VANUATU: Tier 2

The Government of Vanuatu does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but is making significant efforts to do so. The government demonstrated overall increasing efforts compared to the previous reporting period, considering the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on its anti-trafficking capacity; therefore Vanuatu remained on Tier 2. These efforts included the continued prosecution of the country’s first trafficking case and, in partnership with an international organization, continued protection services for victims identified in that case. However, the government did not meet the minimum standards in several key areas. The government did not initiate any new trafficking investigations during the reporting period, nor did it conduct public awareness campaigns or administer systematic anti-trafficking training for its law enforcement officials. Contrary to a victim-centered protection approach, in the aforementioned ongoing case, the government forced some victims to stay in the country for the duration of court proceedings without allowing them to formally work, possibly increasing their indebtedness and vulnerability to re-trafficking.

Amend anti-trafficking legislation to remove sentencing provisions that allow for the payment of fines in lieu of imprisonment for sex trafficking offenses. • Increase efforts to prosecute and convict traffickers under anti-trafficking laws and sentence convicted traffickers to adequate penalties, which should involve significant prison terms. • In coordination with civil society, develop and implement comprehensive standard operating procedures (SOPs) for victim identification and referral, including by screening for trafficking indicators among vulnerable populations, such as individuals in commercial sex, migrant workers, and persons displaced by natural disasters. •Allocate increased resources for and implement victim protection benefits, including permission to work for foreign victims who wish to participate in prosecutions against their alleged traffickers, taking into consideration humanitarian and compassionate factors. • Ensure all identified victims are referred to services. • Develop and implement a formalized process to consider requests for trafficking victims to remain in the country permanently. • Provide systematic training for all relevant officials on the trafficking law, victim identification, and referral mechanisms. • Cease compelling foreign victims to remain in Vanuatu for the length of prosecutions against their alleged traffickers. • Institute a campaign to raise public awareness of trafficking, including among remote and vulnerable communities. • Improve anti-trafficking coordination with international partners, including by increasing information sharing with sending countries and instituting standard repatriation procedures. • Accede to the 2000 UN TIP Protocol.

The government maintained law enforcement efforts. Vanuatu law criminalized sex trafficking and labor trafficking. Article 34 of the Counter Terrorism and Transnational Organized Crime (CTTOC) Act criminalized trafficking in persons offenses involving adult victims and prescribed penalties of up to 10 years’ imprisonment, a fine of up to 50 million Vanuatu Vatu (VT) ($470,680), or both. Article 35 criminalized trafficking in persons offenses involving child victims and prescribed penalties of up to 15 years’ imprisonment, a fine of up to 75 million VT ($706,020), or both. These penalties were sufficiently stringent; however, with respect to sex trafficking, by allowing fines in lieu of imprisonment, these penalties were not commensurate with those prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape.

In a prior reporting period, the government arrested and initiated prosecution of four Bangladeshi nationals for the alleged forced labor of 101 Bangladeshi victims – the first trafficking prosecution in the country’s history. Vanuatuan authorities charged the suspects with slavery, money laundering, and “threatening” under the Penal Code Act (Cap 135), in addition to trafficking-related charges under the CTTOC. The case was ongoing at the end of the reporting period, and the four alleged traffickers remained in detention. The government did not report any new trafficking investigations, prosecutions, or convictions during the reporting period.

The National Intelligence Unit (NIU) within the Vanuatu Police Force was the lead agency for trafficking investigations; however, deficiencies in the country’s anti-trafficking policy infrastructure reportedly continued to constrain NIU officials’ ability to adequately investigate trafficking cases. An international organization provided trafficking-related training to immigration officials and also developed for officials’ use a manual with guidance on victim identification; however, the government did not provide standardized or systematic anti-trafficking training for law enforcement officials. The government did not report any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of government employees complicit in human trafficking offenses.

The government maintained efforts to protect victims. In the previous reporting period, immigration officials, in partnership with an international organization, implemented border control SOPs that included some guidance on trafficking victim identification. However, as a result of pandemic risk mitigation measures, the government issued new screening procedures that reportedly contained gaps in trafficking victim identification measures. Officials expressed concern that the change in procedures may have adversely affected the government’s efforts to identify trafficking cases. The government continued to lack comprehensive, government-wide victim identification and referral SOPs. The government did not identify any victims during the reporting period.

In 2018, with assistance from an international organization, the government identified 101 Bangladeshi adult male victims in forced labor in construction and domestic service. The government, with additional support from partners, provided housing, medical services, and food for the victims for the duration of court proceedings. Formal shelters were not available to male victims; however, the government provided, on an ad hoc basis, shared furnished properties. Officials reportedly diverted funds from other government entities, specifically from the fuel budget for immigration officials’ vehicles, to provide victim services. Protection services were time-limited, and authorities conditioned some services on the victims’ participation in court proceedings against the alleged traffickers. The government required some of the victims to remain in Vanuatu to serve as witnesses in the ongoing prosecution and tied their repatriation to a final court ruling; an international organization reported this requirement may have re-traumatized several victims. Sixteen of the 101 victims testified against the alleged traffickers, and the courts took steps to protect their identities during the proceedings. The government provided interpretation throughout the court proceedings for the victims. One of the victims sought restitution, which remained pending with the court.

The government provided victims who participated in court proceedings with longer-term shelter options, immigration support, legal support, and witness protection services and advocacy until the end of the proceedings; those who did not participate in the trial received only short-term housing. An international organization continued to provide support for the victims who participated in the court proceedings as they awaited the court’s decision. The government did not have a process in place to change victims’ immigration status to grant them permission to work until the court reached a verdict, which may have compounded some victims’ indebtedness. In the previous reporting period, authorities reportedly did not share information or coordinate with their Bangladeshi counterparts on repatriation options, despite repeated requests for information from the Government of Bangladesh. An international organization funded and facilitated flights back to Bangladesh for the majority of the victims who did not testify in the trial. As of March 2021, all but eight of the victims had been repatriated. The government did not provide legal alternatives to removal of trafficking victims to countries in which victims would face retribution or hardship.

The government slightly increased efforts to prevent trafficking. The Transnational Crime Unit had an action plan, which included anti-trafficking action items; however, it did not address all forms of trafficking and limited resources continued to hinder its implementation. The government’s national security strategy highlighted trafficking and other transnational crimes as a threat to national and human security. The government, in coordination with partners, undertook efforts to advance the trafficking-related equities in the strategy, particularly in the areas of aid for communities displaced by natural disasters, support systems for victims of crime, and monitoring of Vanuatu’s territorial waters; implementation and partner engagement were ongoing at the end of the reporting period. The government did not conduct systematic anti-trafficking awareness campaigns. The government did not have a trafficking hotline and lacked an adequate system to research and assess the scope of its trafficking problem or evaluate its anti-trafficking efforts. The labor department licensed and monitored agencies that could recruit workers from Vanuatu for overseas work. The government prohibited recruitment fees for seasonal work outside of Vanuatu and issued a notice of “non-compliance” to agents who charged migrant workers recruitment fees. During the reporting period, the government proposed policy and legislative action to abolish seasonal worker recruitment agents and to create a centralized government-managed process to connect workers with employment; however, the proposed actions were not passed or implemented by the end of the reporting period. The government did not undertake efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts. The government, in partnership with an international organization, continued to implement a program to digitize and streamline citizen access to voter cards, citizenship documents, and national identification cards. Vanuatu is not a party to the 2000 UN TIP Protocol.

Human traffickers exploit domestic and foreign victims in Vanuatu, and traffickers exploit victims from Vanuatu abroad. Labor traffickers exploit individuals from China, Thailand, Bangladesh, and the Philippines in Vanuatu. Chinese nationals working in Vanuatu may have been forced to work by Chinese companies, including state-owned enterprises. Traffickers target migrant women in the hospitality and tourism sectors and low-skilled foreign workers in high-risk sectors, such as agriculture, mining, fishing, logging, construction, and domestic service. Chinese and South Asian migrant women are particularly at risk for labor trafficking in bars, beauty salons, and massage parlors. Bangladeshi criminal groups have reportedly lured Bangladeshi individuals with false promises of high-paying job opportunities in Australia, transported them through Fiji, India, and Singapore, and then subjected them to forced labor in the construction industry in Vanuatu. Some of the victims take out substantial loans to pay relevant travel expenses, which traffickers exploit through debt-based coercion. Foreign fishermen working on Vanuatuan-flagged, Taiwan-owned vessels have experienced indicators of forced labor, including deceptive recruitment practices, abuse of vulnerability, excessive overtime, withholding of wages, physical and sexual violence, and abusive living and working conditions on board.

Natural disasters and climate-induced displacement significantly increases Vanuatuans’ vulnerability to trafficking, particularly as a majority of the population relies on small-scale and subsistence agriculture. Thousands of Vanuatuans who permanently or temporarily evacuated from the islands of Ambae and Ambrym due to volcanic activity are at higher risk of trafficking due to the economic hardships ensuing from their ongoing displacement. Women and girls may also be at risk of debt-based coercion in sex trafficking and domestic servitude via the customary practice of “bride-price payments” where a man’s family gives a woman’s male relatives money or other valuables in order for the man and woman to become married. The man’s family may at times force the woman to “pay back” the money through commercial sex acts or forced domestic service. The incidence of bride-price payments is linked to broader economic hardship and vulnerability, particularly in the context of the country’s frequent natural disasters; increased reports of child marriage, where children may be exploited in domestic servitude or sex trafficking, occurred immediately after a cyclone in April 2020. Children are also subjected to trafficking through “child swapping” – brokered as an inter-familial cultural practice or as a method to pay off debts. Women in commercial sex face physical and sexual violence and are reportedly coerced into forced pregnancy and forced marriage; reports acknowledge a correlation between the lack of economic opportunities and an increase in commercial sex. The limited ability for women and girls in commercial sex to seek justice increases vulnerability to trafficking. There were reports of children exploited in commercial sex facilitated by taxi drivers. Forced labor and child sex trafficking occur on fishing vessels in Vanuatu. Foreign tourists aboard boats reportedly approach remote Vanuatuan communities and offer money in exchange for marriage with underage girls as a ploy for short-term sexual exploitation. Locals onshore, acting as recruiters, also reportedly take underage girls aboard vessels and subject them to commercial sexual exploitation by foreign workers, often for weeks at a time. The local recruiters, and in some instances the families, receive payment for recruiting and transporting the girls to the boats. Children may also experience conditions indicative of forced labor in the illegal logging industry and in newspaper sales.

U.S. Department of State

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