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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 with the previous reporting period, considering the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, if any, on its anti-trafficking capacity; therefore Vanuatu remained on Tier 2. These efforts included convicting four traffickers in the country’s first trafficking case and establishing a national interagency coordinating body to lead the government’s anti-trafficking efforts. However, the government did not meet the minimum standards in several key areas. The government did not provide any protective services, and for the third consecutive year, authorities did not identify any trafficking victims. For the second consecutive year, the government did not initiate any new trafficking investigations, 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, the government did not provide effective legal alternatives to removal to countries in which the victims would face retribution or hardship, such as adequate documentation for victims to seek refuge in neighboring countries. 

  • Amend anti-trafficking legislation to remove sentencing provisions that allow fines in lieu of imprisonment for sex trafficking offenses.
  • Increase efforts to investigate, 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, LGBTQI+ persons, migrant workers, and persons displaced by natural disasters.
  • Provide systematic training for all relevant officials on the trafficking law, victim identification, and referral mechanisms. 
  • 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.
  • 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 slightly increased 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) ($449,560), 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 ($674,340), 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 November 2021, courts convicted four Bangladeshi nationals on trafficking and related charges under the CCTOC and other crimes under the Penal Code. The government first arrested the defendants in March 2019 for allegedly exploiting 101 Bangladeshi victims in forced labor and in November 2020 initiated their prosecution—the first trafficking prosecution in the country’s history. Courts convicted one trafficker of slavery, human trafficking, money laundering, intentional assault, threats to kill, and employing non-citizens without a work permit and convicted another of trafficking, slavery, money laundering, employing non-citizens without a work permit, and furnishing false information to a labor officer; the remaining two were convicted of trafficking, slavery, and intentional assault. The government did not report sentencing information for the four convicted traffickers. The government did not report any new trafficking investigations or prosecutions. The government did not report any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of government employees complicit in human trafficking crimes. The National Intelligence Unit (NIU) within the Vanuatu Police Force was the lead agency for trafficking investigations; however, the lack of dedicated funding and training in the country’s anti-trafficking policy infrastructure reportedly continued to constrain NIU officials’ ability to adequately investigate trafficking cases. The government did not report any anti-trafficking training activities for law enforcement or other government officials.

The government maintained inadequate efforts to protect victims. For the third consecutive year, the government did not identify any trafficking victims. The government continued to lack comprehensive, government-wide victim identification and referral SOPs. The government continued to implement border control screening procedures that reportedly contained gaps in passenger verification in trafficking victim identification measures. Officials expressed concern that the procedures may have adversely affected the government’s efforts to identify trafficking cases; the government did not report updating the screening procedures to address these gaps. Observers noted that police would tolerate violence and discrimination against LGBTQI+ persons; therefore, criminal acts and trafficking indicators may have gone unreported and resulted in unidentified trafficking victims. Due to a lack of formal identification procedures, authorities likely punished or deported some unidentified trafficking victims.

For the second consecutive year, the government had only limited services available for victims and did not provide any victim protection services. In 2018, with assistance from an international organization, the government identified 101 Bangladeshi adult male victims in forced labor in construction and domestic service. Upon discovery of that case, the government, with support from partners, provided a broad range of services to the victims. Three Bangladeshi forced labor victims identified in 2018 remained in country. These victims sought refuge from neighboring countries, however, the countries were reportedly unable to respond without formal documentation from the Vanuatu government stating the victims’ victimhood or refugee status. The government refused to provide such documentation, citing that Vanuatu was not signatory to the UN TIP Protocol. In addition, these victims applied for asylum in Vanuatu; the asylum claims were pending at the end of the reporting period. In the interim, authorities granted the victims temporary visas to remain and work in Vanuatu.

When available, protection services were time-limited, and authorities conditioned some services on victims’ participation in court proceedings against the alleged traffickers. As part of the 2018 Bangladeshi forced labor case, the government required victims to remain in Vanuatu to serve as witnesses in the prosecution and tied their repatriation to a final court ruling; an international organization reported this requirement may have re-traumatized several victims in prior reporting periods. The government did not share information or coordinate with the Government of Bangladesh on repatriation options for the remaining victims; the government did not provide any funding or assistance to repatriation efforts. 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 could compound some victims’ indebtedness. In 2020, one of the Bangladeshi forced labor victims sought restitution, which remained pending with the court. The government provided temporary visas to victims who participated in court proceedings; however, the government did not provide victims who did not participate the option to obtain a visa.

The government increased efforts to prevent trafficking. The government, in partnership with an international organization, established the National Steering Committee on Migrant Protection (NSC) as the national anti-trafficking coordinating body; the NSC held its first meeting in November 2021. The NSC was an interagency committee composed of senior government officials from multiple agencies, including Vanuatu Immigration Services, Transnational Crime Unit, Department of Labor, and National Security Council. The NSC, in partnership with an international organization, performed an assessment of existing anti-trafficking policies and legislation; the assessment was ongoing at the end of the reporting period. 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.

For the third consecutive year, 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. 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 previous reporting period, the government proposed policy and legislative action to abolish seasonal worker recruitment agents and create a centralized government-managed process to connect workers with employment; however, the government did not pass or implement the proposed actions by the end of the reporting period. 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. The government did not provide anti-trafficking training to its diplomatic personnel. The government did not make efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts. Vanuatu was 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 the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Thailand, Bangladesh, and the Philippines in Vanuatu. Individuals from the PRC may have been forced to work in Vanuatu at projects run by PRC-based companies. 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. PRC national 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 Vanuatu-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 ni-Vanuatu vulnerability to trafficking, particularly as a majority of the population relies on small-scale and subsistence agriculture. Thousands of ni-Vanuatu, 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. Reports show taxi drivers may facilitate the exploitation of children in commercial sex. Forced labor and child sex trafficking occur on fishing vessels in Vanuatu. Foreign tourists aboard boats reportedly approach remote ni-Vanuatu 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. LGBTQI+ individuals are vulnerable to trafficking. 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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