US Drops Burma from Worst Human Trafficking List

By Lalit K Jha 20 June 2012

WASHINGTON DC—Asserting that the new Burmese government is taking significant steps towards addressing the scourge of human trafficking, an official US report has removed Burma from its list of the worst countries on the issue.

“What we’ve seen over the last year is that the government in Burma has taken a number of significant and frankly unprecedented steps in advancing reforms and address the issue of human trafficking,” Luis CdeBaca, ambassador-at-large for the US Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, told reporters.

Burma’s downgrading from tier three, the lowest category given to those countries whose governments do not fully comply with minimum standards and do not make significant efforts to do so, has been heralded as a significant development.

Tier two status is given to those nations whose governments do not fully comply with the US Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s minimum standards, but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance. The Trafficking in Persons Report 2012 was released by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday.

“One of things that we have been very concerned about over the last few years was not simply the human trafficking that we see in Burma of say, for instance, going up to China for sex trafficking or over to Thailand for the labor trafficking as well as sex trafficking, but also the notion of state—basically state-sponsored forced labor [and arising from the state]—was supported by the 1907 Villages and Towns Act that was being used to justify the forced [commandeering] of villagers and rural folks. And it has everything from porters for the military to working on construction projects and what have you,” said CdeBaca.

Referring to the steps being taken by Naypyidaw to address human trafficking, the US diplomat said there is a good inter-ministerial working group but it has been limited by the government’s inability to work with other administrations around the world. However, he added that it has been in existence for several years and worked within constraints to try to bring about some best practices.

“As a result, we’ve seen improved victim protection measures for victims who’ve come back from other countries. We’ve seen the inauguration of a new hotline, which has led to the rescue of 57 victims. Most importantly, this notion of repealing that antiquated law so there’s no longer state-sponsored forced labor that is legal in Burma,” said CdeBaca.

“This is something that not only the United States has worked with the government of Burma on, but also the International Labor Organization [ILO], and I think you may be familiar with some announcements that the ILO made last week as far as that was concerned.”

Highly appreciative of the role of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the US official said people often forget her activism on the issues of human trafficking and forced labor as she is so famous for her “longstanding and heroic” work on democracy-building.

“The first place that she went outside of Burma when she was able to travel again was to the areas in Thailand where hoards of Burmese migrant workers are exploited and abused in Thai fish processing plants, and she addressed their abuse,” said CdeBaca.

“The next place that she went when she went to Europe was to address the ILO. This is a woman who even when she was under house arrest sent some of the money from her Nobel Prize to Thailand to be able to care for, shelter and feed Burmese trafficking victims.

“So this is a woman who most of us know as a democracy activist, but many of us who work on human trafficking also know her as a good friend and colleague, and frankly, an expert in the field of human trafficking. And I think that her ability to take part in the governance of her own country will bode well for the fight against human trafficking in Burma,” he added.

According to the report, Burma is a source country for men, women and children who are subjected to forced labor and for women and children subjected to sex trafficking to other countries.

“Many Burmese men, women and children who migrate for work in Thailand, Malaysia, China, Bangladesh, India and South Korea are subjected to conditions of forced labor or sex trafficking in these countries,” the report said.

“The government of Burma does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so,” it explained, adding that the Burmese government took a number of unprecedented steps to address forced labor and the conscription of child soldiers.

“These steps amount to a credible commitment to undertake anti-trafficking reforms over the coming year,” said the report, noting that authorities continued significant efforts to address the cross-border sex trafficking of women and girls, and inaugurated a national hotline to respond better to public complaints of all forms of human trafficking.

“The government repealed antiquated laws that sanctioned its use of forced labor, enacted new legislation that clearly prohibits forced labor imposed by any entity, and embarked on an ambitious new plan of action with the ILO to eradicate forced labor by 2015,” concluded the report.

The ILO removed restrictive measures on Burma last week after a mission reported that “there had been a substantial reduction in, or in some cases a cessation of forced labor, particularly in the last few months.”

However, both the Arakan Project and Shan Human Rights Foundation humanitarian groups have rubbished this assessment and claim that forced labor is a part of daily life for many ethnic minorities.