Image: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during the release of the Trafficking in Persons Report at the US Department of State [Kevin Wolf/The Associated Press]
The United States has released its annual report on human trafficking, highlighting an increase in forced labour schemes related to the COVID-19 pandemic and a years-long uptick in the exploitation of boys.
In a speech to mark Thursday’s release of the report, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken stressed the need for partnerships between governments, non-governmental organisations, civil society and private industries — particularly tech — to address sex and labour trafficking.
“The United States is committed to combating human trafficking, because it represents an attack on human rights and freedoms,” Blinken said. “It violates the universal right of every person to have autonomy. Today, more than 27 million people around the world are denied that right.”
Twenty-four countries rank lowest for protections
The report listed 24 countries in “tier 3” or the lowest rating outlined in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000. Per the US law, governments in the category may be “subject to certain restrictions on foreign assistance”.
Afghanistan, China, Venezuela, Turkmenistan, Myanmar, Belarus, Syria, Iran and North Korea are among the countries the US Department of State regularly ranks in the category.
But several more countries were downgraded, joining them in the lowest tier: Algeria, Chad, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea and Papua New Guinea. Those upgraded out of the group from 2022 were Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei.
Overall, there were 24 tier upgrades and 20 downgrades across the four-tier system, according to the State Department.
In addition, three countries were designated “special cases”: Libya, Somalia and Yemen. All three face situations where internationally recognised governments do not control large portions of the country.
An appeal for government partnerships
On Thursday, Cindy Dyer, the US ambassador-at-large to monitor and combat trafficking in persons, called on governments to embrace the “power of partnerships” with private companies and non-profits.
“Deeper partnerships between financial institutions and law enforcement can better identify the financial trail or human traffickers, allowing law enforcement to collect more evidence to aid prosecution and lessen the burden on survivors having to testify,” she said.
Dyer pointed to several examples, including a partnership between the money transfer company PayPal and Polaris, a non-profit that combats human trafficking. She explained that their work “interrupts traffickers’ cash flows and enables parallel prosecutions for financial crimes”.
Emerging trends in human trafficking
Fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic continues to shape trends in global human trafficking.
Thursday’s report explained that, due to behavioural shifts during the pandemic, job seekers have increasingly turned to the internet in search of employment. In turn, cyber scam operations have flourished.
The report explained that traffickers took advantage of “widespread unemployment during the pandemic”, particularly in countries like Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Ghana and Turkey.
“They used fake job listings to recruit adults and children from dozens of countries,” the report said. “Rather than fulfilling their advertised employment promises, many of these companies began forcing the recruits to run internet scams directed at international targets and subjecting them to a wide range of abuses and violations.”
The report also noted that boys represented the “fastest-growing segment” of human trafficking victims. The proportion of boys identified as human trafficking victims increased by 500 percent from 2004 to 2020 — “a much larger increase than for men, women or girls”, according to United Nations statistics cited by the US Department of State.
The issue is exacerbated by inadequate identification of trafficked boys and a lack of support services, the report explained. Boys are also less likely to self-identify as trafficking victims.
Speaking on Thursday, Blinken said the “false perception” that boys are not also victims of human trafficking “has had some quite frankly devastating and tangible consequences”.
“The reality is that any person, regardless of sex, regardless of gender identity, can be targeted by human trafficking. And so governments, civil society, the private sector, all of us have to develop resources for all populations,” he said.