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May 25, 2016

Four Questions the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Should Ask About the State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report

This is a cross post from The Huffington Post

Today, in advance of this year’s release of the annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, five senior State Department officials will be briefing the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in a closed-door hearing. Following concerted criticism around last year’s report and specific concerns about the politicization of a number of country rankings, this year’s report will face additional scrutiny. Consistency in determining country rankings based on each government’s efforts to combat human trafficking and supporting evidence for those rankings will be essential for the TIP report to remain a credible and effective tool in combatting this modern day form of slavery that claims an estimated 20.9 million victims each year.

Last year the ranking of Malaysia sparked substantial concern when it was upgraded from Tier 3, the lowest ranking, to Tier 2 Watch List. Malaysia’s anti-trafficking efforts during the reporting period were meager at best, and the 2015 TIP report failed to provide substantial evidence that Malaysia had improved its efforts to combat human trafficking since 2014, when the country exhibited a rapidly declining rate of investigations, prosecutions, and convictions.

Concerned anti-trafficking organizations, members of Congress, and the media speculated that Malaysia was upgraded for political expedience to allow fast-track negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. It certainly created the appearance as such—and in an economy of credibility, appearances are important.

As the State Department prepares to brief the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, we hope they will highlight how they plan to address four key questions in the upcoming 2016 report to ensure that the report remains a credible and effective anti-trafficking tool:

1. How can the State Department ensure that addressing trafficking is a priority, not dependent upon or subordinate to other U.S. interests?

When it appears countries are upgraded undeservedly because it serves other U.S. political priorities, it sends a strong signal overseas that politics are more important than combating trafficking. The State Department needs to certify that the TIP report remains independent from other political considerations. Countries to watch this year whose time has expired on the Tier 2 Watch List and therefore must either earn a higher ranking or be automatically downgraded include: Djibouti, Namibia, Suriname, Burma, Lebanon, Turkmenistan, and Haiti.

2. What will be done to rebuild the credibility of the TIP report given the widely held perception that diplomatic interests unrelated to trafficking led to inflated rankings for some countries?

The State Department needs a plan for addressing allegations of bias. Making the politically difficult choice would dispel any doubts about the report’s credibility. When complaints arise, the State Department should transparently state the methods it used to determine each ranking.

3. How does the State Department address ambiguities in data, across all tiers, to certify that countries are ranked consistently?

For example, Germany has not provided new data in several years, yet it still holds a Tier 1 ranking. Though Germany continues to combat trafficking, how can rankings be uniform without hard data? Another such example: India remains on Tier 2, yet did not provide law enforcement data for the 2014 reporting period.

4. What is the State Department doing to work with countries to increase the risk and accountability for the perpetrators?

Last year, convictions dropped worldwide by 23 percent: 5,776 to 4,443. Considering there are an estimated 21 million victims worldwide and fewer than 45,000 of them were reported to law enforcement last year, plus fewer than 4,500 perpetrators were convicted, trafficking is a low-risk crime for exploiters. The State Department should prioritize increasing trafficking convictions worldwide to elevate the risks for perpetrators.