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Trafficking of Rohingya Refugees

Rohingya refugees
Photo credit: Getty Images

In July, the New York Times reported that a prominent, former Thai general had been  sentenced to nearly three decades in prison for conspiring in the trafficking of Bangladeshi and Burmese Rohingya, a minority, stateless ethnic group fleeing persecution in Myanmar. Dozens more, including police officers and smugglers, were also convicted of participating in the human trafficking ring after the discovery of several mass graves thought to contain the bodies of migrants were discovered in 2015 near the Thai-Malaysia border, along a route often used to smuggle Rohingya out of Myanmar. The crackdown on trafficking has increased since the mass graves were discovered; this is only one of many Thai authorities that has been caught or suspected of colluding in the trafficking of refugees.

The Rohingya are an Muslim, ethnic minority residing in the Rakhine state of Myanmar and Bangladesh. Increasing abuse, persecution, and displacement has forced the Rohingya to flee to neighboring countries; according to a recent report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 168,000 Rohingya are estimated to have fled the country in the last five years. Although the Rohingya have lived in Myanmar for generations, the 1982 Citizenship Law has consistently been used by the government to deny citizenship to hundreds of thousands of Rohingya, despite recent calls by human rights organizations and the UN General Assembly in 2014 to amend the legislation. The Citizenship Law effectively renders the Rohingya stateless, and it is this stateless status which makes it particularly difficult for the Rohingya to obtain legal status in any other country.

Thailand has consistently been a common destination and transit country for many refugees. However, the Thai government does not recognize the Rohingya as refugees, and therefore does not offer them protection. In fact, Thailand has not yet ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol, is not a signatory to the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, and has no formal national refugee legislation, so all migrants, whether refugee or non-refugee, are processed under the Immigration Act of 1979.

Thus, the Thai government treats asylum seekers as illegal migrants, and arrests and deports them as such. Thai law allows for police to arrest, detain, and fine people who have migrated illegally, even if they are children; because many refugees, particularly the stateless Rohingya, are not able to obtain legal status in Thailand under the Immigration Act of 1979, they are very likely to be subject to abuse by employers and human traffickers or to indefinite detention, abuse, and refoulement by Thai officials, even when the U.N. has recognized their refugee status. In fact, since 2004, the Thai government has not even allowed the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to conduct screenings on Rohingya to determine refugee status.

This lack of protection, from either Thailand, other ASEAN countries, or the UNHCR within Thailand, puts the Rohingya at great risk of trafficking. The struggles of the Rohingya were put under the spotlight in May of 2015, when images emerged of overcrowded boats carrying hundreds of Rohingya from Bangladesh and Myanmar, adrift in the Andaman Sea between Thailand and Malaysia. The migrants had paid smugglers to take them out of Bangladesh and Myanmar, but due to Thailand’s recent crackdown on trafficking, these smugglers soon abandoned the migrants. When their boats neared the shores of Malaysia and Thailand, the refugees were turned away and pushed farther out to sea by authorities, where many perished due to exposure and lack of food and water. Survivors reported suffering horrific abuse at the hands of the traffickers, who beat, killed, and deprived migrants in order to force their families to pay a ransom.

Had they managed to arrive in Thailand, they likely wouldn’t have endured a fate much better. Once they reach the mainland, many migrants are sold by their smugglers to other traffickers, who then hold them in camps along the borders of Thailand. Here, they endure equally gruesome conditions and beatings; in May 2015, Rohingya in camps along the Thailand-Malaysia border were found being held in extremely overcrowded spaces, and even in pens and cages.

Even upon rescue from these camps, migrants are not safe. Because of Thailand’s treatment of refugees as illegal immigrants, refugees found in camps are generally arrested and placed in indefinite detention. Within immigration detention centers, migrants are subject to further abuse by Thai police and officials, who, like traffickers, often beat and harass detainees in order to obtain payment, and sometimes force them to return to Myanmar, an act which violates the international principle of non-refoulement. Further, detention officers sometimes even sell refugees back to the trafficking rings they were rescued from.

Thailand has taken steps in the last decade to combat human trafficking in the country, such as passing a law in 2008 which criminalizes trafficking and details punishments for perpetrators, including imprisonment and fines, and a more recent law in 2016 which expedites the judicial process for trafficking cases. Nonetheless, problems such as inadequate identification procedures for victims of trafficking, low rates of trafficking prosecutions and convictions, and most importantly, Thai official complicity in trafficking persist.

In its 2016 Universal Periodic Review, Thailand received eight recommendations from other state delegations relating to refugees and asylum seekers. It rejected almost all of these recommendations, including those which requested that Thailand offer legal status to refugees and asylum-seekers and that it put an end to arbitrary detention and refoulement of refugees, especially children. In its report, Thailand noted that despite not being party to the international treaties regarding refugees, the country has a “humanitarian tradition” of providing assistance to displaced people. Despite Thailand’s very recent push to prosecute traffickers, the state’s clear involvement in the trafficking and abuse of such displaced people and its refusal to conduct refugee screenings on them would suggest otherwise.

In order to truly demonstrate its commitment and “humanitarian tradition” of helping refugees, Thailand must immediately halt the return of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar, ratify international treaties relating to refugees and proceed with the investigation and prosecution of those responsible for the egregious human rights violations of migrants.

By: Abby Walker, a junior at Carleton College (class of 2019) in Northfield, Minnesota studying sociology, anthropology, and education. She was a 2017 summer intern with The Advocates’ International Justice Program.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two photo options below:

 

Thailand Immigration Police bring Rohingya refugees to a port outside Ranong City (October 30, 2013)

 

Two Rohingya refugees in a Thai immigration detention center in Kanchanaburi province (July 10, 2013)

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Ensuring Justice: Enforcement of Labor Trafficking and Labor Exploitation Laws

Multiple ChoicesAfter being recruited for a high-paying job in the United States, Hanh left her impoverished community in Vietnam, departing on her quest for the American Dream. Hanh paid a large fee to travel from Vietnam to Minnesota under the assumption that her employer had made all the necessary immigration arrangements. However, this person who had promised Hanh a new life was a labor trafficker who threatened harm to Hanh and her family if she did not submit to servitude. Living in fear of violence and watching her debt swell, Hanh was not only imprisoned by her circumstance but also by her inability to communicate and seek help. Eventually, law enforcement learned of her situation and successfully convicted her trafficker of forced labor, freeing seven others like her in the process.

These stories of labor trafficking are not isolated—in fact, The Advocates has heard reports of more than thirty-six labor trafficking victims in Minnesota. Still, there have only been a handful of criminal convictions under federal law and only two under the Minnesota labor trafficking statute. This disparity suggests that the enforcement of criminal labor and trafficking laws is inadequate and offenders are not being held accountable for their crimes. The Advocates for Human Rights recently published a report, “Asking the Right Questions: A Human Rights Approach to Ending Trafficking and Exploitation in the Workplace,” that examines how labor trafficking and exploitation continue to exist in Minnesota.

In this report, The Advocates assesses the possible barriers to prosecution despite the available legal framework. First, The Advocates found that the requirement that victims cooperate in a case in order to receive benefits such as immigration status, originally intended to strengthen prosecution efforts, has instead hampered enforcement. By providing a benefit to a witness, the government risks undermining the witness’ credibility in a criminal case. Secondly, Minnesota’s state criminal labor trafficking law is largely underutilized. Though the state’s broadened definition of a “trafficker” and a “beneficiary” could increase a victim’s access to justice, its lack of use leaves the possibility untested.

The enforcement of labor laws is another vital component to protect victims of labor trafficking. Unfortunately, both federal and state labor laws contain major exemptions that allow abusive employers, including traffickers, to exploit their workers. This is precisely what happened to Jorge. When recruited to come to Minnesota to work in roofing, Jorge trusted his recruiter to help him find jobs and to negotiate his wages since he did not speak English and lacked legal immigration status. This subcontractor, who had Jorge sign over every paycheck, gave Jorge cash back—but only after robbing him of most of the money he had worked for. Based on the Advocates’ research, there are multiple factors which create an environment within which this kind of abuse has become far too common.

First, exemptions to wage and hour laws in agriculture and domestic service remove a level of government oversight which creates trafficking opportunities. In Jorge’s case, his trafficker stole most of his paycheck, but because the cash he gave Jorge met the minimum wage, Jorge could not press charges under wage and hour legislation. Further, he could not make a claim against the larger company that built the homes he worked on because workers must prove the contracting relationship is illegitimate in order to hold the contracting company liable. Accountability is often impossible in the complex web of subcontractors and independent contractors. This, coupled with confusing standards between different federal agencies and state policies, leaves workers ill-equipped to advocate for themselves. Moreover, the lack of coordination on labor exploitation hampers the complaint process. After being referred from one agency to the next, Jorge was forced to cut his losses, find a new job, and sacrifice his pursuit of justice.

This report by The Advocates for Human Rights has highlighted a number of crucial areas of improvement in enforcing criminal labor trafficking and labor exploitation laws. There is a need for training and resources for our law enforcement, community organizations, and other agencies to effectively identify and help protect victims of labor trafficking and exploitation. The following are priority recommendations to help bolster Minnesota’s efforts to improve its fight against trafficking:

· Policy makers need to provide resources for training law enforcement and prosecutors on Minnesota’s labor trafficking laws, including investigative techniques and protections for victims.

· Policy makers need to examine how to provide an accessible system that makes sure workers can recover lost wages in a timely manner and at little to no cost, especially with smaller claims.

To learn more about the recommendations to improve enforcement of labor trafficking and exploitation laws visit The Advocates’ website at http://www.theadvocatesforhumanrights.org/labor_trafficking_report.

By Hannah Mangen , a student at The University of Minnesota in Saint Paul (class of 2018) with a major in Global Studies and Communication. She currently works as a research intern with The Advocates’ human trafficking team.

This post is the fourth in a series on labor trafficking.  Additional post in the series include: 

Shedding light: Labor Exploitation and Labor Trafficking

Am I a Victim of Labor Trafficking and Exploitation?

Rebuilding Lives and Protecting Victims of Human Trafficking

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Rebuilding Lives and Protecting Victims of Human Trafficking

labor trafficking and other forms of victimizationKeeping victims safe should be of utmost priority when tackling labor exploitation and trafficking cases. However, our current system lacks some of the fundamental tools to do just that. Those that survive exploitation and trafficking need assistance in addressing their short term and long term needs. Not only must their trauma be addressed but also the aspects of their lives that left them vulnerable to the trafficking or exploitation in the first place.

Survivors of labor trafficking have endured significant abuse. Their trafficker has complete control over their lives. The trafficker arbitrarily decides when or even if victims get paid and how much. They provide inadequate housing and seize control of any identification documents leaving victims afraid to call for help in fear of arrest or deportation. An employer having so much control over their lives deprives victims of their autonomy and sense of self. This, coupled with physical, sexual, and mental abuse, results in a long road to recovery for those that manage to escape. They need assistance in rebuilding their lives. International standards for trafficking victim protection and assistance take all of this into consideration.

Unfortunately, protection standards within the U.S are not nearly as comprehensive as international standards. There are federal and state laws offering protection from deportation, work authorization, federal public assistance, and case management assistance. However, they are hard to obtain and put an undue burden on the victim. Undermining the victim protection that they claim to provide, the laws require the cooperation of victims in criminal investigations against traffickers in order for them to receive assistance. Foreign nationals and U.S. citizens face additional challenges and neither is fully protected.

U.S. trafficking law benefits focus largely on foreign national victims. Domestic victims are often left with little resources to address their vulnerability and protect them from future trafficking. For instance, people that are barred from public assistance for any reason are unable to qualify for the benefits that so many victims require. This makes them easy targets for abusive employers and makes recovery even more difficult. Our current system offers no waiver ensuring that all U.S. citizen victims of trafficking can get assistance.

Foreign national victims may have designated protections but face challenges in accessing them. Victims must first meet an administrative definition of “trafficked” to be certified as “a victim of severe form of human trafficking. “ Once this criterion is met victims must then follow a multi-stage process to receive full benefits and protection. Federal law, in opposition to international law, requires adult victims to participate with the investigation and prosecution of the crime to receive certification and receive protections. One of the most important forms of protection for foreign national victims is protection from deportation. There are three different ways for victims to avoid deportation yet all three require that victims participate in the investigation of their trafficker. Only after they have agreed to this can they file for protection from deportation. Only children or victims with severe trauma are exempt.

In addition to linking protection with investigation cooperation, there are other shortcomings in our system. A lack of funding has left service providers without capacity to help all trafficking victims. Victims especially need a safe place to stay, but there is a general lack of housing, especially for male victims. If victims cannot find a safe place to stay in the midst of escaping their abusive employer they often find themselves with no other option than to return.

Victims of labor exploitation do not even have access to the limited protections available to victims of labor trafficking. Being recognized as a labor exploitation victim provides no financial supports, no access to benefits, and no protection from deportation, no matter how much the victim may need those things to rebuild their lives and help bring an abusive employer to justice.

The Advocates makes several recommendations in “Asking the Right Questions” to help ensure that victims of labor trafficking and exploitation receive the assistance they require.

· Policy makers should develop a statewide network so all victims of human trafficking, regardless of gender, age, or nationality, have access to services, including both existing services and new funding.

· Policy makers should amend federal law to remove the requirement that victims cooperate with law enforcement to receive services and protection from deportation.

· Policy makers should create a state law to ensure all victims of human trafficking under Minnesota law receive access to services and assistance.

· Policy makers should create a state law to ensure all victims of human trafficking under Minnesota law receive access to services and assistance.

· Policy makers should amend federal law to ensure that domestic trafficking victims who may be otherwise ineligible for public benefits can receive certification, case management, cash assistance, and other help currently available to foreign national victims.

To read all of the recommendations on better protecting victims of labor trafficking and exploitation visit “Asking the Right Questions: A Human Rights Approach to Ending Trafficking and Exploitation in the Workplace.”

 

By Halimat Alawode, a 2017 graduate of St. Catherine University in Saint Paul, Minnesota with a major in Women and International Development. During the fall of 2016, she was a research intern with The Advocates’ human trafficking team.

This post is the third in a series on labor trafficking.  Additional post in the series include: 

Shedding light: Labor Exploitation and Labor Trafficking

Am I a Victim of Labor Trafficking and Exploitation?

Outstanding Human Rights Defenders Being Honored at Awards Dinner, June 25

Five people are being honored at The Advocates for Human Rights’ 2014 Human Rights Award Dinner, being held Wednesday, June 25 at the Hilton Minneapolis.  These individuals are integral components in The Advocates’ mission of advancing human rights here at home and around the world.

Marilyn Carlson Nelson will receive The Advocates’ 2014 Don and Arvonne Fraser Human Rights Award.  Chimgee Haltarhuu will be honored with the organization’s Special Recognition Award, and Mark Petty, Julie Shelton, and Laura Tripiciano will each receive The Advocates’ Volunteer Award.

Don and Arvonne Fraser Human Rights Award  > Marilyn Carlson Nelson

mcn sqbrdNamed as one of the “World’s 100 Most Powerful Women” by Forbes, Marilyn Carlson Nelson, the former CEO and chairman of Carlson, is a fierce human rights defender. Under her leadership, Carlson―which includes such brands as Radisson Hotels, Country Inns & Suites, and Carlson Wagonlit―became the first major U.S.-based travel company to commit to training its hotel employees to watch for and report child sex abuse when she signed the travel industry’s International Code of Conduct to end sexual exploitation and trafficking of children. Her passion for human rights also invigorated efforts to defeat the Minnesota marriage amendment that was before the state’s voters in 2012. The op-ed she wrote for the Star Tribune went viral and encouraged other Minnesota business leaders to voice their support for LGBTI rights.

Carlson Nelson’s book How We Lead Matters: Reflections on a Life of Leadership is a best seller. The book, a collection of anecdotes originally intended just for her family, will be available for purchase at the Human Rights Award Dinner;  15% of the book’s sales that evening will be donated to The Advocates, courtesy of Magers & Quinn Booksellers.

Chimgee HaltarhuuSpecial Recognition Award  >  Chimgee Haltarhuu

Chimgee Haltarhuu, a Mongolian immigrant living in Saint Paul, Minnesota, teaches and performs at Circus Juventas. She founded a circus group in 2010, Mission Manduhai, which travels to the far reach of Mongolia to put on free performances for nomadic herders to raise awareness about the problem of domestic violence. A survivor of domestic violence, Haltarhuu has helped The Advocates with its domestic violence work in Mongolia.

Volunteer Awards  >  Mark Petty, Julie Shelton, Laura Tripiciano

Mark PettyMark Petty, an attorney editor at Thomson Reuters, is an exceptional volunteer translator for The Advocates. He has donated more than 100 hours of Spanish and French translation work for the organization since 2012. “Mark is often one of the first people to respond to our requests for translators, and his turn-around time is unparalleled,” says Sarah Brenes, staff attorney for The Advocates’ Refugee and Immigrant Program.

Julie SheltonJulie Shelton, an attorney with Faegre Baker Daniels in Chicago, has been an incredible volunteer with The Advocates’ Africa projects. Shelton has served as the team leader for a pro bono needs assessment in Cameroon, worked on a report on LGBTI rights in Cameroon, and wrote draft bills for post-conflict Somali law reform. “Julie has consistently gone above and beyond the call of duty,” says Jennifer Prestholdt, The Advocates’ deputy director and director of its International Justice Program.

LauraLaura Tripiciano, starting as an intern in law school, has volunteered for The Advocates for 17 years. Today, she is a private immigration attorney who represents asylum seekers. She has a particular devotion to Ethiopia, where her adopted son was born. Responding to The Advocates posting of a list of new cases in 2013, Tripiciano offered to take on all of the Ethiopian clients.  “Laura’s interest in serving our clients is genuine, her kindness is unsurpassed, and her dedicated advocacy is unquestionable,” says Sarah Brenes, staff attorney with The Advocates’ Refugee and Immigrant Program.

Please join in honoring these individuals at The Advocates’  Human Rights Awards Dinner on June 252014 at the Hilton Minneapolis. For more information and registration, click here.

Minnesota Anti-Trafficking Model Inspires Federal Legislation

Sex Trafficked Woman

Minnesota passed the Safe Harbor for Sexually Exploited Youth Act in 2011, laying the groundwork for a victim-centered response to sexually exploited children and those at risk of sexual exploitation. The Advocates for Human Rights knew when we drafted the Safe Harbor Act that it marked a sea change in how sexually exploited youth are treated in Minnesota by identifying these kids as victims of crimes, rather than criminal perpetrators.

What we didn’t imagine was how quickly real change would happen.

We now rightly (albeit not often enough) question the assumptions that permit prostitution to exist: that prostitution is a consensual transaction between willing participants and that men have a right to have sex. These assumptions were put so succinctly by Michael Smirconish in his 2011 syndicated column pushing for the legalization of prostitution (or what he calls “fleeting, consensual physical companionship”) when he asked “what’s the difference between passing a cosmo down the bar and handing over a Ben Franklin when the aim is to get someone in the sack?” “Aren’t the Quasimodos among us entitled to a little happiness?” he goes on to ask.

When I read that column I wanted to scream. Or cry. Prostitution isn’t sex between consenting adults. It is the exploitation of women and children for the profit of the pimp and the pleasure of the john.

But we are making progress. The language of human trafficking has had a powerful impact. In just few short years, Minnesotans have fundamentally changed how we think about prostitution.

Today we no longer hear juvenile prosecutors ask “how will we get her to testify if we can’t threaten her with juvenile delinquency prostitution charges?” Instead, as last week’s Star Tribune feature on the issue of sex trafficking illustrated, police and county attorneys tout the benefits of treating prostituted children as crime victims in securing convictions against human traffickers.

In 2011 objections to including 16 and 17 year olds in Safe Harbors’ protection against prosecution, largely out of fear that the girls who “voluntarily” engage in prostitution could escape punishment, were deeply entrenched 2011. Those objections had essentially evaporated by the 2013 legislative session.

The victim-centered response whose outline was mandated in the 2011 legislation is under construction as we speak with the hiring of the State’s first Safe Harbor director at the Minnesota Department of Health.

And soon we may have federal legislation that requires states to adopt Safe Harbor models if they wish to continue receiving certain federal funding. Earlier this month, Senator Amy Klobuchar and Representative Erik Paulsen each introduced bi-partisan legislation that encourages Safe Harbor nationwide. Both bills are known as the Stop Exploitation Through Trafficking Act and were introduced as S. 1733 and H.R. 3610.

When introducing their legislation, both Senator Klobuchar and Representative Paulsen said the Stop Exploitation Through Trafficking Act is modeled after Minnesota’s “safe harbor” laws which help ensure minors who are sold for sex aren’t prosecuted as defendants, but rather are treated as victims.

We have a long way to go in the fight against human trafficking. First and foremost, we need to recognize that pimp-controlled prostitution is by its nature coercive, violent and in every way lives up to the definition of human trafficking.

But thanks to Minnesota’s vision, we are on the right path.

Read the story of how Minnesota’s Safe Harbor law came into being at Safe Harbor: Fulfilling Minnesota’s Promise to Protect Sexually Exploited Youth.

By: Michele Garnett McKenzie, director of advocacy for The Advocates for Human Rights

Modern-Day Slavery: Human Trafficking

(Photo credit: Maggie Boyd)
(Photo credit: Maggie Boyd)

January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. Human trafficking, including sex trafficking, is modern-day slavery, and now is the perfect time to address, speak out, and change attitudes and legislation surrounding human trafficking.

The dialogue around sex trafficking is radically changing.

In 2011 The Advocates led the effort to gain passage in the Minnesota legislature of the landmark “Safe Harbor Act,” landmark legislation that redefined sexually-exploited girls under 16 as victims in need of support, rather than as delinquents needing punishment. The bill did not include girls who were 16 and 17, but they became part of later efforts.

Follow-up legislation, Safe Harbor 2013, was enacted last May, extending Safe Harbor provisions to ALL sexually exploited youth in Minnesota under age 18. Additionally the new provisions secured funding for a statewide director of child sex trafficking prevention; new regional positions to connect sexually-exploited youth with shelter, support and services; training law enforcement, prosecutors and others who encounter sexually exploited youth; as well as Safe Harbor housing and shelter.

“The conversation in 2013 was so different than in 2011,” said The Advocates’ advocacy director, Michele Garnett McKenzie, in a feature article in the January edition of the Minnesota Women’s Press. “In 2011, people were still trying to wrap their head around the idea of the girl as victim, not delinquent.” Thinking about girls as victims is becoming more common.

In November bi-partisan legislation was introduced at the federal level. The Stop Exploitation Through Trafficking Act, inspired by Minnesota’s Safe Harbor law, encourages states to protect minors from prosecution and treat them as victims of sex trafficking.

Another approach: holding buyers accountable. Last year’s bipartisan End Human Trafficking Act would recognize under federal law that people who “obtain, patronize, or solicit” prostituted children are guilty of the crime of human trafficking.

What’s next? Watch for our blog in honor of National Human Trafficking Awareness Day (January 11th), which will further discuss the newly introduced “federal Safe Harbors legislation,” the Stop Exploitation Through Trafficking Act.

By: Ashley Monk, The Advocates’ development and communications assistant