Bhutan (Tier 2 Watch List)

The 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 increasing convictions of traffickers and the number of potential trafficking victims identified and referred to services. In addition, the government drafted and launched a resourced anti-trafficking National Action Plan (NAP). However, the government did not demonstrate overall increasing efforts compared with 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. The government reported investigating one potential human trafficking case and did not initiate new prosecutions against traffickers, and overall identification efforts remained insufficient. Because the government has devoted sufficient resources to a written plan that, if implemented, would constitute significant efforts to meet the minimum standards, Bhutan was granted a waiver per the Trafficking Victims Protection Act from an otherwise required downgrade to Tier 3. Therefore Bhutan remained on Tier 2 Watch List for the third 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 and adequately sentence convicted traffickers.
  • Increase identification of trafficking victims.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Accede to the 2000 UN TIP Protocol.

The government maintained anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts. The law criminalized all forms of labor trafficking and some forms of sex trafficking. Section 154 criminalized all forms of adult sex trafficking, adult labor trafficking, and child labor trafficking. 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 prescribed from five years to life imprisonment, and Section 224 of the CCPA prescribed from five to nine years’ imprisonment. These punishments were sufficiently stringent and, with respect to sex trafficking, commensurate with penalties prescribed for other serious crimes, such as abduction.

The government initiated one potential trafficking investigation and continued to investigate a 2019 case involving 160 Bhutanese women exploited in domestic servitude in Iraq, compared with no new investigations initiated in the previous reporting period. The government did not report initiating any prosecutions, compared with one prosecution initiated in the previous reporting period against three suspects in a 2018 labor trafficking case involving Bhutanese nationals in Mumbai, and it continued prosecution of two cases. However, the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) initiated preliminary procedures to prosecute 15 alleged traffickers in one case, which remained pending by the end of the reporting period. In June 2021, the government convicted three traffickers following the reinvestigation and prosecution of the 2018 Mumbai case during previous reporting periods, compared with no convictions during the previous reporting period. The court sentenced one defendant to 54 months in prison for trafficking under Section 154 of the penal code and the other two defendants to 18 months in prison for attempted collusion in trafficking. The government did not report taking action against the employment agencies involved in the 2019 case of Bhutanese domestic workers in Iraq. The OAG did not pursue further appeals following 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. Despite indicators of trafficking, including severe physical abuse that required hospitalization and amputations, two courts acquitted the defendant of forced labor and convicted the employer of illegal transportation of a child. Royal Bhutan Police (RBP) reportedly screened for trafficking in enforcement operations, including at worksites, businesses, and border areas, but did not identify any trafficking victims. RBP maintained “women and child protection” units at three police stations and “women and child protection” desks at 11 additional police stations. RBP also maintained one “women and child protection” division at its headquarters in Thimphu. All officers and personnel in these units and offices were trained on “women and child friendly policy procedures,” including a victim-centered approach during investigations of trafficking cases.

In mid-2018, some Bhutanese participants in a government-approved work-study program in Japan reported indicators of forced labor. The OAG charged the recruitment agency with 2,887 counts of forgery and 730 counts of larceny by deception, and the government 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 third year, the prosecution of both cases was ongoing at the close of the reporting period.

The government did not report any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of government employees complicit in human trafficking crimes. 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 investigations impeded formation of strong cases. In some cases, successful anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts relied on persistent individual officers. 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 government increased protection efforts during the reporting period. The government identified 22 labor trafficking victims, including eight Bhutanese women exploited in Oman and 14 Bhutanese women exploited in Iraq. This compared with no victims identified during the previous reporting period. The government funded the repatriation of at least eight trafficking victims from Oman and screened an additional 18 potential victims repatriated from Oman. The National Commission for Women and Children (NCWC) provided eight identified victims with counselling services. The government reported that it offered counselling services to 14 identified victims, although the victims did not accept these services. The government continued to provide services to 160 women who were identified as victims of domestic servitude and trafficking in Iraq in December 2019 and repatriated in the previous reporting period. A government-funded organization provided services, including shelter homes and food, for identified victims. The Ministry of Labor and Human Resources (MOLHR) and a government-funded program also provided skills training for identified victims. The government provided assistance and an employment program for nearly 25,000 vulnerable individuals experiencing pandemic-related economic needs, including monthly income support for women repatriated from Iraq and Oman and former drayang (karaoke bars) employees.

The government had SOPs on trafficking victim identification and referral to care. The NCWC also had procedures to guide labor inspectors, immigration officials, and teachers in the identification of child victims and at-risk youth and refer them to services. Although the pandemic constrained government resources, the government conducted training on SOPs for officials, including judges, labor inspectors, and diplomatic staff. RBP also trained 514 personnel on the amended Penal Code Section 154 and the implementation of anti-trafficking laws, interviewing victims, and the government’s SOP on trafficking.

When the government identified trafficking victims, RBP and other agencies could refer them to the NCWC or an NGO for care. The government financed civil society organizations to operate shelters. The NCWC and NGOs could refer men, women, and children to two NGO-run facilities that provided counseling, medical services, and long-term shelter to victims of crime. In 2020, the government expanded funding to include a second shelter in the capital and allocated an additional 100,000 Bhutanese ngultrum (Nu) ($1,300) 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. The NCWC maintained a budget to assist vulnerable women and children, including trafficking victims. The NCWC could also provide case management assistance and legal aid. The NCWC and partner organizations provided legal counseling to 42 trafficking survivors during the reporting period. The pandemic-related government lockdown and movement restrictions hampered NCWC and NGO efforts to provide some services, including requiring the government to postpone livelihood training and awareness programs. A civil society partner conducted vocational training for 16 repatriated human trafficking victims. The NCWC and NGOs provided counseling and psychological support services virtually, as well as in-person services. The NCWC and partner agencies conducted telephone counselling services with trafficking survivors in the Middle East to provide psycho-social support and prevent re-traumatization. The government continued to use its multi-sectoral response policy to guide officials referring or transferring survivors of trafficking for services. The government sought to provide services to all trafficking survivors regardless of nationality. The NCWC also launched a child protection framework to establish best practices and interagency responsibilities for addressing child protection issues, including trafficking.

The government maintained procedures, including witness protection, to support trafficking victims participating in the investigations and prosecutions of alleged traffickers. In addition, the penal code allowed human trafficking victims to file civil suits against traffickers and courts to order traffickers to pay appropriate damages and reparation for loss or injury caused to the victim. No traffickers or defendants were ordered to pay damages to a trafficking victim during the reporting period. The immigration department mandated that authorities report suspected foreign trafficking victims identified within Bhutan to the NCWC before initiating deportation for immigration violations. Bhutanese law did not provide legal alternatives to the removal of trafficking victims to countries in which victims would face retribution or hardship. The government continued to pursue a bilateral agreement, initiated in the previous reporting period, with the Government of the United Arab Emirates to combat human trafficking through an exchange of information and expertise, protection and support for victims, and cooperation during repatriations. However, the lack of formal diplomatic relationships or mutual law enforcement agreements with migrant worker destination countries hindered RBP efforts to investigate some potential trafficking cases.

The government slightly increased efforts to prevent human trafficking. The DLO led the government’s anti-trafficking task force, composed of government and civil society members. In July 2021, the government published its national prevention strategy (NPS), which was developed in the previous reporting period, in collaboration with civil society and other relevant stakeholders. In July 2021, the government also published the results of a country assessment of human trafficking in Bhutan conducted during the previous reporting period. The anti-trafficking task force drafted a new NAP as part of the government’s broader prevention strategy and officially launched the NAP in January 2022 with a budget of more than 1 billion Nu ($13 million). The government and civil society partners conducted awareness campaigns to combat trafficking during the reporting period. In partnership with an international organization, the DLO continued to support public awareness events on human trafficking for groups including students, airport officials, local government officials, and the general public. The government funded a hotline staffed by counselors to support victims of gender-based violence, including survivors of trafficking, and established district-level helplines operated by local officials and civil society organizations; the government did not report identifying any trafficking victims through the hotlines during the reporting period.

The government closed all entertainment venues in March 2020 due to the pandemic and did not reopen any by the end of the reporting period. In January 2022, the government issued an executive order permanently closing the Drayangs, which involved potentially exploitative working conditions, following an extended review of proposed guidelines to provide greater oversight of the entertainment venues. The government introduced skills training and employment programs for approximately 556 former drayang employees.

The 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 the MOLHR, had a total of 34 labor officers, including 23 labor inspectors, but inspectors lacked adequate anti-trafficking training and sufficient funding for child labor inspections. 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 labor complaints, including whether it levied civil or criminal penalties. The 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. The MOLHR did not have the ability to inspect private homes for labor violations and relied on the RBP to investigate or for 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 were not charged to Bhutanese workers who travel overseas through direct placement programs or by Bhutanese companies who bring foreign workers to Bhutan. Foreign workers were required to pay fees for a work permit and medical check-up, which amounted to about 20 percent of one month’s wages. The government implemented a new policy requiring Bhutanese migrant workers to receive approval from the MOLHR prior to traveling overseas. The MOLHR also required any Bhutanese traveling overseas for employment to participate in a predeparture orientation on human trafficking and the risks of overseas employment. The MOLHR posted online announcements to warn potential migrant workers of false advertisements and to encourage applicants to verify overseas job advertisements. The Department of Adult and Higher Education (DAHE) issued a notification warning job seekers and students to avoid unregistered labor and educational consultants. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs also issued a trafficking-prevention brochure for migrants planning to travel for employment. Individual police officers continued to educate migrant workers about trafficking when they applied for the mandatory police clearance. The MOLHR continued to monitor recruitment agencies that assisted Bhutanese citizens older than age 21 seeking work overseas. The MOLHR could take action against agents conducting recruitment or placements without a license. During the reporting period, the MOLHR continued to monitor five licensed agencies and one agency it had suspended during previous reporting periods. The government previously suspended registration of all new labor recruitment agencies and agents; the government did not report if it had reinstated new registrations. The MOLHR had 11 registered Bhutanese Overseas Employment Agents (BOEAs) when the Overseas Employment Program was first implemented in 2013. Only four registered agents are currently operational; six out of the total registered agents were delisted and penalized due to non-compliance of regulations, while one withdrew. The registration of new BOEAs remains on hold. Labor regulations held BOEAs responsible for supporting migrants and fulfilling their contractual obligations even when agency registrations were suspended or terminated. The Department of Employment and Entrepreneurship monitored the registered BOEAs through site visits and written reports. In 2018, the MOLHR signed a memorandum with the Government of Japan on a technical intern training program to formalize collaboration and reduce trafficking risks. The implementation of the program was delayed due to the pandemic. The government maintained its intent to repatriate any intern participants wishing to return to Bhutan and did not receive any complaints during the reporting period.

The government did not make efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts. The government reported that diplomatic personnel received anti-trafficking training prior to transferring to foreign assignments. The government reported it provided anti-trafficking training to its troops prior to their deployment as peacekeepers. Bhutan is not a party to the 2000 UN TIP Protocol; however, the government reported ongoing efforts to ratify the UNTOC and TIP Protocol, which remained awaiting parliamentary debate and confirmation at the end of the reporting period.

As reported over the past five years, human traffickers exploit domestic and foreign victims in Bhutan, and traffickers exploit victims from Bhutan abroad. Unregistered and unscrupulous foreign employment recruitment agencies and sub-agents increasingly operate through social media to target unemployed or economically disadvantaged individuals. 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 the 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. In recent years, traffickers sent Bhutanese women to Iraq and Oman for forced labor in domestic work. Although pandemic-related restrictions temporarily reduced the number of migrant workers, a growing number of Bhutanese citizens have resumed seeking employment abroad, particularly in the Gulf states. The government reported repatriating more than 4,815 Bhutanese citizens since the start of the pandemic.

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 worked as entertainers in Drayangs prior to the permanent closure of the businesses nationwide, were vulnerable to labor and sex traffickers. Drayang workers often came from rural areas and signed contracts they could not access; some female drayang entertainers reportedly worked in commercial sex, some of which traffickers may have facilitated. Media outlets and NGOs report an increase in commercial sex by Bhutanese and Indian women in the Bhutan-India border’s growing hospitality and entertainment districts—including hotels, massage parlors, and nightclubs—some of which might be forced.

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. Bhutan’s small stateless persons population lacks access to documentation necessary to attend school, rendering stateless children vulnerable to traffickers.

U.S. Department of State

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