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.