WITH ANOTHER year comes another report from the State Department on trafficking in persons and another shocking account of human rights abuses around the world: Laborers sweat past nightfall in brick kilns for no pay. Girls are trapped in hotel rooms with barred windows and are repeatedly raped by whomever their captors let in the door. Young boys are made to beg for money on the streets — but maimed first to increase profits.
The study, which the State Department released last week, is an annual chiding for countries that fail to crack down on abuse within their borders. It’s also an annual opportunity to demand that those countries change. So it is important that the report reflect reality.
Last year, when Malaysia was promoted from lowest-level Tier 3 to the Tier 2 watch list, human rights advocates said politics had snuck their way into the report; Malaysia is regarded as an important ally by the Obama administration. This year, the country stayed where last year’s rankings put it. Thailand ascended to the Tier 2 watch list, and Burma and Uzbekistan were demoted.
It’s encouraging to see the report recognize the plight of the 1 million Rohingya in Burma. Members of the ethnic minority group were driven from their homes in 2012, and last year many died at sea trying to escape persecution. Today, they are among the most vulnerable to the sex and labor trafficking that plagues Burma even under its new democratic leadership. Relegating the country to Tier 3 was the right choice — and one that should inspire Burma to tackle abuse too long ignored. Uzbekistan also deserved its demotion.
When it comes to Thailand and Malaysia, however, there are as any many questions this year as last. Thailand’s military government — which the United States seems keen on courting — has taken steps to clean up the country’s fishing and seafood industry. Laws are stricter, and investigations, prosecutions and convictions of traffickers have increased. But for victims, the situation on the ground seems as dire as ever. Inspection systems that look good in theory don’t work in practice: Fishing vessels are still filled with people working against their will, and government officials remain complicit in the crimes.
Malaysia is no better. Despite a reformed victim protection system, migrant workers continue to suffer on palm oil plantations and in electronics factories. Though trafficking convictions increased last year, investigations and prosecutions decreased. And no one has been held accountable for the mass graves found last year on the Thai border. Malaysia did not deserve a promotion last year, and it does not deserve this year to keep a prize it did not earn.
Countries have little incentive to curb trafficking when they are not held to account. By censuring those that condone abuse, the State Department’s rankings give delinquent governments a reason to try. It’s crucial that the reports get it right.