Trafficking in Persons in Southeast Asia : Analysis of data from the US Trafficking in Persons Report

buse of low-skilled migrants and human trafficking is a global problem. At Seefar, we are keen to help prevent people from being trafficked. It is therefore important to understand how different countries combat and prevent human trafficking, and to understand the work yet to be done.

The Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons is part of the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime. The protocol is the first global legally-binding instrument with an agreed definition on Trafficking in Persons. The protocol aims to “facilitate convergence in national approaches regarding the establishment of domestic criminal offences that would support efficient international cooperation in investigating and prosecuting trafficking in persons cases”. Hence, the protocol calls upon governments worldwide to implement this instrument into their own legislation to prevent and combat trafficking in persons.

The Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP report), published annually by the U.S. Department of State, provides information on the status of different countries’ efforts to combat human trafficking. The TIP report outlines national legal tools and discusses the degree to which countries have implemented the Protocol.

In the TIP report, the US Department of State ranks governments worldwide (including the United States) into one of three tiers based on government efforts to combat and prevent human trafficking, forced labour, and other forms of modern slavery. The TIP report is widely used as an international reference due to its recognition and influence despite being subject to criticism for its controversial reporting system.

We were interested in understanding how efforts to combat trafficking in persons have evolved over the past five years in Southeast Asia, a region where human trafficking has been rooted and widespread. Some studies suggest there are almost 36 million victims of human trafficking globally, and almost two-thirds are from Asia. Our work in Southeast Asia primarily focuses on Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam and Myanmar. We examined TIP Reports from 2012 through 2016 in order to understand how these countries have progressed in countering and preventing trafficking in persons. We found the information provided in the reports interesting and helpful, yet found the unstructured format of the reports wanting. The TIP report provides a lot of information about recommendations on how to combat and prevent human trafficking. However, the report does not provide an overview of how recommendations have changed over time. Therefore, we created our own analysis looking at this data over time.

In our examination of TIP reports for these seven countries from 2012 through 2016, we found that there were 435 recommendations made by US Department of State. After pulling these recommendations into one database, we were then able to categorize and analyse them.

First, we created a rubric so that all 435 recommendations could be classified into 8 groups:

  • Civil society
  • Data tracking system
  • Identification
  • Judicial action
  • Law reform
  • Prevention
  • Services and training

Then, a content analysis was performed to classify each of the 435 recommendations into one of the 8 groups.

Here is what we found:

For all seven countries combined from 2012 through 2016, the majority of recommendations have been for Law reform, followed by Services, Judicial action, Prevention, Identification, Training, Data tracking systems, and Civil society, in that order.

From 2012 through 2016, Thailand received the highest number of recommendations (90), followed by Cambodia (66), Malaysia (65), Myanmar (58), Vietnam (58), Philippines (55), and Indonesia (43).

Thailand received the highest number of recommendations and most of these are related to:

  • Law reform (e.g., ratify the 2000 UN Palermo Protocol; develop and implement Victim of Trafficking identification procedures; process and approve legal status applications at the national, district and provincial level),
  • Services (e.g., improve labour inspection standards and procedures to better detect workplace violations including instances of trafficking), and
  • Judicial Action (e.g., increase efforts to investigate, prosecute and convict sex and labour trafficking offenders).

Cambodia had the second highest number of recommendations (66) from 2012 through 2016. Most of these recommendations are also for:

  • Law Reform (e.g., adhere and implement the terms of National plan of Action; establish witness protection provisions; streamline procedures for reporting and responding to cases in which victims are identified in countries without Cambodian diplomatic representation),
  • Services (e.g., augment governmental referrals of trafficking victims to NGOs with increased support and services, including legal aid, psychosocial support and reintegration programs), and
  • Judicial Action (e.g., vigorously investigate and prosecute trafficking offenses and convict and prosecute labour and sex traffickers).

Indonesia received the lowest number of recommendations (43) from 2012 through 2016. Most of these recommendations concern:

  • Judicial Action (e.g., provide efforts to prosecute and punish those involved in Trafficking in Persons).

Indonesia is the only country where the number of recommendations has increased since 2012. The number of recommendations has decreased for the other six countries. The number of recommendations that a country has, and a change in the number of recommendations over time can be due to various factors. For example, one possibility is that a decrease in the number of recommendations over time could indicate that a country has addressed previous recommendations.

The US government classifies countries into one of three tiers based on each country’s efforts to comply with the minimum standards to eliminate trafficking as outlined in section 108 of the 2000 Trafficking Victims Protection Act. By this Act, the US implemented the 2000 United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in persons into its legal framework. This Protocol supplements the 2000 United Nations Convention Against Transnational organized crime. The Protocol contains standards such as ‘The government of the country should prohibit severe forms of trafficking in persons and punish acts of such trafficking and should make serious and sustained efforts to eliminate severe forms of trafficking in persons.’

What do the different Tiers mean?

  • Tier 1 indicates that a government has fully complied with the minimum standards.
  • Tier 2 means that a government does not fully comply with the minimum standards, but is making significant efforts to come into compliance with those standards.
  • Tier 3 means that a government does not fully comply with the minimum standards and is not making a significant effort to do so.

The Tier into which a country is classified can change over time:

  • Cambodia, Indonesia and Vietnam have consistently been in the second tier from 2012 through 2016.
  • Malaysia was categorized as a third-tier country in 2014, as was Myanmar in 2016 and Thailand in 2014 and 2015.
  • The Philippines is the only country that has been categorized as a first-tier country, since 2016.

What does it mean when a country is classified into a different tier over the time? In the Malaysian case, for example, this change may mean that the country made fewer significant efforts to bring itself into compliance with the minimum standards in 2014, and then made enough efforts thereafter to re-join the second tier in 2015.

There is no further information on how recommendations in the TIP reports are concretely formulated and what procedure is used to verify countries’ efforts to comply with the minimum standards.

Our analysis and visualisation of information provided by the TIP report makes clear that the report would benefit from structuring and tracking recommendations over time in order to better support action against human trafficking.

You can browse the following table which lists each recommendation from 2012 through 2016 for the seven countries by country, year, tier, and category.

If you are interested in visualizing the overview for a specific country, a category of recommendations, a tier, or a year, you can select them in filters.

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