Regional Gains in Human Trafficking Report Thanks to Method, Not Progress

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The United States Department of State upgraded its assessment of five countries in Latin America in its latest report on human trafficking, but its flawed methodology suggests this has more to do with politics than any kind of regional trend.

On June 19, the US State Department released its annual Trafficking in Persons Report, which evaluates the progress made by foreign countries in the fight against human trafficking. This year’s report showed that the number of trafficking victims identified by governments around the globe had increased by nearly a third compared to last year, rising from 33,113 to 42,291. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton told reporters that this year’s report is a sign that the world is “making a lot of progress” against human trafficking, especially in terms of victim rehabilitation.

The State Department report uses a “tier” system to assess observance of minimum standards to combat human trafficking, where Tier 1 indicates full compliance, Tier 2 implies that a country is not fully compliant but is making progress, and Tier 3 means non-compliance. Countries may also be assigned a Tier 2 Watch List ranking, which applies to countries that are not making progress and are in danger of dropping to Tier 3.

Of the 29 countries that saw their rating on anti-human trafficking measures increase this year, five were in Latin America. The US promoted Panama, the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica to Tier 2, and raised Venezuela’s rating from non-compliant to partly compliant. In addition, Nicaragua has been categorized as a Tier 1 nation for the first time since the State Department began assigning tier rankings in 2005. It now stands with Colombia as the only two countries in Latin America to fully comply with basic legal standards for the elimination of trafficking in persons.

According to the Director of the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, Luis CdeBaca, the upgrades are indicative of a larger trend in Latin America. In a special briefing following the report’s release, CdeBaca attributed this development to an increase in political will to tackle human trafficking in the region. He also claimed that the Organization of American States (OAS), which organized an ambitious anti-trafficking plan for the region in 2010, has provided “a very positive framework in which countries can find a way forward.”

In spite of the optimistic statements of US officials, however, the State Department report is only an assessment of anti-trafficking laws, and not a reflection of the overall state of trafficking in persons. As noted in the document’s introduction, the tier system “is based more on the extent of government action to combat trafficking than on the size of the problem.” This distinction is especially important in Latin America, where state institutions are relatively weak and the rule of law is largely absent in rural areas. Although the State Department’s rating system ostensibly accounts for this by considering the number of prosecutions and successful convictions of traffickers in a country, this does not take into account the local scale of human trafficking. For instance, human trafficking in Uruguay – which is a Tier 2 nation — for example, is far less endemic than in Nicaragua, despite the Central American country’s top rating.

Moreover, the tier system is flawed due to its reliance on cooperation with US authorities, a requirement which opens it up to politicization. In order to qualify for Tier 1 status, foreign governments must provide the State Department with their judicial records on human trafficking crimes for the past reporting period. Those that do not are penalized, and “presumed not to have vigorously investigated, prosecuted, convicted or sentenced such acts.” This is the likely reason why Cuba, a longtime adversary of the US, is the only country in the western hemisphere with a Tier 3 label. Although the report describes media accounts of a handful of sex trafficking arrests there, the island nation “did not respond to requests for information” on the matter.

Because of these flaws in the tier system, the changes in this year’s Trafficking in Persons Report cannot be interpreted as indicative of a region-wide crackdown. Ultimately, the illegal trade in human beings for sexual exploitation or forced labor remains a serious problem in Latin America, one which will not likely be solved by judicial measures alone. While strong legal deterrents are important, the phenomenon is fueled by deeper socioeconomic causes like poverty and unemployment, factors that are more difficult for governments to address.

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