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BRUNEI (Tier 2 Watch List)

The Government of Brunei does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but is making significant efforts to do so. The government made key achievements during the reporting period, considering the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, if any, on its anti-trafficking capacity; therefore Brunei was upgraded to Tier 2 Watch List. These achievements included referring two alleged labor traffickers for prosecution, including one Bruneian national; identifying 14 labor trafficking victims and providing them with special passes to find alternate employment in Brunei, which facilitated their participation in the prosecution of the alleged traffickers; opening two shelters for trafficking victims; passing regulations limiting worker-paid recruitment fees for domestic workers; and signing a bilateral MOU with the Government of Bangladesh on the recruitment of migrant workers. Despite these achievements, the government did not effectively screen for trafficking among foreign nationals in commercial sex and migrant workers who had left their employers. As a result, the government handled some potential trafficking cases administratively, if at all, and due to a lack of effective identification procedures, authorities likely inappropriately detained, prosecuted, and deported potential unidentified sex and labor trafficking victims. Additionally, for the sixth consecutive year, the government did not convict any traffickers under its anti-trafficking law, and other laws that could be used to prosecute traffickers did not provide sufficiently stringent sentences. The government did not take steps to eliminate worker-paid recruitment fees for non-domestic workers – the majority of migrant workers in Brunei.

  • Increase efforts to investigate, prosecute, convict, and seek adequate penalties of significant prison terms for both sex and labor traffickers, including complicit government officials.
  • Disseminate and train officials on SOPs for victim identification, particularly their application to individuals in commercial sex, domestic workers, LGBTQIA+ individuals, and migrant workers.
  • Ensure victims are not inappropriately penalized solely for unlawful acts committed as a direct result of being trafficked.
  • Train investigators and prosecutors on building trafficking cases, including collecting evidence to corroborate victim testimony and to identify elements of trafficking among labor and immigration violations.
  • Train judges on accurate and effective implementation of trafficking laws, including through understanding the many ways traffickers coerce victims.
  • Increase protective services to provide incentives for victims to participate in investigations and prosecutions, including by allowing at-will communication with people outside shelter facilities and issuing work permits to all victims.
  • Establish a formal communication mechanism to regularly collaborate and learn from foreign government embassies about suspected trafficking crimes.
  • Allocate resources and develop the capacity to proactively screen for trafficking at People’s Republic of China (PRC) worksites and on fishing vessels in Brunei’s exclusive economic zone.
  • Ensure migrant workers receive and can retain copies of their work contracts and information on their rights and obligations under Brunei law in their primary languages.
  • Issue guidelines on the prohibition of recruitment agencies charging or receiving worker-funded fees and eliminate worker-paid recruitment fees.
  • Utilize the victims’ fund to provide compensation to trafficking victims.
  • Offer foreign victims long-term alternatives to removal from the country.

The government maintained inadequate law enforcement efforts. The 2019 Anti-Trafficking in Persons Order criminalized sex trafficking and labor trafficking and prescribed penalties of four to 30 years’ imprisonment and fines of between 10,000 and 1 million Brunei dollars (BND) ($7,462 and $746,268), which were sufficiently stringent and, with respect to sex trafficking, commensurate with penalties prescribed for other serious offenses, such as rape. The penal code also criminalized travel outside the country for commercial sex with children, prescribing a punishment of up to 10 years’ imprisonment, a fine, or both. The government may have also utilized Chapter 120 Section 5 of the Women and Girls Prosecution Act, which addresses “living on or trading in prostitution,” to prosecute potential sex trafficking crimes. The act prescribed penalties of up to five years’ imprisonment and a fine of up to $20,000 BND ($14,925), which were significantly lower than those available under the trafficking law.

Royal Brunei Police Force (RBPF), labor, and immigration officers referred 121 suspected trafficking cases (five sex trafficking cases, 109 labor trafficking, and seven unknown) to the human trafficking unit (HTU) for review and potential investigation, compared with 134 cases referred in 2021. Although HTU could review case reports from other RBPF units and identify trafficking cases, its review and decision to investigate for trafficking relied upon the quality of the referring officer’s questioning and notes, and many non-HTU RBPF officers lacked training on trafficking. HTU and an interagency committee, which met monthly, concluded nine of the 121 cases contained elements of trafficking – a decrease from further investigating 14 cases (four sex trafficking and 10 labor trafficking) the previous year. The attorney general’s chambers (AGC) continued one prosecution initiated in the previous reporting period and initiated one new prosecution, each with one alleged labor trafficker. The AGC consolidated the two cases, and the single case with two defendants – one Bangladeshi national and one Bruneian national – awaited trial for charges under the anti-trafficking law at the close of the reporting period. For the sixth consecutive year, courts did not convict any traffickers under the trafficking statute.

In practice, investigators required proof of physical force, fraud, or physical coercion for a trafficking crime. As a result, and inconsistent with the 2019 law, officials did not investigate or prosecute – as trafficking cases – the cases in which the alleged traffickers used non-physical forms of coercion. Observers indicated an overreliance on victim testimony and lack of special investigative measures to corroborate evidence led to most cases being investigated and prosecuted under non-trafficking statutes. Government officials ascribed poor prosecutorial efforts to high evidentiary standards, including the definition of exploitation under the anti-trafficking law, despite the law’s consistency with the 2000 UN TIP Protocol. Observers reported a fundamental lack of understanding about the pervasiveness of trafficking in Brunei and an institutional lack of understanding of labor trafficking indicators, including passport retention and nonpayment of wages, among government officials that hindered anti-trafficking efforts. In addition, observers reported authorities did not investigate all alleged potential trafficking crimes and generally focused their efforts on crimes committed by foreign perpetrators rather than Bruneians.

The government did not report any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of government employees complicit in human trafficking crimes; however, corruption and official complicity in trafficking crimes remained significant concerns, inhibiting law enforcement action. The government continued the 2019 prosecution of one Department of Labor and Immigration (DOL) officer for visa fraud related to foreign workers’ visa applications. Observers reported many Bruneian officials owned construction companies employing migrant workers; foreign construction workers constituted a large portion of trafficking victims in Brunei. Law enforcement cooperated with some foreign governments on trafficking cases; other foreign governments reported challenges in working with Bruneian officials. One foreign government reported the Government of Brunei did not respond for two years to its requests to either criminally investigate its national for alleged trafficking crimes in Brunei or deport the national to face criminal justice in his home country.

The government increased efforts to identify and protect victims. The government identified 14 labor trafficking victims, an increase from not identifying any victims in the two previous reporting periods. The government had SOPs for victim identification, referral, and protection and reportedly used the SOPs to screen potential trafficking cases. The SOPs did not function adequately in cases involving adults in commercial sex, LGBTQIA+ individuals, or workers who had left their employers, with the media reporting government efforts as operations to catch criminals rather than protect potential victims. The government completed and opened two shelters, one for male and one for female trafficking victims. The shelters could reportedly house 17 victims each and accommodate victims with physical disabilities; victims could leave the shelters at will. HTU would conduct a threat assessment for trafficking victims and stated that if they ascertained a threat, they would require those victims to stay in the government shelter. At the new shelters, the government could also provide medical care, counseling, psychological assessment, clothing, meals, and access to vocational training programs and recreational activities. Several foreign embassies had shelters that often assisted their nationals who were trafficking victims. Prior to the opening of the government shelters, the government offered shelter, mental health services, and psycho-social support to 14 labor trafficking victims, who elected to find their own accommodations.

Multiple male labor trafficking victims participated in investigations against traffickers. Brunei’s anti-trafficking law permitted male victims to provide testimony by video, and it required female and minor victims who testified to do so by video. The government had a $100,000 BND ($74,626) Anti-Trafficking in Persons Fund that could be used to pay compensation to trafficking victims; the government has never reported disbursing these funds. DOL granted special employment passes to 14 foreign trafficking victims participating in a prosecution against their alleged traffickers. The passes enabled the individuals to remain in Brunei and work during the investigation and prosecution, and DOL helped each worker find alternate employment. The government operated a labor and trafficking hotline, and DOL had an online mechanism for workers to submit complaints; DOL reported receiving complaints of nonpayment of wages, but it did not report the number of complaints and how it handled them. The government did not have legal alternatives to removal for victims who may face hardship or retribution upon returning to their home countries.

Due to insufficient screening for trafficking, especially among vulnerable migrant workers, the government likely continued to inappropriately arrest, penalize, and deport trafficking victims solely for unlawful acts committed as a direct result of being trafficked. Although the RPBF Vice Unit reportedly referred to HTU for screening all women identified in commercial sex law enforcement actions, HTU often screened only once and in the immediate aftermath of the law enforcement actions. The government arrested at least five foreign women for “offering sexual services;” officials prosecuted and deported the women. Foreign officials continued to report Bruneian authorities deported several of their citizens after their Bruneian employers had withheld wages or medical care, changed workers’ contracts, or withheld passports – indicators of labor trafficking – and then reported to immigration officials the migrant workers had run away. The government placed announcements in newspapers seeking public assistance to trace at least 25 Indonesian, Bangladeshi, and PRC-national “runaway” workers, and it convicted at least three Bangladeshi and Indonesian workers for overstaying their visas or work permits and sentenced them to between three and six months’ imprisonment and caning. Officials did not report screening for trafficking among these populations. Observers reported the practice of detention and deportation perpetuated victims’ fear of communicating with law enforcement officers, exacerbating significant identification and service provision gaps. Observers noted a need for foreign government embassies and the government to develop a formal communication mechanism to increase collaboration in response to suspected trafficking crimes.

The government modestly increased efforts to prevent trafficking. The government’s interagency anti-trafficking committee, chaired by the Prime Minister’s Office’s Permanent Secretary of Security and Law, met quarterly, and its working group, which focused on cases, met monthly. The government continued implementation of its NAP, developed in November 2020. Authorities continued to raise awareness of trafficking and foreign workers’ rights, including through social media, national press, and public roadshows.

Brunei’s 2004 Employment Agencies Order (EAO) mandated licensing and regulation of recruitment agents. The EAO prohibited agencies from charging or receiving any form of fees, remuneration, profit, or compensation unless government regulation provided otherwise; in January 2023, the government passed a regulation permitting agencies to charge up to a $2,000 BND ($1,492) recruitment fee for domestic workers and, to enforce the cap, required all employment agencies to re-register their licenses. The government did not have regulations limiting or prohibiting recruitment fees in other sectors. DOL required foreign workers to sign their contracts in the presence of a labor officer to prevent forgery, ensure compliance with the law, and enable the labor official to provide information to the worker on their rights and obligations. The government provided sample migrant worker contracts and employment rights pamphlets in the primary languages of regional labor-sending countries; however, all contracts were written the same and did not provide position descriptions or specific details based on the workers’ employment. The government did not provide labor officials with legal guidance to determine the fairness of the contracts, and officials did not ensure that workers retained a copy of their contract. The government continued to oppose foreign governments’ proposals to establish a minimum wage and require that each worker have a position description. Brunei did not have a minimum wage; salary payments were negotiated in individual contracts. Foreign governments alleged the Bruneian government over-issued work visas, which permitted employers to bring in more migrant workers than jobs and left workers vulnerable to exploitation or deportation after having paid substantial recruitment fees. The 2009 Employment Order did not require employers to provide a written record of contract terms to employees not covered under the order, such as domestic workers and fishing crews.

Although Bruneian law prohibited employers from withholding wages for more than seven days or retaining employees’ passports, foreign embassies continued to report their citizens commonly experienced both practices; for the second year, the government did not report taking criminal or administrative action against any employers for passport retention, nonpayment of wages, or illegal recruitment fees. When labor officials inspected worksites, they were often announced in advance and only required migrant workers to show a copy of their passport and visa. The government fined four retail outlets for failing to grant workers leave on public holidays and copies of their work contracts; the government did not report screening for trafficking in these cases. The government required one employer to relocate workers because the accommodations were uninhabitable, the same as in the previous reporting period; the government did not report screening for trafficking. DOL investigated two employers for failure to give workers a mandatory day off, failure to grant sick leave, and failure to provide a written service contract; the government did not report investigating for trafficking. One foreign government reported an increase in its nationals working in Brunei dying from strokes and developing kidney diseases consistent with their complaints that employers did not provide them with water and deducted pay when they used the restroom; the foreign government reported the Government of Brunei did not investigate the employers.

In October 2022, the government signed an MOU with the Government of Bangladesh that required the Government of Brunei to recruit workers from a singular Bangladeshi recruitment agency, inform the Bangladeshi embassy in Brunei of any arrests of Bangladeshi migrant workers, and work with the Government of Bangladesh to develop a mechanism to settle labor disputes. The government did not finalize a worker protection MOU with a second foreign government, which has been pending since 2013. The government did not make efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts by publicizing the arrest of customers. The government provided anti-trafficking training to its diplomatic personnel.

As reported over the past five years, human traffickers exploit foreign victims in Brunei. There are more than 65,000 registered foreign workers in Brunei, mainly from Indonesia, the Philippines, Bangladesh, and the PRC; and thousands of unregistered migrant workers. Men and women migrate to Brunei primarily for domestic service, retail, and construction work. Many migrant workers from Bangladesh and Indonesia incur large debts from recruiters in Brunei and their home countries, making them vulnerable to exploitative employers. Additionally, some recruiters demand thousands of dollars in recruitment fees but, upon workers’ arrival in Brunei, fail to find them jobs; these workers, most of whom have thousands of dollars in recruitment debt, are vulnerable to traffickers and often resort to “freelancing,” which is illegal in Brunei. Individuals from the PRC and Bangladesh may have been forced to work in Brunei at projects run by PRC-based companies. The Government of Brunei increasingly issued contracts to PRC construction companies, including through the Belt and Road Initiative, and commercial fishing vessels that employed tens of thousands of migrant workers; the government lacked visibility into the workers’ living and working conditions and expressed concern about labor abuses and sex trafficking. Upon arrival, traffickers exploit some migrant workers through involuntary servitude, debt-based coercion, contract switching, nonpayment of wages, passport confiscation, physical abuse, or confinement. Although it is illegal for employers to withhold the wages from their employees for more than seven days, some employers withhold wages to recoup labor broker or recruitment fees or to compel the continued service of workers. Some employers reportedly “sell” to other contractors migrant workers whose visas have not yet expired. Retention of migrant workers’ travel documents by employers or agencies remains a widespread practice, although the law prohibits it. There were reports of Kenyan women in forced labor in Brunei. Traffickers may force some female migrants who arrive in Brunei on tourist visas into sex trafficking. Anti-LGBTQIA+ laws place some LGBTQIA+ individuals at higher risk of extortion and psychological coercion, while already being disproportionately vulnerable to trafficking. Some traffickers who exploit migrants in Malaysia or Indonesia for sex or labor trafficking use Brunei to transit victims. Trafficking experts in Brunei receive threats from traffickers for their advocacy and involvement in anti-trafficking efforts.

U.S. Department of State

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