Posted by Victoria Wisniewski Otero
Last year, I wrote a blog saying that Hong Kong was “in denial” about human trafficking in its borders. This was in response to the government’s reaction to being ranked at Tier 2, once again, in the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, in a press release where the administration asserted: “there is no sign or evidence showing that Hong Kong is becoming a source, a destination or a place of transit for human trafficking activities.” At the time, we highlighted that this kind of response is aimed more at shutting off the possibility of conversation rather than opening up a dialogue on these important human rights issues.
Today is World Day against Trafficking in Persons, and while Justice Centre, and other members of civil society, hoped that by now the Hong Kong Government would have recognised the importance of this issue and taken concrete steps towards addressing it, history seems to keep repeating itself. With the issuance of this year’s 2015 TIP Report, released this past Monday, Hong Kong has yet again been ranked at Tier 2 this year. It’s no surprise, but it certainly is disappointing. But what is more of a let-down is the government’s response. A statement issued on the government's news site employs the words “rejecting” and “rebuttal”, while in their press release, the government expressed disagreement about Hong Kong being a place where human trafficking occurs. Yet, paradoxically, they assert their “unfailing commitment” and “continuous efforts” in the fight against it. But how can you be sincerely committed to tackling a problem which you claim doesn’t exist in the first place?
The most recent TIP report shows how abysmal Hong Kong’s progress has been in the past year, despite high profile cases of abuse, particularly among foreign domestic workers, such as that of Erwiana Sulistyaningish. The TIP report also demonstrates how lack of political will has had a real impact on the government’s interventions from the prosecution, protection and prevention perspectives. In the report’s narrative of Hong Kong, it states that in the past year, “although officials identified 26 potential victims [of human trafficking], they did not refer them to or provide them with protective service, unlike in 2013.” It goes on to note that in regards to prosecution, the government actually "decreased" its anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts and only made "modest" efforts to prevent trafficking.
What we at Justice Centre have come to find is that “building evidence” is at the heart of the issue; until robust evidence is produced, it is unlikely that the government will change its current stance and recycled responses year after year. Getting past the government’s standard line is precisely why we have decided to embark on an ambitious research project, implemented over the course of the next two years, to establish the prevalence and patterns of human trafficking, forced labour and lesser forms of exploitation among three vulnerable migrant population groups in Hong Kong: foreign domestic workers, migrant sex workers and refugees/asylum seekers.
Up to now, research studies on human trafficking in Hong Kong and related themes have so far been largely qualitative in nature, mostly based on the specific experiences of victims of abuse. These have been very helpful to understand the patterns and nature of exploitation, but not the scale – a gap our research project aims to fill by adopting both quantitative and qualitative approaches to derive estimates of the prevalence of human trafficking, forced labour and exploitation.
We’ve concentrated our energies and efforts in the past months squarely on this research project, working collaboratively with other civil society groups in the process, with the hopes that the findings from this study will convince the government that comprehensive legislation should be put in place to prohibit human trafficking for the purpose of forced labour. While many advocacy strategies and activities will be needed to affect change, we hope the results of our research can contribute to help build the case that the Hong Kong Government needs to do more, particularly by adopting legislation that prohibits all forms of human trafficking, including for the purpose of forced labour, and developing a National Plan of Action - recommendations which civil society groups have been making for years.
To me, denying the problem unjustly invalidates the very real and harrowing experiences that victims of forced labour and human trafficking have been through. So today, as we commemorate the World Day against Trafficking in Persons, it is high time we move past denial and focus on what’s important - protecting the rights of those who are vulnerable or have been victim to exploitation.
The results of the first phase of our human trafficking and forced labour research project will be released later in 2015. Learn more about the research project here.
Listen to Victoria speaking to RTHK Radio 3 about Hong Kong’s Tier 2 ranking here
Read Justice Centre’s media statement in response to the TIP report here