The government decreased victim identification and protection efforts. The government identified fewer victims than the previous reporting period, failed to identify trafficking victims among Sri Lankan migrant workers exploited abroad, and lacked adequate protection for Sri Lankan trafficking victims abroad. The government identified 13 trafficking victims during the reporting period, a significant decrease from 66 potential trafficking victims identified the previous reporting period. This was relatively low in contrast with the 11,215 migrant workers at its embassies overseas in the same period, many of whom were suspected female labor trafficking victims who had fled abusive employers. Among the 13 victims, authorities identified five female sex trafficking victims exploited within the country (including three children) and eight forced labor victims (four male and four female) exploited in various countries abroad; all 13 victims were Sri Lankan nationals. NGOs identified at least 18 Sri Lankan female victims of forced labor in domestic work in the Gulf during the reporting period. Moreover, between January 2019 and February 2020, NGOs and the government repatriated an additional 1,107 female migrant workers, primarily from Kuwait, who reported abuses indicative of trafficking, including non-payment of wages. The government had standard operating procedures (SOPs) for the identification and referral of potential victims to services but did not implement them uniformly; both government representatives and members of civil society stated the capacity of local officials to identify trafficking victims remained low, especially among women in commercial sex. Officials and NGOs often failed to identify forced labor and sex trafficking that did not involve transnational movement, especially of children, and categorized those cases as other crimes.
During the reporting period, the Ministry of Women and Child Affairs closed its trafficking-specific shelter for female victims due to lack of usage but made space available for trafficking victims within a shelter for female victims of domestic violence. Use of the government-funded shelter required a magistrate’s order; therefore, trafficking victims who did not seek court assistance could not obtain shelter. No government shelter could accommodate male victims, although the government stated it could provide shelter if male victims sought it. No identified victims requested shelter during the reporting period. The government partnered with international organizations to provide medical, psycho-social, legal, and some reintegration support to identified victims regardless of their decision to cooperate with law enforcement. Observers reported reintegration assistance remained inadequate to support victims.
Sri Lankan authorities continued to penalize individuals, including children, for prostitution, vagrancy, or immigration offenses with inconsistent efforts to screen for trafficking. One NGO reported that some child trafficking victims arrested for prostitution crimes in previous reporting periods remained in government and privately operated childcare institutions. Officials and NGOs reported that due to a lack of oversight, shelter workers and older residents in some government- and privately run homes sexually exploited child residents, possibly including trafficking victims. Police continued to raid spas and massage parlors to identify individuals in commercial sex and did not identify any children during the reporting period. When properly identified, the government did not penalize trafficking victims for unlawful acts traffickers compelled them to commit. Law enforcement reported many victims were reluctant to pursue cases against their alleged traffickers due to the social stigma attached with trafficking, and many victims outside of Colombo could not afford the travel required to assist in prosecution of their traffickers. While Sri Lankan law had established a victim and witness compensation fund to assist in these circumstances, the government did not provide any funding to trafficking victims or witnesses during the reporting period. It did, however, order traffickers to pay victims restitution in three cases.
When authorities officially identified foreign victims of trafficking, the victims had equal access to rehabilitation services. Foreign victims who cooperated in prosecutions could receive a visa extension until the end of the trial; however, Sri Lankan law did not provide foreign victims with legal alternatives to deportation to countries where they might face hardship or retribution after trial completion or for victims who did not cooperate in the prosecution of traffickers. The government did not identify any foreign victims in Sri Lanka during the reporting period.
SLBFE operated 15 short-term shelters at Sri Lankan diplomatic missions in 14 countries for female migrant workers in distress. Reporting more comprehensive statistics than in previous years, the shelters served 11,215 migrant workers from April through November 2019, compared with 1,806 in the previous reporting period. NGOs continued to identify large numbers of Sri Lankan female labor trafficking victims in Gulf countries, so while SLBFE reported screening this population for trafficking, the efficacy of the screening was unclear. Officials continued to report that migrant workers who had gone abroad illegally or who possessed expired work permits could not also be trafficking victims, which conflated human trafficking with migrant smuggling. Embassy shelters could only accommodate females, so it was unclear where exploited male migrant workers stayed before repatriation. Some migrant workers at the shelters reported poor conditions, including inadequate food, unsanitary living conditions, insufficient legal assistance, and in some cases verbal abuse from embassy officials. Only Sri Lankan workers who had registered with SLBFE prior to departure could access legal assistance from Sri Lankan embassies, including assistance securing back wages from employers. Moreover, although SLBFE maintained district-level offices, it usually required repatriated migrant workers to visit the main office in Colombo to launch an investigation into recruitment and labor violations, including trafficking, which many of the indebted and daily wage workers could not afford. As a result, trafficking victims continued to withdraw complaints or not come forward. Some officials at SLBFE reported that, contrary to the SOPs, SBLFE officials only referred trafficking victims to services after initiating a police investigation.
SLBFE continued to operate a transit shelter near the Colombo airport, primarily for returned migrant workers who suffered abuse abroad. From April to November 2019, SLBFE assisted 2,252 migrants at the shelter, compared with 3,238 workers assisted in 2017 (the government did not report 2018 assistance numbers), and it did not identify trafficking victims among those assisted. As in previous years, the lack of government identification of trafficking victims contrasted with the complaints from workers abroad. In 2017, the most recent year for which such data was available, 4,326 Sri Lankan migrant workers in 22 countries reported labor-related complaints to SLBFE, including indicators of trafficking. The vast majority of complainants were females in domestic work in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, and UAE; men in both skilled and unskilled labor in Saudi Arabia also reported many labor violations. The SLBFE shelter, which provided short-term care, did not routinely inform suspected trafficking victims of the longer-term services available through Ministry of Women and Child Affairs. In some cases, Sri Lankan diplomatic missions continued to provide funding and logistical support to international organizations that repatriated Sri Lankan migrant workers exploited abroad. In collaboration with NGOs, the government facilitated repatriation of approximately 248 workers in 2019, compared with approximately 204 in 2018. Based on the number of trafficking victims the government reported identifying during the reporting period, it did not identify the majority of these repatriated workers as trafficking victims.