The government maintained efforts to protect victims; however, ineffective victim identification resulted in the penalization of victims. Authorities identified 29 trafficking victims, compared to 28 in 2017. Police, immigration, and customs officials utilized a two-tiered victim identification mechanism to screen vulnerable populations; the government introduced the mechanism to 12 more police districts in 2018 so that it covered all districts. Through this mechanism, officials identified 18 trafficking victims (nine in 2017). Although the government reported conducting more screenings in 2018, observers reported ineffective implementation of the screening mechanism and a lack of understanding of psychological trauma associated with trafficking resulted in few victims identified. In July 2018, the government declared police screened for trafficking all non-local individuals found in prostitution for trafficking. However, in practice, officials often did not recognize trafficking and did not consistently screen foreign domestic workers or persons in prostitution during investigations and police operations. For example, officials arrested 11 child victims of sex trafficking during law enforcement operations and did not identify these children as trafficking victims through the screening mechanism. Authorities immediately returned all 11 to their home countries, without providing services that the government guaranteed trafficking victims or ensuring they received assistance upon their return.
Of the 18 victims identified under the screening mechanism in 2018, the government reported providing six with either permission to change their employer or visa extensions with fee waivers. In addition, authorities identified four victims who held status as claimants under the government’s process used to evaluate non-refoulement claims, which provided claimants with food allowances and living subsidies. Nonetheless, the government did not report providing further services such as counseling or medical care to identified victims. In addition, the government did not permit those under non-refoulement claims to work unless given permission on a case-by-case basis. Victims allowed temporary residency via visa extensions could not work or study in Hong Kong. The government partially subsidized six NGO-operated and three government-operated shelters that served victims of violence, abuse, and exploitation, including trafficking victims. These shelters could provide temporary accommodation, counseling, and access to public hospital medical and psychological services to local and foreign victims, regardless of gender or age. However, contacts reported officials did not consistently refer victims to services, and no trafficking victims received assistance in government-funded shelters during the reporting period. The government offered financial assistance to victims residing overseas to enable their return to Hong Kong as witnesses in prosecutions, but the government did not report extending this to any victims. The government did not report efforts, such as contacting source country governments or NGOs, to ensure the safe repatriation of victims to countries where they may face risk of hardship or retribution, or are vulnerable to re-victimization.
The government continued to penalize trafficking victims, including children exploited through “compensated dating,” victims of forced criminality, and exploited foreign domestic workers, for unlawful acts their traffickers compelled them to commit. Ineffective victim identification and interagency collaboration on trafficking resulted in the government initiating immigration proceedings against victims rather than investigating or prosecuting their traffickers. In August 2018, the government developed a joint investigative process to coordinate interviews of victims among law enforcement agencies. However, NGOs reported the implementation of this process resulted in victims having to undergo multiple interviews in one day and being asked the same questions repeatedly by different officials, sometimes for up to nine hours in one day. Hong Kong law allowed victims to seek compensation from traffickers through civil suits and labor tribunals. Hong Kong courts ruled in 2018 that migrant workers could appear in labor tribunals through video if they had returned to their home country. Nonetheless, observers reported poor translation services, lack of trained attorneys, the inability to work while awaiting a decision, and judges’ inexperience with forced labor cases sometimes impaired victims’ attempts to claim back wages or restitution through labor tribunals, and deterred some from bringing claims forward.