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Human Rights

Hong Kong launches action plan on human trafficking but critics say more must be done

Measures include expansion of victim screening mechanisms and appointing dedicated teams to handle cases of exploitation – but human rights groups say laws must be the priority

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 March, 2018, 8:27pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 March, 2018, 11:04pm

Hong Kong has launched an action plan to step up the fight against human trafficking and protection for 370,000 foreign domestic helpers in the city, the No 2 official announced on Wednesday, amid repeated criticism by the United States and human rights groups.

But introducing anti-human trafficking laws was not among the measures, as the administration reiterated that the city was equipped with at least 49 pieces of legislation to combat related crimes.

The government also said that the problem did not originate on Hong Kong soil.

Advocates and workers welcomed the plan but said the move still fell short of fully addressing the problem and that introducing anti-human trafficking laws must be the priority.

The measures include expansion of victim screening mechanisms and appointing dedicated teams to handle cases of exploitation.

The government will also launch a hotline with interpretation services for foreign domestic workers, a tool that has been used in other countries such as the US.

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Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung, who chairs a steering committee responsible for the action plan, said in the Legislative Council: “Trafficking in persons is a heinous crime that is not tolerated in Hong Kong … Although it is neither widespread nor prevalent in Hong Kong, the government has been keeping a close watch on the trend of such crimes to make a timely response.”

He also told lawmakers that “although Hong Kong does not have a single piece of legislation prohibiting trafficking in persons … the legislation of Hong Kong already covers such conduct.”

The Post understands that the committee was established recently and had met at least once.

“I am thrilled they rolled out a plan … I am amazed and happy that they are doing something for the victims of human trafficking,” said human rights lawyer Patricia Ho of Daly and Associates. “However, their statement at Legco today was very disturbing.”

Ho was shocked that the government did not acknowledge this was a serious problem in the city. “In past years, more and more cases have been brought to their attention … Having these statements is contrary to the very purpose of the action plan.”

The lawyer, who has represented human trafficking victims in court, insisted that the current legislative framework was insufficient.

She praised the government’s move of putting in more resources and personnel on the front line. “But they have not defined what human trafficking is. Human trafficking is not criminal in Hong Kong and labour trafficking is also not a criminal offence. It is hard for me to understand how these officials will investigate the cases.”

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Ho added that the government had been heavily criticised in the past year, particularly following the yearly US State Department report on human trafficking. She suspected the government rolled out a plan to prevent a further downgrade.

Hong Kong was placed on the Tier 2 Watch List – just one rank from the worst offenders – for the second consecutive year in 2017. The US said the government had not shown increased efforts to tackle the problem and called on Hong Kong to put in place a comprehensive anti-trafficking law.

Tier 3 countries and regions may face sanctions.

Eman Villanueva, spokesman of the Asian Migrants’ Coordinating Body, welcomed the move but echoed Ho’s views, saying a more “positive approach” to the issue would be “through the legislation and adherence to existing international standards and protocols pertaining to trafficking in persons and modern slavery”.

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Cynthia Abdon-Tellez, general manager of the advocacy group Mission for Migrant Workers, also said the government needed to look at the overall picture. “A law is needed in Hong Kong because the city is a source, a transit point and also a destination for many human-trafficking victims,” she noted.

The US consulate said it welcomed the promulgation.

“We believe that combating trafficking in persons is an important priority for every society, including for the United States, and we look forward to continuing to partner with Hong Kong on this matter,” a statement read.