The United States on Thursday declared Myanmar as among the world’s worst offenders in human trafficking, placing it alongside Iran, North Korea and Syria — countries the U.S. has long disparaged.
The U.S. State Department’s 2018 “Trafficking in Persons Report” downgraded Myanmar (also known as Burma) to the report’s lowest classification amid global criticism over human rights abuses by that country’s military against the minority Rohingya Muslims.
“Burma’s armed forces and others in the Rakhine State dislocated hundreds of thousands of Rohingya and members of other ethnic groups, many of whom were exploited through the region as a result,” said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo Thursday.
“Some in the Burmese military also recruited child soldiers and subjected adults and children from ethnic minority groups to forced labor,” he added.
The annual report evaluates 187 countries and assigns each one of four categories based on the country’s efforts to combat trafficking. Tier 1 is the best ranking, while Tier 3 is the worst. There are two middle ranks: Tier 2 and Tier 2 Watch List.
Countries placed in Tier 3 can be penalized with sanctions and limited access to the U.S. and international foreign assistance.
WATCH: Myanmar Joins Ranks of Worst Human Trafficking Countries
The U.S. urged Myanmar to cease all unlawful recruitment and use of children in the armed forces, ending its officials’ involvement in sex trafficking and forced labor, and to hold officials criminally accountable for these crimes.
The 2018 report’s “Topics of Special Interest” section also includes a lengthy narrative on the horrors of the institutionalization of children or removing them from family caregiving settings, amid recent controversy surrounding U.S. immigration policy.
“Children in institutional care, including government-run facilities, can be easy targets for traffickers. Even at their best, residential institutions are unable to meet a child’s need for emotional support that is typically received from family members or consistent caretakers with whom the child can develop an attachment,” said the report.
US and zero tolerance
U.S. President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy raised concerns over child welfare and an increase in trafficking. More than 2,000 children were reportedly separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border in recent weeks before the president signed an executive order halting the policy. Some were placed in government-contracted shelters hundreds of miles from their parents.
“There are two distinct crimes of human trafficking and migrant smuggling,” said a State Department official in a telephone briefing on Thursday, pointing out the State Department’s report focuses on human trafficking, which is a crime of exploitation of individuals. “Whereas smuggling is a crime against the state and the illegal crossing of a border entry into a country,” the official said.
The official referred questions on migrant smuggling to the Department of Homeland Security.
While “the State Department deserves credit for its comprehensive exposition on the horrors of institutionalizing children, detailing how removing children from family caregiving settings causes long-term emotional harm and mental health effects, and heightens risks of human trafficking,” John Sifton from Human Rights Watch said “it is an indictment of the Trump administration’s own policies with respect to asylum seekers and others seeking entry into the United States.”
“We hope [Ivanka] Trump and Secretary Pompeo can share it with other federal agencies and brief them about it in more detail,” Sifton added. Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter, was at the State Department for the release of the report.
10 who make a difference
Also at Thursday’s release of the report — 10 men and women from around the world who were honored for their efforts to make a difference in the global fight against modern slavery, including Francisca Awah Mbuli, a survivor of human trafficking and the founding director of Survivors’ Network in Cameroon.
“There are limited resources available through international aid. That is why I made it my mission and my organization, Survivors’ Network’s mission, to build a grassroots movement in Africa to create an awareness program to prevent human trafficking,” said Mbuli.
“To prevent trafficking, people need vocational training to build skills so that they can work and become self-sufficient in their home countries,” she added.
Kim Jong-chul is the founder and former director of the Advocates for Public Interest Law in South Korea. He works as an attorney to ensure justice for victims of human trafficking.
Kim told VOA on Thursday that ordinary people and consumers should stop buying products made by companies that hire forced labor.
“We can put pressure on companies by saying that ‘I do not want to buy tainted products by human trafficking victims,’” Kim told VOA.
The report listed 21 other countries in the lowest Tier 3 category: Belarus, Belize, Bolivia, Burundi, China, Comoros, Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Gabon, Iran, North Korea, Laos, Mauritania, Papua New Guinea, Russia, South Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan and Venezuela.
Notably, Sudan was taken off last year’s Tier 3 blacklist and upgraded to Tier 2 Watch List, which is the second-to-worst ranking at a time of improved relations between Washington and Khartoum. Last October, the United States lifted long-standing economic sanctions on Sudan, citing the country’s progress in human rights.