Washington D.C., Jun 30, 2016 / 05:36 pm (CNA).- The U.S. government released its annual human trafficking report Thursday, drawing praise but also some criticism for allegedly giving some offending countries a political pass.

“When we talk about ‘human trafficking,’ we’re talking about slavery — modern-day slavery that still today claims more than 20 million victims on any given time,” Secretary of State John Kerry stated at the report’s ceremony on June 30. “And all 20 million are people just like everybody here. They have names. They have or had families in many cases,” he continued. “And they are forced to endure a hell — a living hell in modern times that no human being should ever have to experience.”

The Trafficking-in-Persons report is an annual update on human trafficking in 188 countries and territories worldwide, published by the U.S. State Department and created with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000. A global refugee crisis and violent conflicts have created whole populations who are vulnerable to be trafficked as sex slaves, wage slaves, or child soldiers, the report said.

There are over 20 million trafficking victims worldwide, Secretary Kerry noted. Yet much work is being done to fight this injustice, as Secretary Kerry noted in his remarks the “growing network of NGOs and advocacy groups who work hard every single day to bring modern-day slavery to a permanent end.” One official at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was glad the report highlighted the work of these non-governmental organizations.

Hilary Chester, associate director of the Anti-Trafficking Program at the conference’s Migration and Refugee Services committee, told CNA their project fights maritime trafficking in collaboration with other Church entities across the globe. With Thailand, for instance, Church groups were helping the government improve the maritime trafficking problem. Chester said she was “happy to see that work and those partnerships being highlighted in the report.”

Pope Francis also received praise Thursday from the State Department’s Susan Coppedge, the Ambassador-at-Large in the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. Coppedge praised the Vatican’s human trafficking summit held earlier in June, which “explored the need for victim-supported services instead of punishments for crimes committed under duress.” “While Pope Francis has a unique ability to gather and rally diverse groups, leaders across communities — businesses, governments, and NGOs — can likewise demonstrate the power of collaboration in fighting the scourge of modern slavery,” she said.

Another focus of the report was the tier rankings of countries. The U.S. government, in cooperation with embassies around the globe, foreign governments, and non-governmental organizations, researches the practice of trafficking worldwide and ranks countries in a tier system based on the seriousness of their trafficking problems and the governments’ responses to curb trafficking.

Tier 1 countries meet the “minimum standards” of fighting trafficking, set forth in the 2000 law, which include prohibition of and sufficient punishment for trafficking. Tier 3 countries, the lowest tier, not only fail to meet the U.S. government’s trafficking standards but also are not fighting enough to prevent trafficking. For such countries the U.S. President has the authority to withhold official “non-humanitarian, nontrade-related foreign assistance,” among other possible actions. Countries currently on the Tier 3 list include Russia, Iran, Venezuela, Syria, and Zimbabwe. Countries like Burma and Uzbekistan were downgraded in 2016 to Tier 3 countries, as well as Djibouti, Haiti, Suriname, and Papua New Guinea.

The 2016 report’s tier rankings received some praise but also measures of criticism from the author of the law that first mandated the report, Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.). He said that despite some accurate ratings in the 2016 report the administration based some of its rankings on politics. For example, China and Cuba should have been placed on the worst offenders tier, an omission attributable to politics, he said. They instead remained on the next tier up, the Tier 2 Watch List reserved for countries who are “making significant efforts” to fight trafficking but need to be watched closely because of the seriousness of their trafficking problems.

“China is the black hole of human trafficking,” Rep. Smith contested, adding that it is not making acceptable progress in fighting trafficking -- its convictions have fallen over 60 percent in six years. Yet China’s one-child forced family planning policy — now a two-child policy for many families — has brought about a demographic crisis of about 118 boys born per 100 girls born, more than the world normal 103-106 boys per 100 girls. This has created a market for sex trafficking, he said.

Other human rights abuses in China include North Koreans working in “slave-like conditions” and organ harvesting and slave labor inflicted upon the prison population, he said, which completely merit a Tier 3 grade for the country. “Tier rankings must be earned, not meted out as gifts to economic and security partners,” he insisted. “The President continues to turn a blind eye to the suffering of the Cuban people for the sake of his fanciful friendship with the Castro brothers,” Rep. Smith said of Cuba remaining on the Tier 2 watch list instead of being downgraded. The government “benefits from the forced labor of its own medical personnel abroad, the sale abroad of Cuban blood and organs, and sex tourism,” he said.

Yet Secretary of State John Kerry claimed on Thursday that the agency’s tier rankings were not politically-motivated. “The tier rankings that I have designated reflect our department’s best assessment of a government’s efforts to eliminate human trafficking. They don’t take into account political and other factors,” he said.

Smith did praise the administration’s downgrading of Burma, calling it “justified and long overdue” because of the complicity of state and military officials in trafficking there. He added that “Uzbekistan's record is now accurately ranked” at Tier 3 because its government “openly, notoriously, and unapologetically traffics its own citizens every year in the cotton harvest.”

Last year, Rep. Smith and other members of Congress criticized the administration for upgrading Malaysia’s status for it to participate in the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The move was unwarranted and political, human rights advocates claimed. Malaysia retained its position on the Tier 2 watch list in the 2016 report. The upgrade was “egregious,” Rep. Smith said, as it came during the Malaysia’s “continued failure to convict sex and labor traffickers.”

There are some particularly serious challenges to fighting trafficking today, the report noted, like religious persecution, violent conflicts, and a global refugee crisis. Members of religious minorities in a country with a state religion or majority religion might not have due process. This means that they could be trafficked and might not be able to take legal action or enjoy the protection of the state because of their religious affiliation. They are especially vulnerable to forced marriages, or they might not have access to a job and become trapped in sex trafficking or wage slavery. Refugees fleeing violence are vulnerable to be pushed into forced labor or sex trafficking by smugglers.

The United Nations refugee arm UNHCR estimated that out of the 7.4 billion people in the world, one out of every 113 “is now either an asylum-seeker, internally displaced, or a refugee — putting them at a level of risk for which UNHCR knows no precedent,” in a quote cited in the report. Terror groups who are displacing mass numbers of people take advantage of their vulnerable condition, like ISIS taking women and girls as sex slaves. Other criminals might take advantage of them.

For example, in one Syrian town recruiters promised job opportunities in Lebanon; women jumped at the opportunity to leave their war-torn country. The recruiters successfully trapped over 70 girls in sex slavery and raped and tortured them if they didn’t comply with their demands, the report said.

Conflict zones — which exist across the globe — are also prime areas for human trafficking, the report said, because legal and civic structures are either frayed or non-existent. Resources are diverted to filling immediate humanitarian and military needs, creating a black market for trafficking, especially in refugee camps with a lack of proper oversight.

Another problematic area is maritime trafficking, Kerry noted, where criminals use the isolation of the ocean to hide their use of slaves on fishing boats. He gave one example of a Cambodian man who went to Thailand to find work to support his family, but who was caught in the fishing industry. “[Lang] Long was forced to work on a fishing vessel. He was beaten regularly with a metal pole, compelled to drink water from fish barrels, allowed little rest. And when he wasn’t working, he was chained by a rusty metal collar around his neck to an anchor post, so that he couldn’t escape,”

Secretary Kerry said. And there are “many, many stories of this,” he added. “Enslaved crew members — most of whom are under 17 years of age — they’re forced to work 18-to-20-hour days. They’re denied medical care, they’re force-fed amphetamines to help them work through the pain.”

Ultimately, the report, while very “technical,” is also a “really fascinating and a really inspiring document,” pointing out “great successes” and “effective and positive programs,” Chester said. One section deals with “TIP heroes,” those “who have devoted their lives to the fight against human trafficking.” Their stories are important too, Chester insisted, because while the lists of the trafficking abuses worldwide might be “tough to read,” she added that “it’s also important, and it’s really inspiring, to see the positive outcomes and the positive changes.”  

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