by recruitment agents; undertake and publish a comprehensive assessment of all forms of human trafficking, including labor trafficking of men; continue to fund NGOs that provide protective services to trafficking victims; continue to conduct human trafficking awareness events and disseminate awareness materials among vulnerable populations; and accede to the 2000 UN TIP Protocol.

The government decreased anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts. The law criminalized some forms of sex and labor trafficking. Section 154 of the penal code criminalized a person who “recruits, transports, sells or buys, harbors or receives a person through the use of threat or force or deception within, into, or outside of Bhutan for any illegal purpose.” Inconsistent with international law, this definition required the purpose of the human trafficking crime to be “illegal” rather than specifically for an exploitative purpose, such as forced labor or sex trafficking. Section 227 of the penal code defined trafficking to include buying, selling, or transporting a child for any illegal purpose. Section 379 of the penal code defined trafficking as selling, buying, or transporting a person into or outside of Bhutan for the purposes of prostitution. Section 224 of The Child Care and Protection Act (CCPA) criminalized child trafficking but, inconsistent with international law, required a demonstration of force, fraud, or coercion to constitute a child sex trafficking offense, and therefore did not criminalize all forms of child sex trafficking. Section 154 of the penal code prescribed punishment ranging from three to five years imprisonment; section 227 from five to nine years; section 379 from five years to life imprisonment; and section 224 of the CCPA from five to nine years. These punishments were sufficiently stringent and, with respect to sex trafficking, commensurate with penalties prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape. The Labor and Employment Act criminalized most forms of forced labor with sufficiently stringent penalties ranging from three to five years imprisonment. The government steering committee of an international organization anti-trafficking program recommended the Office of the Attorney General’s (OAG) national law review task force review the legal code and propose changes to align the law with international standards. The government did not report initiating any new trafficking case investigations or prosecutions, or securing any convictions during the reporting period, compared with one investigation and one prosecution initiated in the previous reporting period. A lower court acquitted a defendant of human trafficking charges in a case filed in a previous reporting period. The OAG appealed the case to the high court; the verdict remained pending at the end of the reporting period. The government did not report any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of government officials complicit in human trafficking.

While the government stated its commitment to anti-trafficking, it also acknowledged its efforts were hampered by low capacity and awareness of the crime. The lack of diplomatic relationships with destination countries and mutual law enforcement agreements hindered the ability of the Royal Bhutan Police (RBP) to properly investigate possible cases of transnational trafficking. In partnership with an international organization, the Department of Law and Order (DLO) and the National Commission for Women and Children (NCWC)—an autonomous agency funded by the government—held trainings for law enforcement and prosecutors.

The government decreased protection efforts. The government did not report identifying any victims in the reporting period, compared with two potential victims identified in 2016. For the third consecutive year, the government, with support from an international organization, continued to draft SOPs on victim identification and referral. DLO held a consultative meeting with government stakeholders to finalize the SOPs but, at the end of the reporting period, the SOPs had not been adopted. RBP maintained two women and child protection units and eight desks, responsible for coordination with other agencies on matters relating to women and children and ensuring acts related to their protection were implemented. RBP referred potential victims to NCWC and an NGO on an ad hoc basis. NCWC could provide legal aid, assistance during judicial proceedings, and case management in collaboration with the RBP. The government continued to fund an NGO to provide shelter to women and child victims of crime, including human trafficking, and legal aid, counseling, vocational, and life skills to men, women, and children. The NGO was mandated to specifically aid victims of domestic, sexual, and gender-based violence and had limited capacity to serve potential trafficking victims. There was no shelter facility for men.

In January 2018, media reported the government assisted three women who had been sent to Iraq as domestic workers by an unregistered foreign employment agent and experienced exploitation and abuse; once the women were in Nepal, the government provided logistical support and airfare for their return to Bhutan. NCWC provided counseling and other psycho-social support to the three women and their families. At the end of the reporting period, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) was reportedly attempting to locate and repatriate 12 other Bhutanese domestic workers in situations of exploitation in Iraq. The immigration department mandated the reporting of suspected cases of trafficking of foreign women and children to NCWC before initiating deportation for immigration violations; it is unclear if similar policies existed for potential foreign male victims. Bhutanese law did not provide legal alternatives to removal of trafficking victims to countries in which victims would face retribution or hardship.

The government maintained efforts to prevent human trafficking. The government did not have a national action plan to combat trafficking. In the previous reporting period, the Cabinet removed NCWC, with a mission that encompasses only women and children, as the head of the anti-trafficking coordination body and appointed DLO. DLO led regular meetings with government stakeholders during the reporting period. The government continued to actively collaborate with an international organization on a project designed to enhance government and civil society responses to trafficking. In partnership with Bhutan InfoComm and Media Authority, RBP, NGOs and UNICEF, the Ministry of Labour and Human Resources (MoLHR), conducted an awareness event for 200 drayang (karoke bar) dancers and their employers to provide information on human trafficking legal provisions, reporting mechanisms, and protection services.

The Bhutan Labor and Employment Act of 2007 required labor recruitment agencies to be licensed and abide by the same labor laws as employers. MoLHR registered foreign migrant workers, monitored working conditions, and produced and disseminated pamphlets advising workers of their rights in Bhutan, including employer-paid medical exams, full and prompt payment of wages, and entitlement to retain personal identity documents. MoLHR licensed and monitored seven employment agencies to assist Bhutanese citizens over age 21 seeking work overseas, an increase from five agencies in 2016. MoLHR provided potential Bhutanese migrant workers with information about destination countries, including culture, environment, and laws, through in-person briefings and social media, and disseminated a pamphlet on migrant-worker rights. Government regulations on overseas employment allowed agents to charge Bhutanese migrant workers a recruitment fee of one month’s salary and most recruitment expenses, except for costs associated with a visa or work permit; reportedly, these fees were only collected after successful placement with an employer. Media reported MoLHR investigated the claims of 42 Bhutanese migrant workers against a licensed recruitment agency for misrepresenting the terms of employment, including hours and wages; at the end of the reporting period the MoLHR website publically listed this agency’s license as terminated however, the government did not report if the agency faced criminal or civil penalties.

In July 2017, media reported two registered educational consultancy and placement firms—agencies that help Bhutanese navigate postsecondary education abroad— had illegally sent women to Kuwait, Oman, and United Arab Emirates for domestic work. The women had their identification documents and cell phones taken away and were forced to work as many as 16 hours a day for less than the promised salary. Media reported the MFA and the MoLHR intervened to help the women return to Bhutan at the expense of the firms. The Ministry of Education removed these firms from its website of registered consultancies and while the media reported OAG would prosecute the cases, it is unknown if it did. The government did not make efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts or forced labor. Bhutan is not a party to the 2000 UN TIP Protocol.

As reported over the last five years, Bhutan is a source and destination country for men, women, and children vulnerable to forced labor and sex trafficking. Bhutanese who migrate overseas for work are vulnerable to human trafficking by unlicensed or unscrupulous recruitment agents. Bhutanese girls—working as domestic servants and entertainers in drayangs or Bhutanese karaoke bars—may be subjected to sex trafficking and labor trafficking coerced by debt and threats of physical abuse. Rural Bhutanese are transported to urban areas, generally by relatives, for employment in domestic work, which at times involves forced labor. LGBTI Bhutanese individuals may be vulnerable to human trafficking. While most domestic workers in Bhutan are young girls from poor, rural areas of the country, Indian women and girls also seek employment in this sector. An expanding construction sector continues to increase demand for low-skilled foreign labor, primarily men from India who are vulnerable to trafficking.

U.S. Department of State

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