The government decreased overall anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts; the absence of laws that fully criminalize trafficking made it difficult to accurately assess the government’s prosecution efforts compared to the previous year and made it difficult to determine which law enforcement actions involved human trafficking as defined by international law. Hong Kong law did not criminalize all forms of human trafficking, and the government relied on various provisions of laws relating to prostitution, immigration, employment, and physical abuse to prosecute trafficking crimes. Inconsistent with international law, Section 129 of the crimes ordinance, which criminalized “trafficking in persons to or from Hong Kong,” required transnational movement and did not require the use of force, fraud, or coercion. Section 129 prescribed penalties of up to 10 years’ imprisonment, which were sufficiently stringent and, with respect to sex trafficking, commensurate with punishments prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape. Section 130 criminalized the harboring, controlling, or directing of a person for the purpose of prostitution and prescribed penalties of up to 14 years’ imprisonment. Section 131 criminalized procuring a person to engage in commercial sex acts and prescribed penalties of up to 10 years’ imprisonment. Section 137 criminalized living on the earnings of commercial sex acts of others and prescribed penalties of up to 10 years’ imprisonment.
The government reported investigating nine cases related to sex trafficking in 2019, a significant decrease compared with 136 investigations in 2018. The government did not report investigating, prosecuting, or convicting any cases of labor trafficking in 2019, an overall decrease compared with 14 investigations, two prosecutions, and zero convictions in 2018. The government did not report the number of sex trafficking prosecutions initiated in 2019, but it reported arresting five suspects (19 in 2018) during investigations for offenses related to sex trafficking, including for violations of section 137 of the crimes ordinance. Courts convicted 10 offenders for sex trafficking related crimes in 2019 (seven in 2018), and sentenced nine to terms of imprisonment ranging from approximately two to 10 months. The government did not report any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of government employees complicit in human trafficking offenses.
The justice department appointed two additional prosecutors to its designated team responsible for prosecuting trafficking related crimes, and the customs department established a four-person team to train and support front-line staff on trafficking issues. The police force hired an additional 26 officers dedicated to investigating trafficking and exploitation of foreign domestic workers. The government reported having designated points of contact for trafficking issues within relevant agencies since 2018; nonetheless, civil society organizations reported being unable to reach these contacts, including when attempting to refer victims to police, and some reported government officials were unable to ever direct them to a person responsible for trafficking. The immigration and customs departments continued to provide anti-trafficking training to new employees, and the government cosponsored a two-day training with the EU for law enforcement, labor, social welfare, and immigration officials. The police force continued to make an online training available for police officers, and 120 front-line police officers attended a training organized by the Organized Crime and Triad Bureau. In December 2019, the government developed and distributed an information packet on trafficking for officials likely to come into contact with victims.
Law enforcement officials often did not adequately investigate trafficking cases, including those referred to them by NGOs, sometimes dropped cases with clear indicators of trafficking, and did not employ a victim-centered, trauma-informed approach when interviewing victims. The government reported utilizing a “joint investigative process” in trafficking cases to coordinate interviews of victims among law enforcement agencies; however, observers reported weak coordination between law enforcement agencies in practice, which resulted in agencies separately investigating different aspects of cases. Law enforcement also did not adequately investigate operators of unscrupulous employment agencies or money lenders for their roles in facilitating labor trafficking through debt-based coercion. The absence of laws criminalizing all forms of trafficking impeded officials’ ability to investigate or charge suspected traffickers, especially in cases where the exploitation began in a victim’s home country. This also resulted in the prosecution of trafficking crimes under laws with weak penalties. NGOs reported judicial officials lacked an awareness of trafficking. While the government reported granting immunity to two potential victims to allow them to testify in courts in 2019, well-founded fears of penalization reportedly resulted in many victims choosing not to report their exploitation or declining to cooperate with authorities in investigations.