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BHUTAN: Tier 3

The Government of Bhutan does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so. Therefore Bhutan was downgraded to Tier 3. Despite the lack of significant efforts, the government took some steps to address trafficking, including continuing to fund an NGO that could provide shelter and services to female and child trafficking victims and continuing to work with an international organization on standard operating procedures (SOPs) for victim identification and referral. The government continued one potential trafficking prosecution, two potential trafficking investigations, and initiated one potential trafficking investigation. However, the government did not report convicting any traffickers or, for the third consecutive year, identifying any victims, although it reported limited efforts to protect previously identified trafficking victims. While the government took steps to finalize the SOPs, it did not complete them during the reporting period for the fourth consecutive year. The government’s laws did not criminalize all forms of trafficking, which led to the dismissal of at least one suspected trafficking case.

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. • Finalize and disseminate SOPs for proactive victim identification and referral to services, and train officials on their use. • Vigorously investigate and prosecute trafficking cases. • Train officials on implementation of anti-trafficking laws, victim identification, and victim referral procedures. • Take steps to eliminate all recruitment fees charged to workers by recruitment agents, and investigate claims of nonpayment of wages, contract switching, and illegal fees charged by agents. • Undertake and publish a comprehensive assessment of all forms of human trafficking in Bhutan, including labor trafficking of men. • Continue to fund NGOs that provide shelter and services to trafficking victims. • Increase awareness of human trafficking through public events, media, and written materials for vulnerable populations. • Accede to the 2000 UN TIP Protocol.

The government maintained limited anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts. The law criminalized some forms of sex trafficking 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. In the previous reporting period, the government steering committee for an international organization’s anti-trafficking program had recommended that the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) review the legal code and propose changes to align the law with international trafficking standards. The OAG did not report reviewing the legal code during the reporting period. Officials acknowledged the legal code’s inconsistencies with international trafficking standards resulted in confusion on the definition of trafficking and the dismissal of at least one alleged trafficking case.

The government did not report anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts. Media reported that the government initiated one potential sex trafficking investigation, and continued two potential labor trafficking investigations from the previous reporting period. The government continued prosecution of one individual for “human trafficking” as defined in Bhutanese law; however, because the definition of human trafficking in Bhutanese law is inconsistent with the international definition of human trafficking, it was unclear if this case was human trafficking or illegal recruitment. In one of the labor trafficking investigations, which included indicators of forced labor, OAG dropped the charges because Bhutanese law required trafficking to be for an “illegal purpose,” and recruitment of women for employment was a “lawful purpose,” even if the labor was exploitative. OAG reported that because the recruiter was unregistered, authorities could prosecute him under the labor act, although the government did not report whether it had done so. The government did not report any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of government officials complicit in human trafficking. In partnership with an international organization, the Department of Law and Order (DLO) and the National Commission for Women and Children (NCWC)—an independent government commission—held trainings for law enforcement and prosecutors. The government acknowledged that limited capacity, resources, and awareness of the crime remained obstacles to anti-trafficking efforts. 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.

The government maintained minimal victim identification and protection efforts. The government did not report data on efforts to identify trafficking victims. The government did not identify any trafficking victims the previous reporting period. With an international organization, the government continued to draft and finalize SOPs on victim identification and referral. RBP maintained women and child protection units at three police stations and women and child desks at 10 stations—an increase from eight units and desks the previous reporting period. These units led coordination on cases involving women and children, including coordinating protective services. RBP was responsible for referring potential victims to NCWC or an NGO. As the government did not report identifying any trafficking victims, however, it was unclear if it referred any victims to NCWC or an NGO during the reporting period. NCWC could provide case management assistance, including legal aid, in collaboration with the RBP. During the reporting period, NCWC assisted a Bhutanese trafficking victim exploited abroad in securing employment upon return to Bhutan, and NCWC continued to monitor the well-being of three trafficking victims repatriated to Bhutan in the previous reporting period. The government did not have any shelter facilities that could accommodate trafficking victims, but it continued to fund an NGO that provided 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 primarily aided victims of domestic, sexual, and gender-based violence and was available to assist trafficking victims. No shelter facility could accommodate male trafficking victims.

In March 2018, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) was reportedly attempting to locate and repatriate 12 Bhutanese potential trafficking victims exploited in domestic work in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region. The government did not report if it located or repatriated any of the 12 during the reporting period. In December 2018, approximately 200 Bhutanese students in the Bhutan Employment Overseas’ (BEO) “Learn to Earn” program, a government-approved work-study program in Japan, reported the jobs they were offered did not provide sufficient income and were facing difficulties. Media reported some of the students described experiencing indicators of forced labor, including passport retention and illegal wage deductions, although the government reported all students were in possession of their passports. Neither government provided repatriation, so some students reportedly took on additional debt to finance repatriation, remained in Japan without a job, or returned to Bhutan. The immigration department mandated authorities to report suspected foreign trafficking victims within Bhutan to NCWC before initiating deportation for immigration violations; it is unclear if similar policies existed for potential foreign male trafficking victims in Bhutan. 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 limited efforts to prevent human trafficking. DLO continued to lead regular meetings with government stakeholders on trafficking. The government did not have a national action plan to combat trafficking. An international organization conducted, and government agencies assisted with, 18 awareness-raising events in five districts to sensitize drayang (karaoke bar) dancers, taxi drivers, airline employees, and district officials to trafficking. The Department of Labor’s July 2017-June 2018 annual report documented 211 complaints of nonpayment of wages and five complaints of non-release of personal documents in Bhutan. The government did not report how many of these claims it referred to law enforcement or settled with fines or administrative penalties.

The Bhutan Labor and Employment Act of 2007 required labor recruitment agencies to be licensed and abide by the same labor laws as employers. The Ministry of Labor and Human Rights (MoLHR) registered foreign migrant workers in Bhutan, monitored working conditions, and produced and disseminated pamphlets advising workers of their rights, including full and prompt payment of wages and entitlement to retain personal identity documents. MoLHR also monitored seven licensed employment agencies to assist Bhutanese citizens older than age 21 seeking work overseas, the same as in the previous reporting period. MoLHR continued to publicly list on its website the four recruitment agencies suspended the previous year, but it did not report if it levied civil or criminal penalties against the agencies, or whether it suspended additional agencies during the current reporting period. MoLHR reportedly continued to investigate unregistered recruitment agencies during the reporting period. MoLHR provided potential migrant workers with information about destination countries, including laws, through in-person briefings, social media, and pamphlets on migrant-worker rights. Additionally, police began educating and informing about trafficking those who applied for the mandatory police clearance required to work abroad. Government regulations on overseas employment allowed most 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. During the reporting period, according to media reports, a number of Bhutanese students in the “Learn to Earn Program” in Japan reported indicators of forced labor, including regular deductions of up to one-quarter of their paychecks as a “commission,” which was not part of the original contract; passport retention; harsh working conditions; and threats to not report these abuses. The government looked into the charges, prepared to send a high-level delegation to investigate the allegations, and reported students were in possession of their passports. It did not report any actions taken against BEO or suspension of the program. The government did not make efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts or forced labor. The government did not provide anti-trafficking training for its diplomatic personnel. Bhutan is not a party to the 2000 UN TIP Protocol.

As reported over the past five years, in a number of cases, human traffickers have exploited domestic victims in Bhutan or victims from Bhutan abroad, and foreigners in Bhutan may be vulnerable to human traffickers. Bhutanese who migrate overseas for work are vulnerable to human trafficking by unlicensed or unscrupulous recruitment agents. During the reporting period, Bhutanese youth in a work-study program in Japan reported conditions indicative of forced labor. Bhutanese women and girls in domestic work are vulnerable to sex trafficking and labor trafficking, including debt bondage and threats of physical abuse. Traffickers may have exploited Bhutanese girls working as entertainers in drayangs in labor trafficking. Relatives transport rural Bhutanese to urban areas for employment in domestic work, which at times may involve forced labor. LGBTI Bhutanese individuals may be vulnerable to human traffickers. An expanding construction sector continues to increase the demand for low-skilled foreign labor. Indian migrant workers—including men in the construction and hydropower sectors and women and girls serving as domestic workers or caregivers—were vulnerable to labor trafficking in Bhutan. NGOs assess Bhutanese and Indian women and children face increased risk to forced labor and sex trafficking in the growing hospitality and entertainment districts, including nightclubs, along the Bhutanese-Indian border.

U.S. Department of State

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