US Special Ambassador on Human Trafficking Visits Burma

By The Irrawaddy 16 December 2016

RANGOON — The United States’ ambassador-at-large to combat human trafficking spent two days in Rangoon and Naypyidaw last week meeting with government officials, NGOs, and international organizations.

Ambassador Susan Coppedge said the purpose of the trip was to learn about progress and discuss challenges in Burma’s efforts to combat human trafficking, commonly defined as the illegal movement of people for the purposes of forced labor or commercial sexual exploitation.

The ambassador’s visit came a few months after Burma slipped to the lowest level on a US-led ranking of countries on their efforts to combat trafficking, and just ahead of the approval by Parliament this week of Burma’s ratification of the Asean Convention against Trafficking in Persons (ACTIP).

In July, Burma was downgraded to Tier 3 on the latest annual global Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, which assessed the country’s performance in 2015.

The downgrade was automatic after Burma was judged as having failed to demonstrate sufficient efforts to combat trafficking last year, after spending a period of four years on a Tier 2 watch list.

In response to the July report, the new government said it was stepping up efforts to protect migrant workers and victims of trafficking and forced labor.

The protection of victims was a major challenge for anti-trafficking efforts globally, Coppedge said.

“One of the messages I carry with me is the non-criminalization of victims,” she told The Irrawaddy. ‘‘It’s very hard for law enforcement, when they encounter someone who may have broken immigration laws or laws against prostitution, to stop and look at that person as a potential victim of crimes.”

She added, “It’s very important to screen vulnerable individuals, particularly migrants, or people in prostitution, women, and children to see what the true nature of the activity is there and whether they were compelled to engage in it.”

Labor trafficking is increasing in Southeast Asia and globally and was receiving increased attention from her office at the US Department of State, Coppedge said.

The 2016 TIP report stated that Burma remained a significant source country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labor in fishing, manufacturing, and other industries abroad, while women and children are subjected to sex trafficking both at home and abroad.

Forced labor was still a major issue inside the country, the report said, noting that the Burma Army’s “self-reliance” policy in conflict areas “continues to make adults and children vulnerable” to the practice.

Although the Army had taken steps in recent years to reduce the recruitment of child soldiers, children were still recruited into the military and child deserters remained subject to arrest, it said.

People displaced by conflict in Arakan, Kachin, and northern Shan States were at increased risk of trafficking, according to the report. It urged the Burma government to take increased action on trafficking on around seventeen different fronts, including increasing prosecutions and jail time for offenders and improving services for victims.

During 2015, the previous government reported prosecuting and convicting 168 traffickers, up around 15 percent from 143 the year before.

Many cases that reached court concerned the forced marriages of Burmese women to Chinese men in northern border areas.

Sex trafficking cases have accounted for a large proportion of anti-trafficking prosecutions since Burma formed an Anti-Trafficking-in-Persons Division within the police force in 2004 and introduced an anti-trafficking law in 2005.

International organizations including the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and an Australia-funded regional project have provided anti-trafficking trainings and other support to the police division and to members of Burma’s criminal justice system over a period of around ten years.

In 2015, the US Department of State’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking provided US$700,000 to World Vision in Burma for training and support to police, judges, prosecutors, and case managers to improve “victim-centered investigations and prosecutions.”

The Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs in the US is also supporting training for prosecutors and law enforcement this year.

It is providing $800,000 to the UNODC in support of Border Liaison Officers along Burma’s borders with China, Laos, Bangladesh, and Thailand for a program that aims to “increase the capacity of frontline law enforcement officials to identify, address, and combat transnational crime, specifically trafficking in persons and migrant smuggling.”

Direct support and services for the victims of trafficking in Burma remains extremely low, and the lack of a protection system means many trafficking victims decline to cooperate on prosecutions.

“This is the same worldwide. It’s a really challenging area, and we certainly recommend that victim services be supported here in Myanmar and that more money be put into victim services,’’ Coppedge said.

Part of the recent US funding for combating trafficking in Burma is to build capacity among civil society and networks so there will be a referral system in place for victims, she said.

“Myanmar has institutions set up, and procedures set up, but it now needs the funding to put those into action, both with respect to prosecution and victim services,’’ Coppedge added.

Another barrier to combating trafficking in Burma is corruption, the TIP report noted.

“Corruption and impunity remained pervasive in Burma and hindered the enforcement of human trafficking laws. Individuals with alleged ties to high level officials reportedly pressured trafficking victims not to seek legal redress against traffickers,” it said.

Coppedge said that corruption was a problem and an impediment to fighting trafficking globally. In Burma, her office was working to enhance coordination among international donors, evaluate programs, and conduct research and evaluation to identify “hot spots and which programs are effective.”

The new government has stated that one of its general policy priorities is to combat corruption.

In its response to the latest TIP report in July, the government also drew attention to a wider context, saying it was particularly working “to alleviate poverty, a primary breeder of conditions that lead to human trafficking.”