Hong Kong does not need laws against human trafficking, says government: victims are routinely criminalised, says Bar Association

Administration’s insistence comes despite legal experts saying victims are criminalised instead of being protected and issue is affecting city’s international image

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 June, 2016, 5:56pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 June, 2016, 7:24pm

The government has dismissed the need to introduce an anti-trafficking law and said such crime is not common in the city, even though legal experts say victims are criminalised instead of being protected and the issue is affecting Hong Kong’s international image.

Despite critical reports which describe Hong Kong as a destination, transit point and source of human trafficking and point out serious flaws in the government’s approach, a spokeswoman for the Security Bureau said that the occurrence of human trafficking in the city was “rare”.

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The bureau noted that “solid and proven” legal frameworks were already in place.

Enhanced measures were introduced in the past year, “in particular regarding victim identification and referral, and in the protection of foreign domestic helpers,” a spokeswoman said in a written response.

Police and the Immigration Department are also planning to revise in the coming months “their victim identification guidelines ,” the spokeswoman noted, without elaborating on the details of the review.

International groups as well as local legal experts and NGO workers have urged the government to improve protection for victims and introduce an anti-trafficking law.

Criminal law only addresses human trafficking for the purpose of prostitution.

Neighbouring Macau approved an anti-trafficking law in 2008. Across the border, the mainland government has in place a National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking for 2013-2020.

In Hong Kong, “trafficked persons or suspected trafficked persons, including women, are routinely prosecuted for immigration offences, such as breach of conditions of stay in the case of prostitutes, and imprisoned,” the Bar Association said in a document submitted to the Legislative Council’s security panel last week.

“There appears to be no practice or policy of treating them as victims,” the association noted .

Panel hearings on Hong Kong’s third report under the United Nations Convention Against Torture came a few days after the Global Slavery Index 2016 rated the city worse than the mainland for its ‘inadequate’ response to issues relating to human trafficking.

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In 2014, local authorities identified 26 potential sex trafficking victims, but none were referred to care facilities. No trafficking suspects were prosecuted .

From April last year to this February, a total of 16 victims were identified. Eight syndicate members were convicted with sentences ranging from four to 30 months.

“Victims of human trafficking face an adversarial legal system through and through,” Puja Kapai, associate professor of law at the University of Hong Kong, said, noting that the number of identified victims underestimated the extent of the problem.

“In general, there’s no balance of power – from immigration procedures, language barriers to a lack of sympathy from frontline law enforcement officers inclined to use aggressive tactics to have victims admit transgressions,” the High Court barrister said.

The legal expert has no doubt that the prevalence of labour trafficking in Hong Kong is an issue that is affecting the city’s international image.

“Hong Kong cannot afford to sweep the problem under the rug. We need to ... modernise our definition of trafficking ,” she said. “At present, we are in the company of North Korea in terms of our ­approach to human trafficking.”