The United States has ranked Myanmar as a Tier 2 Watch List country on its annual Trafficking in Persons report for the fourth consecutive year.
The Myanmar government “does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so,” said the report, released on July 28 and covering the year to the end of March.
The reporting period did not include the boat migrant crisis that erupted in May after a crackdown on human trafficking by the Thai authorities following the discovery of mass graves in jungle camps near the border with Malaysia. The disruption to the trafficking chain left thousands of people from Rakhine State and Bangladesh languishing at sea, sometimes for weeks, before they were accepted by Indonesia and Malaysia.
The report, in which countries are ranked on a three-tier system, with those on Tier 1 regarded as fully complying with efforts to eradicate human trafficking, said Myanmar was regarded as a “source” country for forced labour and sex trafficking. Women and children were being sold into the sex trade or for forced marriages and men were vulnerable to being trafficked abroad for forced labour in such industries as fishing, manufacturing and construction, it said.
Boat migrant crisis
The report said those most vulnerable to human trafficking in Myanmar were the estimated 800,000 stateless Rohinyga in Rakhine State and about 98,000 people displaced by conflict in Kachin and northern Shan States. The lack of legal status and access to identification documents for the Rohingya “significantly increased” their vulnerability to trafficking, the report said.
It said Myanmar was granted a waiver from being downgraded to Tier 3 – which could invoke sanctions from the US – because it has a plan that, if implemented, could bring the country into compliance with the minimum standards of eliminating trafficking.
Human rights group Fortify Rights criticised the TIP report, saying that Myanmar’s ranking, as well as the upgrading of Malaysia from Tier 3 to Tier 2, was politically motivated.
“The US State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons report fails to accurately assess Malaysia and Myanmar’s efforts to combat human trafficking,” said Fortify Rights executive director Matthew Smith.
The group said it has documented the use of forced labour by the Tatmadaw in Kachin and northern Shan states, and has evidence that Myanmar officials profited from the exodus of Rohingya fleeing persecution in Rakhine on boats organised by trafficking gangs.
“With elections on the horizon, [Washington] D.C. has brushed aside Myanmar’s systematic use of slave labor,” said Mr Smith.
The report referred to the recruitment and use of child soldiers by the Tatmadaw and ethnic armed groups.
It welcomed the release from the Tatmadaw of 376 child soldiers during the reporting period and efforts to integrate them into the school system. “But overall government support to demobilized children remained minimal,” it said, with the most of the assistance being provided by civil society organisations. Another concern was the jailing for desertion of children who fled military service, it said.
Shalini Bahuguna, the deputy representative in Myanmar of the United Nations children’s agency, UNICEF, said families and communities were better informed about the ban on child soldier recruitment by the Tatmadaw and the trafficking of children across borders, but obstacles remained.
“Despite progress made, lack of accountability for trafficking offenders remains a considerable challenge,” Ms Bahuguna. “Addressing this challenge requires strengthening of the investigative capacity of the police and clear definition of mandates of various police divisions involved,” she said.
Increased investment in education and healthcare would help to eradicate child poverty and make children less vulnerable to trafficking, said Ms Bahuguna, who also called for a victim-centred approach to prosecuting offenders and providing protection to rescued trafficking victims.
The US report quoted the government as saying it had investigated 98 trafficking cases involving 291 suspects of whom 143 were convicted, compared with cases investigated and 183 traffickers convicted during the previous reporting period.
Corruption and impunity
The report said a lack of transparency in the justice system, a poor understanding among some officials about trafficking offences, corruption and impunity remain among the obstacles facing the government’s efforts to tackle human trafficking.
Police Brigadier-General Win Naing Tun from the Myanmar Police Force anti-human trafficking unit said fighting trafficking was a “national duty” that was not motivated by US reports.
“The Myanmar government has been taking action with a plan. Some parts of the plan have been implemented, some we are doing now and some are still being developed,” he told the Myanmar Times.
Paul Buckley, the Bangkok-based regional technical advisor for UN Action for Cooperation against Trafficking in Persons, said Myanmar has made progress on the issue by implementing its plan of action and cross border collaboration with other countries.
“There are a number of areas where more progress is needed, from addressing the structural factors that result in instability and vulnerability to traffickers, through to the support services and livelihood options for trafficked persons who seek to return home,” Mr Buckley said.
Fortify Rights said Malaysia’s ranking was influenced by its participation in negotiations with the US and other countries on the Trans-Pacific Partnership. A Tier 3 ranking would have excluded Malaysia from the partnership.
For the second consecutive year, Thailand was ranked at Tier 3, with the report noting that some Thai police had removed Rohingya men from detention facilities before selling them to human traffickers in the country’s south.
A letter from 25 international civil society groups to US Secretary of State John Kerry said it supported Thailand’s ranking, saying it would help to put pressure on the Thai authorities to “enact more substantive reforms to end the labor trafficking that can be found in many sectors of Thailand’s economy.”