Hong Kong slams US report on human trafficking despite waiver keeping it off list of worst offenders
Hong Kong escapes automatic downgrade that could have placed city among the world’s worst places for human trafficking, but government says the US assessment is ‘deplorable and unacceptable’
Hong Kong was rated for the third consecutive year on the Tier 2 Watch List in the US State Department’s latest Trafficking in Persons report, escaping an automatic downgrade that could have placed the city among the countries and regions doing least to combat human trafficking. But the Hong Kong government said the assessment was unfair and that it had ignored the local authorities’ efforts.
According to the annual report, although the Hong Kong administration was taking steps in the right direction, the city did not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, having failed at identifying victims and investigating cases with clear human trafficking indicators.
Countries and regions that remain on the Tier 2 Watch List for three consecutive years – like Hong Kong – are usually automatically downgraded to Tier 3, the lowest grade.
However, the US State Department granted a waiver to the city because the local “government has devoted sufficient resources to a written plan that, if implemented, would constitute significant efforts to meet the minimum standards”.
A spokesman for the Hong Kong government hit back at the report. “The US Department of State’s continued disregard of the Hong Kong government’s determined, persistent and reinforced efforts in combating human trafficking is most deplorable and unacceptable.”
The spokesman argued that the report “contained criticisms not founded on facts and allegations not supported by evidence”.
The US government pointed to some positive efforts that included an action plan to combat trafficking and enhance protections for foreign domestic workers released this year, along with a central steering committee to coordinate anti-trafficking efforts.
The US State Department also noted that Hong Kong passed legislation that strengthened the penalties against employment agencies that violate certain labour provisions and increased the number of investigations for sex trafficking related offences.
According to the document, Hong Kong reported fewer convictions for sex trafficking related offences and issued sentences that were “insufficiently stringent” given the seriousness of the crime.
“Some law enforcement officers did not properly investigate incidents with clear trafficking indicators reported to them by NGOs,” it said.
The document showed the government reported investigating nine potential cases of labour trafficking and 37 potential cases of sex trafficking in 2017.
“The absence of laws criminalising all forms of trafficking impeded investigators’ ability to charge suspected traffickers, particularly in cases where it was difficult to prove physical assault, theft, recruitment, or transportation,” the report said.
Forced labour is not a crime in Hong Kong with local laws providing a narrow definition of human trafficking, which only includes trafficking for the purpose of prostitution.
Archana Kotecha, head of the legal department at the non-profit Liberty Asia, noted that the coming year would be “extremely critical in showing that the new measures are indeed going to be addressing the shortcomings of the legal framework, how strong the law enforcement is going to be and how authorities are going to prosecute labour trafficking cases through the piecemeal approach”.
In the expert’s opinion, the current legal framework would not be enough.
“In a sense, right now the fight is with your hands tied behind your back. There has to be a clear definition of the crime in legislation,” Kotecha said.
Piya Muqit, executive director of the non-profit group Justice Centre Hong Kong, also noted that “the report makes it clear that comprehensive anti-trafficking legislation should be introduced in Hong Kong”.
She said that “comprehensive trafficking legislation would show that the government is serious in upholding its human rights obligations and adheres to its core values.
“We urge the government to work with stakeholders, including civil society, to develop laws to fill this gap.”
The annual report noted that often domestic workers are not allowed to work pending court cases, which deters victims from cooperating with authorities. And despite new regulations, some employment agencies that deceived workers have continued operating in the city – unlawfully retaining workers’ passports – even after losing their licences.
Other than abuse faced by foreign domestic workers, the document said that some women in Hong Kong had deceived Indian and Pakistani men into arranged marriages that involved forced domestic servitude, bonded labour in construction and other physically demanding industries.
Criminal syndicates or acquaintances have also lured women to Hong Kong from the Philippines, South America, and mainland China, often using false promises of lucrative employment and forcing them into prostitution, the report described.
Patricia Ho, a lawyer who has dealt with several human trafficking cases in the city, said the government needed to acknowledge the extent of the problem.
“When NGOs tell them on a general level that tens of thousands of victims are in our jurisdiction, they deny that. When lawyers and social workers bring victims to the authorities for help, they do nothing to assist them,” she noted.
Ho said the waiver granted by the US was understandable given the action plan announced in March, which would need time to reap results.
“But there is certainly no illusion that so far the government is doing anything but an exercise in smoke and mirrors,” Ho said.
According to the annual document, the city is failing as badly at combating human trafficking as countries such as Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Sudan.
Neighbouring Macau was also placed on the Tier 2 Watch List. Mainland China remains as being among the places doing least to tackle human trafficking, along with nations such as Syria and Myanmar on the Tier 3 list.