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BHUTAN: Tier 2 Watch List

The Royal Government of Bhutan does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but is making significant efforts to do so. These efforts included amending Section 154 of the penal code to further align the definition of trafficking with the definition under international law, finalizing a national prevention strategy (NPS) on trafficking, expanding funding to NGOs for shelter services, and funding the repatriation and support services for 160 Bhutanese women who were victims of trafficking in the Gulf. In addition, the government continued to work with an international organization on anti-trafficking trainings and public awareness events. However, the government did not demonstrate overall increasing efforts compared to the previous reporting period, even considering the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on its anti-trafficking capacity. Bhutan’s trafficking laws do not criminalize all forms of child sex trafficking. Officials did not initiate any new trafficking cases, convict any traffickers, or identify any new trafficking victims during the reporting period. Therefore Bhutan remained on Tier 2 Watch List for the second consecutive year.

Amend anti-trafficking laws to ensure that a demonstration of force, fraud, or coercion is not required to constitute a child sex trafficking offense, consistent with international law. • Vigorously investigate, prosecute, and convict traffickers with significant terms of imprisonment. • Increase proactive trafficking victim identification, including by training officials on, and implementing, existing standard operating procedures (SOPs). • Draft and finalize a national action plan to combat trafficking. Disseminate information and train officials on the amended Penal Code Section 154 and the implementation of anti-trafficking laws. • Train and instruct labor inspectors to screen cases of labor violations for indicators of forced labor, including nonpayment of wages, and refer to police for criminal investigation. • Finalize and implement guidelines to oversee drayangs, including ensuring workers have access to contracts. • 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. • Increase awareness of human trafficking, including forced labor of Bhutanese students abroad. • Accede to the 2000 UN TIP Protocol.

The government increased anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts. The law criminalized all forms of labor trafficking and some forms of sex trafficking. During the reporting period, the government amended Section 154 of the penal code, which criminalized “trafficking in persons,” to further align the definition of trafficking with the definition under international law. Specifically, the amended legislation defined trafficking as incorporating any form of exploitation and removed a previous provision that required prosecutors to prove that trafficking was conducted for an “illegal purpose.” Under the current provision, all forms of adult sex trafficking, adult labor trafficking, and child labor trafficking are criminalized. However, the law defined trafficking to require a demonstration of force, fraud, or coercion, which is inconsistent with international law for child sex trafficking, thereby failing to criminalize all forms of child sex trafficking. Similarly, Section 224 of The Child Care and Protection Act (CCPA) criminalized child trafficking but, inconsistent with international law, also 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 379 of the penal code defined “trafficking a person for prostitution” as selling, buying, or transporting a person into or outside of Bhutan for the purposes of prostitution. Section 154 of the Penal Code prescribed punishment ranging from three to five years’ imprisonment; 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 abduction.

The government did not initiate any new investigations but did reinvestigate one case and made new arrests in existing cases during the reporting period, compared with two investigations in the previous reporting period. In 2020, the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) prosecuted three suspects for labor trafficking of three Bhutanese women in a case stemming from 2018 and continued two previous prosecution cases, compared with three prosecutions the previous year. Authorities arrested 12 individuals in ongoing forced labor cases during the reporting period, including nine in relation to a 2019 case in which 160 Bhutanese women were exploited for domestic service in Iraq, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Investigation of the employment agencies involved in the case remained ongoing. Three additional individuals were charged in a 2018 case of three Bhutanese women rescued in India who were en route to Iraq, where investigators believed they would be forced into domestic service. In 2019, Bhutanese law enforcement arrested two suspects in this case. A Bhutanese request for the extradition from India of a third alleged Bhutanese trafficker was unsuccessful. In 2020, the government reinvestigated the case, which led to the arrests. At the end of the reporting period, the trial remained ongoing. An ongoing OAG appeal of the dismissal of trafficking charges in a 2018 case, in which a suspect was charged with child trafficking for forced domestic labor of an 8-year-old girl, sought to reimpose trafficking charges on the defendant. Despite indicators of trafficking, including severe physical abuse that required hospitalization and amputations, in 2018 the court dropped the trafficking charges, convicted the employer for illegal transportation of a child, and penalized her with a 9,900 Bhutanese ngultrum (Nu) ($136) fine and 180,000 Nu ($2,470) in victim compensation. The OAG appeal was ongoing at the end of the reporting period. The government did not convict any traffickers during the reporting period.

In mid-2018, several hundred Bhutanese participants in a government-approved work-study program in Japan reported indicators of forced labor. The government dismissed the allegations for nearly one year, but after a lawyer representing a group of students filed a criminal complaint against the recruitment agency, the government investigated the case. The lawyer alleged forgery, deceptive practices, harassment, abandonment of a person in danger, and human trafficking. The OAG reportedly could not bring trafficking charges due to lack of evidence of human trafficking as defined by Bhutanese law but charged the agency with 2,887 counts of forgery and 730 counts of larceny by deception. The government also charged the Director-General of the Ministry of Labor and Human Resources with four criminal offenses, including illegal issuance of a certificate of registration to an employment agency without required documentation. For the second year, the prosecution of both cases was ongoing at the close of the reporting period.

Some officials continued to lack an understanding of human trafficking, especially internal and transnational forced labor, although recent high-profile cases have helped increased awareness. Limited police resources often hindered thorough investigations, and a lack of training for law enforcement on victim-centered questioning impeded formation of strong cases. In some cases, persistent individual officers accounted for successful anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts. In partnership with an international organization, the Department of Law and Order (DLO) continued to support anti-trafficking trainings for law enforcement and prosecutors. The lack of diplomatic relationships or mutual law enforcement agreements with destination countries hindered Royal Bhutan Police (RBP) efforts to investigate some potential trafficking cases.

The government demonstrated mixed protection efforts; the government did not identify any victims during the reporting period but did expand funding to NGOs for shelter services and repatriated and provided short-term services to 160 women identified by an international organization as victims of domestic servitude in Iraq, Oman, and the UAE in the previous reporting period. The government did not identify any trafficking victims during the reporting period. During the previous reporting period, the government—with help from an international organization—identified 160 women as victims of domestic servitude in Iraq, Oman, and the UAE. The government had SOPs on trafficking victim identification and referral. In partnership with an international organization, the government conducted five trainings for officials on the SOPs, including three that were conducted online due to pandemic-related restrictions. The government also finalized a training manual on trafficking for the judiciary and held a two-day training for judges in March 2021. RBP maintained Women and Child Protection Units at three police stations, which consisted of a female police officer assigned to crimes against women and children. Ten women and child desks at other police stations had a police officer assigned to these crimes. RBP reportedly screened for trafficking, including at worksites, businesses, and border areas, but did not identify any trafficking victims. Due to the pandemic, the entertainment sector, including drayangs (karaoke bars), were closed during the reporting period.

When it identified trafficking victims, RBP and other agencies could refer them to the National Commission for Women and Children (NCWC) or an NGO for care. NCWC and NGOs could refer female and child victims to two NGO-run facilities that provided counseling, medical services, and long-term shelter to women and child victims of crime. The government funded a full-time nurse, security guards, and some operating costs. No shelter could accommodate male trafficking victims. During the reporting period, one child trafficking victim identified in 2018 remained at a shelter. Starting at the end of the previous reporting period and continuing throughout the current reporting period, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs assisted an international organization and coordinated with the Iraqi government in screening the 160 Bhutanese women identified in domestic servitude in Iraq, Oman, and UAE for trafficking indicators in the previous reporting period. The government funded the repatriation of all the women, including in some cases paying fees to break contracts in Iraq. During the required 21-day pandemic quarantine period upon return to Bhutan, the government provided the women with medical care, counseling, assistance in reuniting with their families, and temporary financial support. NCWC developed a reintegration program for each of the women and continued to provide support once they returned home. This included providing livelihood skills training for 63 of the women. Shelter services in Thimphu were provided to 21 women.

There were no shelters for crime victims outside of the capital area. In 2020, the government expanded funding to include a second shelter in the capital and allocated an additional 100,000 Nu ($1,370) to NGOs providing shelter services. One shelter had case management officers in five districts and the other had the ability to assign counselors to visit crime victims outside the capital on an ad hoc basis. Ministries did not have dedicated budgets to support trafficking victims, which created gaps in services in some reported cases. NCWC maintained a budget to assist women in difficult circumstances, which was available to support female and child trafficking victims. NCWC could also provide case management assistance and legal aid. The pandemic-related government lockdown and movement restrictions hampered NCWC and NGO efforts to provide some services. NCWC and NGOs provided counseling and psychological support services virtually as well as in-person services.

During the previous reporting period, some Bhutanese students who went to Japan through a placement program contracted serious illnesses due to the squalid living conditions, resulting in several deaths. At the close of the reporting period, the Bhutanese government had repatriated most of the participants. The government did not report on the status of any students remaining in Japan or on assistance to these potential victims but maintained its intent to repatriate any additional participants wishing to return to Bhutan. The immigration department mandated that authorities report suspected foreign trafficking victims identified within Bhutan to NCWC before initiating deportation for immigration violations. 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. DLO led the government’s anti-trafficking task force, composed of government and civil society; however, during the reporting period, task force meetings were suspended due to a need to shift focus and resources to the COVID-19 mitigation task force. In partnership with an international organization, DLO finalized its national prevention strategy (NPS) in collaboration with civil society and other relevant stakeholders; at the close of the reporting period, it was awaiting full government endorsement. The NPS was based on an assessment conducted in the previous reporting period with the assistance of an international organization and a parliamentary study on national trafficking trends and will serve as the foundation of the future national action plan. During the reporting period, the government delayed meetings to begin drafting the national action plan because of the pandemic. Insufficient application of SOPs, and a lack of a dedicated anti-trafficking budget continued to hamper DLO’s implementation of its anti-trafficking mandate. In partnership with an international organization, DLO continued to support public awareness events on human trafficking for groups including students, airport officials, local government officials, and the general public.

All entertainment venues, including drayangs, were closed in March 2020 due to the pandemic and had not reopened at the end of the reporting period. In the past, the government and media reported cases of children working in drayangs, a violation of the minimum age requirement of 18. The Ministry of Economic Affairs continued for a second year to work on new guidelines to review and oversee drayangs, including mandating investigations into potentially exploitative working conditions. The Ministry of Labor and Human Resources (MOLHR) registered foreign migrant workers in Bhutan, monitored working conditions, and produced and disseminated pamphlets advising workers of their rights. The Department of Labor (DOL), within MOLHR, had a total of 35 labor inspectors, but inspectors lacked adequate anti-trafficking training. The July 2018-June 2019 DOL annual report documented 147 complaints of nonpayment of wages, compared to 211 in the previous reporting period; the 2019-2020 report had yet to be published by the end of the reporting period. As in the previous reporting period, the government did not report the disposition of these complaints, including whether it levied civil or criminal penalties. DOL generally mediated claims of nonpayment of wages, and it did not report violators to police for criminal investigation of potential forced labor offenses or penalize employers if they paid the outstanding wages. MOLHR did not have the ability to inspect private homes for labor violations and relied on the RBP to report or potential victims to self-identify.

Government regulations on overseas employment allowed most agents to charge Bhutanese migrant workers a recruitment fee of one month’s salary along with a limited number of recruitment expenses, except for costs associated with a visa or work permit. Recruitment fees are not charged to Bhutanese workers who travel overseas through direct placement programs or by Bhutanese companies who bring foreign workers to Bhutan. Foreign workers are required to pay fees for a work permit and medical check-up, which amounts to about 20 percent of one month’s wages. MOLHR requires all Bhutanese traveling overseas for employment to participate in a predeparture orientation on human trafficking and the risks of overseas employment. Individual police officers continued to educate migrant workers about trafficking when they applied for the mandatory police clearance. MOLHR continued to monitor recruitment agencies that assisted Bhutanese citizens older than age 21 seeking work overseas. During the reporting period, it continued to monitor five licensed agencies and one agency it had suspended in the previous reporting period. During the previous reporting period, the government suspended registration of all new labor recruitment agencies and agents; the government did not report if it had reinstated new registrations. MOLHR posted online announcements to warn potential migrant workers of false advertising and to encourage applicants to verify overseas job advertisements with the ministry. The government did not make efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts. 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, human traffickers exploit domestic victims in Bhutan, Bhutanese abroad, and foreigners in Bhutan. Unregistered and unscrupulous foreign employment recruitment agencies and sub-agents increasingly operate through social media. Some traffickers posing as recruiters offer ostensibly well-paying jobs overseas but exploit Bhutanese in forced labor. Some agencies have subjected Bhutanese students in work-study programs in Japan and Malaysia with indicators of forced labor, including fraudulent contracts, nonpayment of wages, and passport retention. Bhutanese citizens continued to work in the hospitality, retail, and service sectors in the Gulf, including in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and UAE, and in India, Thailand, and the United Kingdom through global training and placement academies. Some participants reported indicators of trafficking, including illegal recruitment fees and wage deductions, restricted movement, passport retention, and nonpayment of wages. Media outlets reported traffickers have exploited Bhutanese women in sex trafficking in India. In recent years, traffickers sent approximately 160 Bhutanese women to Iraq for forced labor in domestic work.

Traffickers have exploited Bhutanese women and girls in sex and labor trafficking, including in forced domestic labor and caregiving, through debt bondage and threats of physical abuse. Bhutanese women and girls who work as entertainers in drayangs are vulnerable to labor and sex traffickers. Drayang workers often come from rural areas and sign contracts they later cannot access that can give more than half of their income to the drayang owners. Additionally, some female drayang entertainers reportedly work in commercial sex after the drayangs close, some of which traffickers might facilitate. Relatives transport rural Bhutanese to urban areas for employment in domestic work, which at times may involve forced labor. Media outlets have reported instances of child labor within Bhutan’s restaurant and automobile workshop industries, some of which had indicators of forced labor. Prior to the pandemic, the expanding construction sector increased the demand for low-skilled foreign labor. Male Indian migrant workers—including in the construction and hydropower sectors—often receive advances before beginning work in Bhutan. Some workers subsequently report unauthorized deductions and nonpayment of wages. Traffickers have exploited Indian child domestic workers in Bhutan. Media outlets and NGOs report an increase in commercial sex by Bhutanese and Indian women in the Bhutanese-Indian border’s growing hospitality and entertainment districts—including hotels, massage parlors, and nightclubs—some of which might be forced. Bhutan’s small stateless persons population’s lack of access to documentation necessary to attend school rendered stateless children vulnerable to traffickers.

U.S. Department of State

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