The government slightly increased protection efforts. The government identified 28 female victims and no male victims, compared with 20 victims identified during the previous reporting period. Of the 28 victims, traffickers exploited 14 in sex trafficking, 13 in labor trafficking, and one for unspecified exploitation. The government referred 27 victims to government agencies and an international organization for services, including shelter, psycho-social care, and educational services, and collaborated with an NGO to support the repatriation of one individual to Uzbekistan. The SLBFE referred two Sri Lankan trafficking victims in the United Arab Emirates and one victim in Kuwait to the CID for assistance. Civil society organizations reported an increase in government agencies identifying and referring more trafficking victims for care.
The government had SOPs for the identification and referral of potential victims to services, and the government endorsed SOPs for the identification, protection, and referral of child trafficking victims in 2021. Victim identification procedures included step-by-step guidelines for short-term assistance available to all victims of trafficking. However, the government reportedly did not implement the SOPs 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 on occasion did not identify forced labor and sex trafficking that did not involve transnational movement, especially of children, and categorized those cases as other crimes. The government partnered with an international organization to establish anti-trafficking forums in seven districts that served to convene local government officials with the community to enhance collaboration on anti-trafficking efforts and increase victim identification. NAHTTF members screened some migrants and other at-risk groups for indicators of trafficking and referred cases to police and CID for further investigation or support services.
The government provided 12.44 million LKR ($61,360) in assistance to the State Ministry of Women and Child Development to operate a shelter for female victims of domestic violence and trafficking. However, a magistrate’s order is required for victims to receive services at the shelter, which trafficking victims who did not seek assistance from law enforcement could not access. No government shelter could accommodate adult male victims, although the government stated it could provide shelter for male victims, if needed; the government did not identify any male victims during the reporting period. The National Authority for the Protection of Victims of Crime and Witnesses secured a site for a new government shelter to support victims of crime, including trafficking victims, and continued work with civil society to develop operational guidelines. The government reported it did not provide shelter services to the identified victims. The government partnered with international organizations to provide medical, psycho-social, legal, and reintegration support to victims with court orders, regardless of their decision to cooperate with law enforcement. NCPA conducted routine monitoring of 369 childcare institutions using a new digital platform during the reporting period, given previous reports that shelter workers and older residents in some government- and privately-run homes sexually exploited child residents, possibly including trafficking victims. The Department of Probation and Child Care Services provided access to computers, textbooks, and school tutoring to two child trafficking victims during the reporting period. The government cooperated with foreign governments, including providing support for five female Indonesian victims of sex trafficking.
Civil society noted that, at the local level, a lack of capacity and sensitization among police, immigration officials, and judges remained an impediment to proper screening for trafficking victims. Additionally, lack of awareness and misunderstanding led some local authorities to penalize sex trafficking victims for unlawful acts committed as a direct result of trafficking, including officials arresting or detaining sex trafficking victims without proper screening. Some trafficking victims did not participate in the law enforcement process due to financial constraints and requirements that victim-witnesses travel to courts; however, the Victim Protection Act of 2015 entitled victims to financial support to testify or appear in court, and the government reported it provided some assistance, including food, accommodation, and transportation to victims. The 2015 SOP on the identification, protection, and referral of victims stated that foreign trafficking victims who do not cooperate with a criminal complaint can receive repatriation assistance and support services if a court order is granted. Law enforcement reported many victims were reluctant to pursue cases against their alleged traffickers due to the social stigma attached with trafficking. While Sri Lankan law has established a victim and witness compensation fund, the government did not provide any funding to trafficking victims during the reporting period. The government allowed victims to transfer court houses, provided transportation for court cases, and offered relocation services during pending trials. The NAHTTF coordinated trafficking victim interviews to reduce the need for repetitive testimony and reduce re-traumatization, and the government began allowing testimony through audio and video links in certain cases. When authorities officially identified foreign victims of trafficking, the victims had the same access as Sri Lankan citizens to services. Foreign victims who cooperated in prosecutions could receive a visa extension until the end of the trial, although the government did not report issuing visa extensions during the reporting period. 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.
SLBFE operated short-term shelters and safe houses at Sri Lankan diplomatic missions in 10 countries for migrant workers in distress. However, the government reduced the number of labor attachés serving in Sri Lankan embassies and at the SLBFE, due to budget shortfalls related to the pandemic response, reduced human and financial resources previously available for assistance and protection of migrant workers abroad. During the reporting period, Sri Lankan missions abroad assisted 226 migrant workers with shelter, including potential trafficking victims. According to an international organization, when carrying out screening and despite their training, some labor attachés often did not know what questions to ask migrant workers, what evidence to look for, or whom to contact in other agencies to refer potential cases. Sri Lankan diplomatic missions continued to provide funding and logistical support to international organizations that repatriated Sri Lankan migrant workers exploited abroad. Officials did not consistently screen migrant workers who traveled abroad without documentation or who possessed expired work permits for indicators of trafficking, raising concerns some officials might be conflating human trafficking with migrant smuggling. However, the government continued training officials to improve victim identification. In one instance, the Department of Immigration and Emigration screened two potential Thai victims of trafficking and referred the case to CID for further investigation upon identifying elements of exploitation. 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, and insufficient legal assistance. 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. However, due to the pandemic, SLBFE made resources from the Worker’s Welfare Fund, including legal services, medical care, accommodation, and food, available to migrant workers regardless of their registration status. 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 in 2019 that, contrary to the SOPs, they only referred potential 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. During the reporting period, the SLBFE airport unit reported providing 200 migrants with food, accommodation, and bus fare, although it did not report identifying any trafficking victims among those assisted. As in previous years, the lack of government identification of trafficking victims contrasted with the number of complaints from workers abroad. In 2018, the most recent year for which such data was available, 3,809 Sri Lankan migrant workers in more than 19 countries reported labor- related complaints to SLBFE, including with indicators of trafficking. The vast majority of complainants were females in domestic work in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates; male migrant workers in Saudi Arabia also reported many labor violations.