Carrots, Sticks & the TIP Report: Understanding the US Government’s Anti-Trafficking Efforts in Southeast Asia

Last week the US State Department issued its annual Trafficking In Persons (TIP) Report, which ranks every country in the world according to their adherence to the US government’s anti-trafficking mandate. For the first time, Thailand was designated “Tier 3,” the lowest “rung” on the TIP Report’s ladder.

The report, which is published by the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking, describes “Tier 1” countries as those demonstrating sufficient anti-trafficking efforts; “Tier 2” as those that have begun to demonstrate such efforts but still have improvements to make; and “Tier 3” as countries demonstrating little to no effort to combat trafficking. Countries that receive the Tier 3 ranking are subject to sanctions by the US government.

In Southeast Asia, Thailand and Malaysia are the latest failing students in the class. Both have been downgraded from “Tier 2 Watch List”– a status in which a country is placed “on notice”—to Tier 3. The downgrade puts these countries in company with the likes of Zimbabwe and North Korea. Meanwhile, China and Burma, two former Tier 3 countries notorious for ignoring the US government’s anti-trafficking mandate, have been elevated to Tier 2 Watch List.

To anti-trafficking practitioners and “country watchers,” the downgrades come as no surprise. In recent years, Thailand’s fishing industry has emerged as a major site for labor trafficking, while Malaysia is a growing destination for the trafficking of migrants from Burma. What is curious, however, is the elevated status of Burma and China, both of which the TIP Report praise for increasing their efforts to combat trafficking over the last year.

Having conducted research on trafficking in the region, I find these elevated statuses to be incongruous with reports from the ground. For example, as I recently documented, the trafficking of Kachin women as forced brides from Burma into China is a growing problem, with the China government taking few steps to discourage the practice within its borders. Furthermore, the civil war that rages between the Burma government and the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) has led to an increase in trafficking and labor exploitation in Burma’s northernmost Kachin State. And the Burma government’s ongoing discrimination against the Rohingya, an ethnic minority group in Rakhine State, which some human rights groups have gone so far as to call a genocide, has been linked explicitly to the trafficking crisis in Burma.

Why then, have China and Burma been praised while Thailand and Malaysia received harsh slaps on the wrist? The reason, in part, has to do with the latter’s failure to demonstrate an increase in trafficking prosecutions.

Prosecutions are a key factor for determining a country’s ranking in the TIP Report. The failure to prosecute traffickers, and thus a commitment to the apparatus of the criminal justice system, may lead to a country’s downgrade.

The problem with using prosecutions as the primary criteria for evaluating a country’s success is that it fails to address the structural conditions that underscore circumstances of labor exploitation—namely, warfare and economic disparity. In Burma, the ongoing civil war between the KIO and the Burma army has resulted in the displacement of over 120,000 civilians, leaving them at risk of precarious migration and labor exploitation across the border in China. In Rakhine State, anti-Muslim sentiment directed against the Rohingya people by the Burmese has spurred an all-out humanitarian crisis. The desperate circumstances faced by people in these communities fuel their need to migrate irregularly across borders and seek employment of any kind. This, in turn, can lead to labor exploitation and trafficking.

But the State Department has failed to address these “push factors.” Instead, it continually focuses on polices dealing with the “end” of the trafficking experience. An example can be seen in the prevalence of Smart Raids, a popular State Department-funded policy in which local police forces and NGOs “bust” into brothels, karaoke bars and other venues in which suspected underage labor is taking place. Often, these raids focus on establishments selling sex, considered notorious sites for trafficking in countries like Thailand in which there is a booming sex industry.

The problem with these raids is that more often than not, they end up harming the very women who they are intended to help. As I discuss here, women working in Thailand’s sex industry are often there by consent. Once they become the targets of Smart Raids, however, they may be subject to fines, incarceration and abuse by law enforcement officials. The recent Somaly Mam scandal, in which a Cambodian anti sex-trafficking NGO was found to be fabricating stories of sexual abuse in order to attract donor money, revealed that Smart Raids in Cambodia have led to gross mistreatment and abuse by law enforcement officials against the prostitutes they were supposedly trying to “rescue.” Moreover, Smart Raids produce few actual witnesses who can be persuaded to testify against their traffickers, as the supposed “victims” caught in these raids do not always see themselves in this light. As policies like these, which address the “low hanging fruit” of trafficking fail to produce results that the State Department deems successful, it’s a wonder why they continue to be funded.

Some practitioners argue that focusing on rescue and prosecution is advantageous to women– the logic being that catching and incarcerating traffickers helps protect women from suffering further abuse. But critical feminist scholars refer to these practices as “carceral feminism.” They explain that focusing on incarceration obfuscates the structural conditions that underscore women’s precarious experiences of migration and labor exploitation. In short, locking up “bad guys” does little to help migrants find safe, viable ways to make money and survive. A better approach is needed to fighting trafficking—one that puts women’s lives at the forefront of the conversation.

Surely, addressing the complex issues that lead to trafficking would be a challenge for the US– or any other government—to take on. But if the purpose of foreign aid is to improve people’s lives in the developing world, then measures to prevent trafficking should be funded in equal, if not greater proportion than policies like Smart Raids. Rather than using rescue efforts and increased prosecutions as primary benchmarks for success, the US government should instead develop, and then evaluate, policies that tackle problems which lead to trafficking—such as the civil war in Kachin State, and the Burma government’s genocide against the Rohingya.

Failing to address these problems raises questions as to where the true motivations behind the TIP Report lie. Is the aim of the Report truly to help people in vulnerable situations? Or are these recent downgrades (and upgrades) being used a political tool– a symbolic way of praising countries with which the US seeks to build alliances, while reprimanding those over whom it seeks to wield power?

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