The 2017 US trafficking in persons report: A critique

The US State Department recently issued its 2017 edition of the Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP Report). As might be expected, China, with over three million people living in modern slavery, has once again been downgraded to Tier 3 (countries whose governments do not fully comply with minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so), a ranking it held for a single year in 2013.  However, one must ask why China was upgraded from Tier 3 in 2014, and why the downgrade now, for this is by no means clear from the reports for the two years.

This one correction aside, it is difficult to find much to compliment about the report and its State Department authors. Among the bewildering decisions:

  • India remains on Tier 2, despite having more slaves that any other country (18 million according to the 2016 Global Slavery Index).
  • Indonesia remains on Tier 2, despite its consistently poor track record of convictions, endemic official corruption and shoddy treatment of victims.
  • Malaysia upgraded to Tier 2, despite its consistent failure to tackle trafficking seriously.
  • Myanmar (Burma) upgraded to Tier 2 watch, up from its Tier 3 downgrade in 2016.

Taking each of these in turn, India has a poor track record of police prosecuting and convicting traffickers. In 2015 there were a mere 815 convictions, with 1,556 acquittals and 16 discharges, a shameful performance when compared with its population of 1.3 billion and its estimated slave population of 18 million, a point conceded in the opening paragraph of the TIP Report’s Country Narrative. India’s prosecution and conviction metric performance for 2016 is notably absent. Additionally, the report contains references to grave official complicity, inadequate legislation, poor victim identification and protection, and instances of victim prosecution.  The TIP Report’s limited attempt to justify India’s Tier 2 status (i.e. as derisory as India’s performance was in 2016, at least it was an improvement on 2015) is feeble.

Indonesia has never slipped below Tier 2, which is inexplicable. Yet despite a population of 260 million, it reported only 110 new investigations in 2016, down from 221 in 2015; and 46 prosecutions, down from 66 in 2015 and 256 convictions. The report concedes Indonesia has endemic corruption among officials that impedes anti-trafficking efforts and enables traffickers to operate with impunity. Only two officials were prosecuted for trafficking offences, which given the country’s culture of corruption is perplexing.

Malaysia was rightly downgraded to Tier 3 in 2014, but promptly upgraded to Tier 2 watch in 2015, a prerequisite if Malaysia was to be a party to Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership, and this political hijacking of the TIP report remains a deep source of shame for the State Department. Now, once again, Malaysia has secured an upgrade, this time to Tier 2. Yet in 2016 it initiated only 175 prosecutions, which although an increase on the paltry 38 prosecutions the previous year, is no justification for promotion.  Convictions numbered a mere 35 against 7 the previous year. Again, the TIP Report notes complicity among law enforcement officials and inadequate efforts to protect victims. This cavalier performance cannot be regarded as “making significant efforts” on any objective basis.

Then there is Myanmar, a regime guilty of crimes against humanity through its systemic oppression of minority populations. Myanmar was rightly downgraded to Tier 3 in 2016.  Now only 12 months later, it is bounced back to the Tier 2 Watch List. On what grounds? The answer: a paradoxical decrease in convictions from 168 in 2015 to 145 in 2016! Additionally, Myanmar’s trafficking includes the recruitment of child soldiers and an army engaging in ethnic cleansing. The TIP Report’s Country Narrative for Myanmar is a depressing read, and the justification for this upgrade is utterly devoid of merit.

Now we come to Thailand, supposedly a friend of the United States, but in reality its whipping boy. To be clear, Thailand has some way to go before it satisfies its international obligations, but it is making significant attempts to do so, a point conceded in the opening sentence of the Department’s Country Narrative. Why then has it not been upgraded to Tier 2, which is defined as “countries whose governments do not fully comply with the TVPA’s minimum standards, but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance with those standards”?

Is Thailand’s retention on the Tier 2 Watch List an oversight? Regrettably not. Yet its metrics outperform those of the previously mentioned countries, particularly when population numbers are factored in. By way of illustration, for 2016 Thailand reported investigating 333 trafficking cases (317 in 2015), prosecuting 301 cases (up from 251 in 2015) involving 600 suspects (690 in 2015), and convicting 268 traffickers (up from 205 in 2015) in 2016.  Furthermore, its anti-trafficking and child legislation is reasonably sound and continues to be reviewed and improved.

Yet, Thailand is often portrayed as one of the “bad boys” when it comes to its efforts to combat trafficking, and already some commentators are complaining that it was not again downgraded to Tier 3 in the 2017 TIP Report, as they did last year. But such claims are ill-informed. The 2016 Global Slavery Index ranks Thailand as 20 out of 167 countries in terms of the estimated proportion of the population in modern day slavery, suggesting it might be deserving of its Tier 2 Watch List ranking. But this ranking is erroneous. It overlooks the fact that eleven countries are ranked as sixth worst, two ranked as eighth worst and eight ranked as 17th worst and so on. If this error is corrected, Thailand’s ranking is 56 (along with nine others) out of 167, which gives quite a different impression, particularly when allowance is made for the challenges it faces in addressing trafficking compared with western jurisdictions.

The finding in the opening sentence of the TIP Report’s Country Narrative for Thailand that the Government is making significant efforts to tackle trafficking is well founded. The anti-child-trafficking NGO which employs me works closely with Thai law enforcement agencies investigating and prosecuting offenders engaging in human trafficking and child exploitation. We work with a number of trusted and competent officers who are doing their best to tackle both trafficking and corruption. We are aware that the Prime Minister’s Office is monitoring the situation closely and implementing improvements to legislation, policy and enforcement performance. Are they making significant efforts to ensure Thailand meets its obligations? Absolutely. Could more be done? Yes, but this is not the test, and all countries, including my own (New Zealand) and the US, both of which enjoy a Tier 1 ranking, could do more.

It should also be remembered that Thailand faces significant challenges. Its economic strength relative to neighbouring countries such as Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia make it something of a promised land for displaced and impoverished people. With porous borders, there will always be significant numbers of foreigners seeking to gain unlawful entry into Thailand using people smugglers, who too often turn out to be traffickers. And then there are the western tourists, which include two groups who hamper Thailand’s efforts to improve its global reputation and ranking. First, there are the western sex tourists, many of whom are willing to join in the sexual exploitation of minors and other trafficked victims to satisfy their appetites. Second, there are the do-gooder but ill-informed (ignorant) tourists who learn about trafficking for the first time during their stay in Thailand and return home to write often exaggerated columns about human trafficking, many of them establishing NGOs to come to the aid of “damsels in distress”.

There is something unsavoury about the world’s most powerful country (for now at least) appointing itself a global policeman, judge and executioner, via automatic sanctions for a Tier 3 ranking, particularly when its corporate interests readily sacrifice the rights and dignity of the enslaved in pursuit of rapacious greed.

The TIP Report’s methodology is also misconceived. It promotes quantity (numbers of investigations, prosecutions and convictions) over quality. Such poor measurement only encourages law enforcement agencies all over the world to pursue low level offenders who are much easier to prosecute and convict, a perennial failing in the Report identified in numerous commentaries on the counter-trafficking sector.

Additionally, the TIP Report favours wealthy nations, particularly those from the West, enjoying their Tier 1 ranking. Yet the Report takes no account of how western consumer demand for cheap goods feeds sweatshop and child labour in the developing world, nor how the Western controlled global economy relies heavily on the exploitation of the poor to maintain growth, thereby entrenching vulnerability and contributing directly to trafficking. Perhaps if we factored these issues into account, the US would have a new ranking: Tier 3.

So, what is the solution? The US created these tier rankings and their definitions. It is duty-bound to apply them with objectivity and impartiality, when in reality they are not even peer reviewed. If the State Department is unable to objectively account for the rankings in the international arena, responsibility for creating the TIP report should be transferred to a more neutral party, namely the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The UNODC should then overhaul the methodology and ranking system to transform the TIP report into a universal and transparent system.

This new approach could then be used to bring pressure to bear not just on developing but on Western countries, to improve their compliance with Goal 8 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals of promoting inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment, and decent work for all. This would then make the TIP report a worthy legacy for the world to inherit from the US State Department and would, in the long run, improve US credibility and work to its advantage.


About the author: Ralph Simpson is the Country Director of Nvader, an NGO that works with Thai authorities to investigate and prosecute human traffickers and child sex offenders.  He has 30 years experience as a commercial litigation lawyer.