The U.S. State Department downgraded Vietnam and Cambodia to its next-to-lowest ranking in an annual report on human trafficking released today, pointing to what it called both countries' continuing failure to make "significant efforts" to combat the trade.
The Department's annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report ranks countries around the world as Tier 1, Tier 2, Tier 2 Watch List, or Tier 3, in descending order based on whether they meet the minimum standards to combat trafficking set by U.S. law.
Stalled for years without improvement at Tier 2, Vietnam finally fell to Tier 2 Watch List on this year's report because "the government did not demonstrate overall increasing efforts compared with the previous reporting period," the State Department said in its report.
Vietnamese authorities this year identified "significantly fewer trafficking victims" than in previous years, and anti-trafficking efforts were often blocked in the provinces by officials' lack of familiarity with anti-trafficking laws or victim-protection mechanisms, the State Department said.
Media reports showed adults were forced to labor in government-run drug treatment centers despite government assertions the practice had been ended, and children as young as six were exploited in garment factories or forced to beg in the streets, the report said.
Lack of interagency coordination was also blamed for hindering efforts to enforce the laws against trafficking and for failing to identify and rescue victims, according to the report.
"[And] despite continued reports of official complicity, the government did not report any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of officials complicit in trafficking offenses," the State Department said.
Reports of corruption
Cambodia, also previously ranked at Tier 2, fell to Tier 2 Watch List for the first time since 2016 because of a drop in the number of government attempts to "adequately collect or share key information on law enforcement efforts," the TIP report said.
"Corruption continued to impede law enforcement operations, criminal proceedings, and victim service provision," the State Department said, pointing at the same time to "credible reports of official complicity with unscrupulous business owners who subjected thousands of men, women, and children throughout the country to human trafficking via debt-based coercion."
Suspects brought to trial in Cambodia for trafficking were frequently convicted on lesser charges, the State Department said, and sex trafficking cases were often concluded by the payment of out-of-court settlements to victims' families, "further complicating prosecutions."
Meanwhile, Laos-previously ranked at Tier 3-was moved up to Tier 2 Watch List for having made "key achievements" during last year's reporting period, including the direct provision of services to trafficking victims and the establishment of anti-trafficking committees in the provinces and at other local levels.
Training programs and awareness-raising were also increased at the local level to support anti-trafficking efforts, the State Department said.
However, the government "continued to struggle to identify Lao and foreign victims of trafficking within Laos," according to the report, and exploitation for labor and sex remained a problem in special economic zones, agricultural plantations, and large-scale infrastructure projects across the country.
Poor coordination among government departments and constraints on the work of nongovernmental organizations also "continued to impede effective protection efforts and the implementation of Laos' national action plan to combat trafficking," the State Department said.
Ranked at the bottom
Three other countries covered by RFA-China, Myanmar, and North Korea-received Tier 3 rankings unchanged from last year's report, with none making "significant efforts" to fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, according to the report.
Chinese authorities took "some steps" during the reporting period to cooperate with international authorities in rescuing foreign women and girls forced into false marriages in China, the report said.
"However, state-sponsored forced labor intensified under the government's mass detention and political indoctrination campaign against members of Muslim ethnic minority groups in Xinjiang."
And in Myanmar, called Burma in the report, though authorities continued to prosecute and convict traffickers, "there were reports that government officials were complicit in both sex- and labor-trafficking, including by hindering law enforcement efforts against the perpetrators," the State Department said.
Myanmar armed forces meanwhile subjected civilian adults and children to forced labor during the reporting period and recruited child soldiers, with the government later taking "punitive action" against former child soldiers for deserting or for speaking out about their experiences.
Thousands of Muslim Rohingya and other minority group members were also left vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation when they were driven from their homes by armed clashes between the national military and ethnic armies, the report said.
In North Korea, also ranked at Tier 3, "the government did not demonstrate any efforts to address human trafficking," the State Department said, adding that money raised by state-ordered forced labor in the country's prisons and the public sector were used to support government functions and "other illicit activity."
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