Reading between the lines of the world’s best report on human trafficking

Survivors of human trafficking lack the necessary help from governments, while offenders continue to operate with impunity. Identification of victims is down, but import bans on goods made by victims of forced labor are on the rise. The leadership of survivors matters, and more countries than ever are listening to victims.

These are just some of the facts revealed in the US State Department’s 2022 Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP), released on Tuesday, the gold standard for actionable intelligence on human trafficking. It reports on the efforts of 188 countries to hold perpetrators accountable, provide services to survivors and prevent trafficking.

As a former United States Ambassador dedicated to combating human trafficking, I led and served a team that authored several TIP reports. This one reveals a mixture of progress and setbacks. Far too often, governments prioritize human trafficking with their rhetoric but not with their resources. This must change.

Here are seven key takeaways from the report and what they mean for the fight against this economically motivated crime that strikes at the heart of human dignity.

1. Fewer lawsuits worldwide

In the battle between traffickers and governments, traffickers are winning. All over the world, the authorities are not making progress; they are losing ground. Since 2015, according to the TIP report, governments have reported a 45% drop in lawsuits worldwide. Although government responses to COVID-19 have exacerbated this decline, the entrenched pattern existed before the pandemic. Even in the United States, the number of convicted traffickers has fallen from 526 in 2018 to just 203 in the past year. Although prosecutions alone are not enough to end trafficking, they are a necessary and essential component of an effective public justice response.

2. Falling Victim Identification Rates

According to the TIP report, governments around the world have collectively identified 90,354 victims of human trafficking, a decrease of 24% from the peak in 2018. Using the internationally accepted estimate from the International Labor Organization that there are a total of 24.9 million victims worldwide, this means that governments have identified less than half of one percent of all victims. Governments must do much more to identify, protect and serve the 99.6% who remain under the control of traffickers. This requires more than small or modest increases in government effort and resources.

3. Meaningful Survivor Engagement

The State Department noted that the number of survivor advisory councils and survivor participation in policy and funding discussions has grown from seven to thirty-four countries in the past year. A striking example is the Albanian Advisory Council for Victims of Trafficking. Made up of survivors, it advises residential shelters on victim identification, protective services and best practices. Survivors are experts in the unique use of coercion by their traffickers as well as the trauma they endured during their exploitation. Their increasingly important role in leadership, employment, decision-making and policy-making is an encouraging trend.

4. Ranking Highlights

The TIP report ranks each country from Tier 1 (highest) to Tier 3 (lowest), and countries ranked at Tier 3 are not eligible to receive certain types of foreign aid. This year’s report contains several notable rankings.

Germany was upgraded to Level 1, after three years at Level 2, partly on the basis of increased prosecutions and convictions of traffickers and the opening of several new shelters, including shelters for male victims. These affirmative actions overcame the fact that 66% of convicted traffickers received suspended sentences, further perpetuating the sense of impunity traffickers enjoy.

Ireland used its human trafficking law for the first time in nine years and won two convictions. He also addressed the persistent problem of governments prosecuting victims for the illegal acts that their traffickers compel them to commit. Ireland has cleared over six hundred criminal convictions for commercial sex offences, which will allow survivors to move on without the burden of a criminal record. These positive factors moved Ireland from the Tier 2 Watch List to Tier 2.

South Korea dipped out of the Tier 1 elite for the first time since 2001 (the first year of the TIP report). In addition to fewer investigations and prosecutions, South Korea has not identified any victims in its migrant worker programs despite numerous credible reports. It has also enabled the majority of convicted traffickers to get off the hook by sentencing them to less than a year in prison or simple fines. The TIP report also highlighted the fact that South Korea has not taken steps to stop prosecuting trafficking victims for criminal activities directed by their traffickers.

Other notable improvements included Iceland, Belize, Romania, Thailandand Uganda. Meanwhile, seven new countries have joined fifteen others on Tier 3 (Belarus, Brunei, Cambodia, curacao, Macau, Saint-Martinand Vietnam).

5. Too few cases of forced labor

Across all US jurisdictions, there has been constant concern about the lack of forced labor cases in the US, which accounts for only seven prosecutions this year. This suggests that the authorities are not being tough enough. Increasing forced labor prosecutions has been the number one recommendation of the TIP report in the United States for the past seven years, and has remained so this year. But globally, there is good news: governments reported prosecuting the highest number of cases (1,379) since data was first collected in 2008. Although this is a relatively small increase, this represents progress.

During the reporting cycle, the United States increased the total number of prosecutions and identified victims of human trafficking; but it has also reduced the number of labor trafficking prosecutions from fifteen cases in 2021. specialized investigation and the provision of better services to survivors.

6. State-sanctioned forced labor

When most people think of human trafficking, they imagine individuals, groups, and businesses engaging in crime. But governments can also be traffickers – a particularly troubling development, since the criminal justice system is unavailable to help when the government itself is the perpetrator. Think of China’s exploitation of its Uyghur minority, North Korea’s systemic mistreatment of foreign workers, and Cuba’s forcing medical professionals to work in its lucrative overseas medical missions. In total, the TIP 2022 report concludes that the same eleven countries have a government “policy or model” for human trafficking as the TIP 2021 report. The question for policymakers is how to use a combination of carrots and diplomatic sticks to get these countries to stop forcing people to work.

7. Ending Forced Labor in Supply Chains

The TIP report highlights serious and sustained efforts by the United States to keep goods made by victims of forced labor from entering its ports, competing with market products, and leaving consumers as tacit enablers of nefarious corporate human trafficking programs. For example, last year’s Uyghur law on the prevention of forced labor made revolutionary progress by shifting the burden from governments to companies to prove the absence of forced labor in imported goods. Beyond simple transparency requirements, companies now bear an additional burden to map their supply chains, identify the presence of forced labor and rectify the problem. Both in public procurement and in the private sector, economic purchasing power is diminishing through supply chains to eradicate forced labour.

What is clear from this year’s TIP report is a sense of urgency that more needs to be done to combat all forms of human trafficking. In the United States, Congress can begin by quickly reauthorizing the Trafficking Victims Protection Act and appointing the next Goodwill Ambassador to monitor and combat human trafficking. They can also increase funding for specialized investigative units, victim services and measurable prevention efforts. It is a cause that unites people from all political backgrounds. Our intellectual commitment to combating sex trafficking and forced labor must translate into practical actions and measurable results.

John Cotton Richmond is a non-resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Strategy Initiative and served as the U.S. Goodwill Ambassador to Monitor and Combat Human Trafficking from 2018-2021, and is currently a partner at Dentons where he focuses on forced labor in supply chains and labor sex trafficking.

Further reading

Image: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during the 2022 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report launch ceremony at the Department of State in Washington, DC on July 19, 2022. Photo via Manuel Balce Ceneta /Pool via REUTERS.

Amanda J. Marsh