VANUATU (Tier 2 Watch List)

The Government of Vanuatu does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but is making significant efforts to do so.  These efforts included sentencing four traffickers to adequate prison terms, following their conviction in the previous reporting period.  However, the government did not demonstrate overall increasing efforts compared with the previous reporting period, even considering the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, if any, on its anti-trafficking capacity.  For the fourth consecutive year, authorities did not identify any trafficking victims and did not provide any protection services to trafficking victims, including among victims who remained in the country at the close of the previous reporting period.  For the third consecutive year, the government did not investigate any trafficking crimes.  The government also did not conduct public awareness campaigns or administer systematic anti-trafficking training for its law enforcement officials.  Therefore Vanuatu was downgraded to Tier 2 Watch List.

  • Amend anti-trafficking legislation to remove sentencing provisions that allow fines in lieu of imprisonment for sex trafficking crimes. 
  • Increase efforts to investigate, prosecute, and convict traffickers under anti-trafficking laws and seek adequate penalties for convicted traffickers, which should involve significant prison terms. 
  • In coordination with civil society, develop and implement comprehensive 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 resources for and implement victim protection benefits, including permission to work for foreign victims who wish to participate in prosecutions against alleged traffickers. 
  • Refer all identified victims to services. 
  • Cease compelling foreign victims to remain in Vanuatu for the length of prosecutions against 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 inadequate 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) ($417,010), 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 ($625,520), 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.

The government did not report any trafficking investigations, prosecutions, or convictions.  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 traffickers in March 2019 for exploiting 101 Bangladeshi victims in labor trafficking and in November 2020 initiated their prosecution – the first trafficking prosecution in the country’s history.  In June 2022, courts sentenced the four convicted traffickers to imprisonment between six and 14 years and ordered them to pay 190.8 million VT ($1.59 million) in restitution to the 101 victims.  Courts ordered two of the traffickers, collectively, to pay an additional 80,000 VT ($667) in fines.  In December 2022, authorities released three of the convicted traffickers on parole and deported them to their country of origin after serving half of their sentences due to pretrial detention time served.

The government did not report any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of government employees complicit in human trafficking crimes.  The Vanuatu Police Force’s National Intelligence Unit (NIU) 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 authorities’ ability to investigate trafficking cases.  For the second consecutive year, the government did not report any anti-trafficking training activities for law enforcement or other government officials.  Observers reported the government redirected resources, including those related to anti-trafficking efforts, among government agencies as a result of several cyclones, a cyberattack on government information technology services, and the pandemic, which may have adversely affected the government’s ability to detect and address trafficking.

The government did not report any efforts to identify or assist victims.  For the fourth consecutive year, the government did not report identifying any trafficking victims.  The government continued to lack comprehensive, government-wide victim identification and referral SOPs.  The government did not have adequate screening procedures for arriving passengers at border control points.  In the past, 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 police allowed 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.

The government did not report assisting any victims.  The government did not report an update on three Bangladeshi labor trafficking victims identified in 2018 who remained in country at the end of the previous reporting period.  Unlike the previous reporting period, the government did not report granting temporary visas for victims to remain and work in Vanuatu.  The government did not report providing funding or assisting in repatriation efforts for the three labor trafficking victims.  When available, protection services were time-limited, and authorities conditioned some services on victims’ participation in court proceedings against the alleged traffickers.  In previous years, 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 report having 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 labor trafficking victims sought restitution; the government did not provide an update to this restitution case.  In prior years, 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.  Observers reported the government redirected resources, including those related to anti-trafficking efforts, among government agencies as a result of several cyclones, a cyberattack on government information technology services, and the pandemic, which may have adversely affected the government’s ability to identify and assist trafficking victims.

The government decreased efforts to prevent trafficking.  The National Steering Committee on Migrant Protection (NSC) was the national anti-trafficking coordinating body; the NSC did not report meeting.  The NSC was an interagency committee composed of senior government officials from multiple agencies, including Vanuatu Immigration Services, Transnational Crime Unit (TCU), Department of Labor, and National Security Council.  During the previous reporting period, the NSC, in partnership with an international organization, performed an assessment of existing anti-trafficking policies and legislation; the NSC did not provide an update to the assessment and it was not made publicly available.  The TCU had an action plan, which included anti-trafficking action items; however, it did not address all forms of trafficking and the TCU did not report implementing it.

Observers reported the government redirected resources, including those related to anti-trafficking efforts, among government agencies as a result of several cyclones, a cyberattack on government information technology services, and the pandemic, which may have adversely affected the government’s ability to prevent trafficking.  For the fourth consecutive year, the government did not report conducting systematic anti-trafficking awareness campaigns.  The government did not report having a trafficking hotline or taking any steps 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; the government did not report issuing any notices.  During a prior 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 report an update to the proposed actions.  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 report providing 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 exploited them in 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.  Traffickers exploit children 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 their 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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