Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights Sarah Sewall on the 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report

Special Briefing
Sarah Sewall
Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights 
Washington, DC
July 27, 2015

MR KIRBY: Good morning, everybody. Thanks for coming this morning as we roll out the Trafficking in Persons Report this morning. Under Secretary of State Sarah Sewall, Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, will be presenting this morning, so I’m going to turn it over to her in just a couple seconds. She’ll have brief opening remarks and then we’ll take questions. I will moderate the questions, so when I call on you please identify who you are and what agency you’re with before you ask your question. We’ve only got about 30 minutes to get through it, so if you could limit follow-ups too that would be very helpful.

And with that, Under Secretary Sewall.

UNDER SECRETARY SEWALL: Thank you very much. Well, good morning. It’s great to have you with us. I’m really pleased to be here today to talk about the Department of State’s 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report, which we will be unveiling today. We’re proud that this marks the 15th year of producing a Trafficking in Persons Report, and it’s also the 15th anniversary of the landmark Trafficking Victims Protection Act, or TVPA.

This year’s report is the culmination of over a year of tireless work by our dedicated staff in Washington and in embassies around the world; engaging governments and civil society to collect data; to navigate the local laws, politics, and cultures to develop best practices; and to objectively assess each government’s efforts to prevent trafficking in persons. The report assesses the response of 188 countries and territories, including the United States, to the global crime of modern slavery, and it elevates the issue as a priority of U.S. foreign policy and a topic for the international community to address.

Most importantly, the report marks the beginning of another cycle in which we worked hand-in-hand with foreign governments and our civil society partners to maintain momentum and encourage more robust efforts to combat trafficking worldwide.

Before I delve into the specifics of this year’s report, I want to briefly describe our methodology in compiling it. The TIP Report delivers the State Department’s assessment of the efforts of foreign governments and our own to comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking in persons, as contained in the TVPA. And the TIP Report assesses the adequacy of national laws in prohibiting and punishing the crime, and pursuant to the TVPA, evaluates government actions to prosecute suspects, protect victims, and prevent further trafficking. Prevention, prosecution, protection – these are what we call the three Ps.

The report provides a narrative for each country that describes its scope of human trafficking, and it assesses the government’s anti-trafficking efforts concerning each of the three Ps, and it describes the overall trends. It’s important to note that the report assesses a government’s efforts by comparing them against that same government’s efforts the year before. These are not narratives that are comparative across countries. They are done pursuant to each country’s progress. And in addition, regardless of where a country is ranked on the process, the report evaluates their progress year by year.

Based on the country assessments, the report then places countries and territories on different tiers, in accordance with the minimum standards of the TVPA. Tier 1 countries fully comply with minimum standards, but it’s important to emphasize that a Tier 1 designation does not signify that trafficking has been eradicated or that a government’s response is wholly adequate. Human trafficking is a problem in virtually every country, including all Tier 1 countries, and that includes the United States.

What a Tier 1 ranking does signify is that a country has met the TVPA’s minimum standards, which is a significant accomplishment but by no means a call for complacency. And as with all countries, progress for Tier 1 countries is required from year to year.

A Tier 2 ranking means countries did not comply with the minimum standards but that they made significant efforts to do so. The Tier 2 Watch List means that a country failed to comply with the minimum standards but made significant efforts to do so. The Watch List designation signifies that the country also made one of the following conditions – it failed to provide evidence of increasing efforts to combat human trafficking over the previous year and evidence of decreasing complicity by government officials, or the government committed to anti-trafficking reforms over the coming reporting period, or the number of trafficking victims in the country is very significantly or significantly increasing.

And then finally, Tier 3 countries neither complied with the minimum standards nor made significant efforts to do so.

This year, in this year’s report, some 18 countries moved up in the tier rankings, some 18 countries moved down in the tier rankings, and overall the distribution of tier rankings is as followed: 31 countries were on Tier 1; 89 countries were on Tier 2; the Tier 2 Watch List contained 44 countries; and Tier 3 was comprised of 23 countries.

At the heart of the TIP Report are the country-specific recommendations for how each state can do more to prevent this crime, to prosecute suspected perpetrators, and to protect victims. And moving forward, these recommendations in turn guide U.S. diplomacy and engagement, both public and private, on the critical but complex issue of human trafficking.

The recommendations serve as a roadmap to better address the problem not for the sake of improving a tier ranking, but to make real institutional change that can put more criminal traffickers behind bars, provide more assistance to victims, and do more to prevent exploitation of the vulnerable. And so in this sense, the report is a global anti-trafficking tool filled with best practices and resources for governments and advocates.

The TIP Report matters. These narratives and rankings help hold governments accountable for taking real steps to end the scourge of modern slavery. The report’s widely regarded as the gold standard for anti-trafficking information. Not only do foreign governments look to its recommendations on how to improve, civil society relies on these pages to guide their efforts as well. The U.S. Government anti-trafficking policy and strategy similarly stem from this report, as do the efforts of many international organizations. Researchers have documented a correlation between tier ranking downgrades and states’ subsequent enactment of anti-trafficking legislation. And in addition, Congress, civil society, and the media closely follow this report which has helped elevate the issue.

The report highlights the issue of trafficking and sex, sexual slavery, forced marriage, and domestic servitude, including in diplomatic households. The attention that the report attracts demonstrates both the impact and the import of the Department’s work. And so in these ways, the TIP Report is one of the most powerful tools that we have to shine a spotlight on this abhorrent crime and to prompt real and lasting progress.

In addition to country assessments, the TIP Report’s a call to action for governments, businesses, and individuals to effect change through the purchases that they make to demand accountability in supply chains, to promote and enforce policies that prohibit human trafficking and the practices that facilitate it, and to hold accountable those who perpetrate this crime. Building on the theme of the White House Forum on Combating Human Trafficking in Supply Chains held earlier this year, the 2015 trafficking report highlights the risks that so many individuals, especially migrants, face while seeking gainful employment often far from home. The report highlights how we can break our age-old reliance on forced labor in the industries and sectors that fuel our modern society, whether in agriculture or construction, manufacturing, or mining.

Human trafficking infects key supply chains that produce the goods and services we rely on every day, and yet governments, businesses, and service providers are increasingly learning how to tackle and overcome slavery. We’re coming together to single-mindedly fight modern slavery and help victims recover with dignity and safety.

In just an hour, Secretary Kerry will celebrate the release of the TIP Report and honor eight TIP heroes from around the world – from Colombia, Iraq, Latvia, Madagascar, South Sudan, Uganda, and the United Kingdom and the United States. These individuals have devoted themselves to the fight against human trafficking. They’re NGO workers, lawmakers, police officers, and concerned citizens who are committed to ending modern slavery. We’re thrilled to recognize these extraordinary individuals for their tireless dedication and inspired work.

So thank you very much and I look forward to your questions.

MR KIRBY: Okay. We’ll get started right here.

QUESTION: Matthew Pennington from AP. There’s been a lot of criticism in Congress about the prospect of Malaysia’s upgrade. How would you justify that upgrade, and was Malaysia’s participation in the TPP one consideration in the upgrade?

UNDER SECRETARY SEWALL: I’m happy to explain the reasons for Malaysia’s upgrade. The State Department assigns tier rankings based on the government efforts to comply with the minimum standards established under U.S. law, as I just enumerated.

So Malaysia’s Tier 2 Watch List ranking indicates that there is still much room for improvement in the government’s anti-trafficking efforts, and we’re going to continue to encourage Malaysia and Malaysian officials and civil society to work together to make tangible progress to combat human trafficking, including the implementation of the amendments to the anti-trafficking law, the issuance of associated regulations in consultation with NGOs, and increased law enforcement efforts to convict traffickers.

While we still have concerns about any country that’s on the Tier 2 Watch List, to include Malaysia, the Government of Malaysia made significant efforts to comply with these minimum standards. The government made efforts to begin reforming its victim protection regime, along with its legal framework. Government officials consulted civil society in drafting amendments to the existing anti-trafficking in persons act to address Malaysia’s flawed victim protection regime. Authorities also increased the number of trafficking investigations and prosecutions compared to 2013 and adopted a pilot project to enable a limited number of trafficking victims to leave government facilities in order to work.

However, we remain concerned that low numbers of trafficking convictions in Malaysia is disproportionate to the scale of Malaysia’s human trafficking problem, and we also remain concerned with the restrictions on victims detained in government facilities and inadequate efforts to address pervasive passport retention by employers. The TIP Report documents these concerns and we will continue to work over the course of the next year with the government to impress upon them and support their efforts for change.

QUESTION: Can I follow up?

MR KIRBY: Go ahead, Elise.

QUESTION: Elise Labott with CNN. Could you talk a little bit about the fact that this report is from last year, yet you found these mass graves in Malaysia and believed to be part of this smuggling route with Thailand, Malaysia, and Myanmar all kind of put in together? And do you anticipate that this could affect Malaysia’s rating for next year?

UNDER SECRETARY SEWALL: Well, all facts reflect ratings. So the tragic smuggling situation that came to light at the end of the reporting period is certainly a core concern that we have as a matter of U.S. foreign policy in addition to being a concern for any future reporting that’s done.

The migrants along the border of Malaysia and Thailand have been subjected to a variety of abuses in these camps, and we’ve been working with the affected governments and international organizations in the region to combat the crimes that led to the deaths. We’ve been working with the Malaysian Government authorities, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and the International Organization for Migration. We understand Malaysian law enforcement and security authorities as well as Thai law enforcement and security authorities are actively investigating these findings, and we encourage a transparent and credible and expeditious effort to identify the victims and deal with them appropriately and humanely.

This discovery of the mass graves happened almost two months beyond the reporting period of the TIP Report. One of the ironies of the TIP reporting period is it ends March 31, 2015 and we are already four months into next year’s reporting period. Similar issues with the reporting period frame pertain to the progress that countries make. So in some cases, as in the case of Malaysia, the government’s commitment to improve its legislation was followed post reporting period by the passage of the amendments by the parliament and the Malaysian Government’s meetings during the reporting period were followed by more concrete action afterwards.

So we have both problems that occur during the reporting period that sometimes are shown in a different light as new facts arise. We also have commitments to progress that are made during the reporting period which are sometimes followed up afterwards by even more concrete progress. And in both cases, the TIP Report is based on the reporting period itself.

QUESTION: So I’m sorry, if you can just in layman’s terms, like, is – do you think that the fact that these mass graves were found after the reporting period would have made a difference? I mean, had you had found them during the reporting period, I really would have a hard time seeing that they weren’t still on the list.

UNDER SECRETARY SEWALL: We – you may have missed the discussion of the standards earlier in the briefing --

QUESTION: No, I’ve been covering for many years; I know it.

UNDER SECRETARY SEWALL: So you’ll understand that the – that Tier 2 does not mean – Tier 2 Watch List does not mean that there’s not a problem with a country. And similarly, our reporting has spoken to the difficulties that Malaysia has encountered and the failure to adequately prosecute in – over the course of the past year that would be a concern regardless of whether or not these particular mass graves are found.

QUESTION: Right. But if they made – if you’re judging them on efforts that they made and you found these particular mass graves, wouldn’t that have said that maybe the efforts weren’t as strong as they were – you were led to believe?

UNDER SECRETARY SEWALL: We are already – we have already said in the TIP Report over prior years that the efforts are not adequately strong, and indeed, a Tier 2 Watch List ranking also indicates that the efforts are not particularly strong.

QUESTION: David Brunnstrom from Reuters. I was wondering if you could just address the – I think the question that Matt made as to whether or not there was any motivation in upgrading Malaysia from the need to keep them in qualification for the TPP. This is something that’s been questioned by rights groups and quite large numbers of members of Congress. Was – did that come into play at all?

UNDER SECRETARY SEWALL: No, no, no. The annual TIP Report reflects the State Department’s assessment of foreign government efforts during the reporting period to comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking in persons, established under U.S. law, under the TVPA. And those standards, as I articulated, are quite well spelled out in the legislation and those are the standards that are applied based on the factual reporting that is gathered during the course of the year.

Over 15 years of the TIP Report, the report has raised the profile of these issues significantly. And I think the attention that the report generates now is indicative of the importance of the establishment of a baseline of facts and the continued scrutiny that the TIP Report represents.

QUESTION: Just to follow up, hadn’t Malaysia been kept on Tier 3, would that have been a potential barrier for its participation in TPP?

UNDER SECRETARY SEWALL: You would need to ask the folks working on the trade bill. I mean, our concern is really about the TIP Report facts, and those are gathered by the TIP staff over the course of the year working with posts, working with civil society organizations, gathering information from the media. It’s a very fact-intensive process; it’s one that we’re very proud of; and it’s one that I think stands us in good stead as we document in these extensive narratives that are included in the report and, as I said, serve as a benchmark really for solution finding and promoting change over the course of the year.

So we’re very pleased within the State Department to have a TIP process that is run by an office devoted solely to this issue, where the staff are focused on the TVPA criteria and the collection of facts pursuant to the law.


QUESTION: Good morning. Rosiland Jordan with Al Jazeera English. I have a question about the loss of funding for Tier 3 countries. Does every country that finds itself on the Tier 3 category automatically lose U.S. funding in that following fiscal year? Do they run more of a risk of losing even more money if they stay on the list for subsequent years? And if there is movement from year to year, such as we saw with Malaysia – it fell into Tier 3 last year, moved back up to Tier 2 this year – is there any positive impact on their getting U.S. foreign assistance? Otherwise, where’s the teeth in that punishment part of the law?

UNDER SECRETARY SEWALL: Thanks for the question. The President makes the waiver determinations for any countries that fall under the Tier 3 sanctions provision. Within 90 days of the release of the report, those decisions are made by the President. The report this year was submitted on July 27th. This is one of the most powerful tools we have, the report as a whole. The sanctions is one element of enforcement that flows from the reports. I would refer you to whitehouse.gov for a complete list of sanctions – the history of those that were eligible, the history of where sanctions were waived and were not. It’s a lengthy list.

The restriction of non-humanitarian, non-trade-related assistance to the governments placed on Tier 3 is something that is authorized by the TVPA, but it is the President’s decision about whether or how to waive some or all of those sanctions.

QUESTION: Yeah, thanks. Elliot Waldman with Tokyo Broadcasting System. Back to Malaysia, I just want to sort of push this a little more because, as you know, the 2012 and 2013 report, when it had Malaysia in the Tier 2 Watch List, the State Department waived the drop from Tier 2 Watch to Tier 3, and then it wasn’t even able to – and then in 2014, it was – I’m sorry, I lost my train of thought – it was upgraded to 20 --

MR KIRBY: Carol.

QUESTION: Hi, I’m Carol Morello with The Washington Post. You mentioned in the report that there are certain cultural norms that facilitate the justification of human trafficking, and since there is such a predominance of certain parts of the world in the Tier 3 and the Tier 2 Watch List, what do you – what are these cultural norms that make this so common? There are so many countries from Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Asia.

UNDER SECRETARY SEWALL: I don’t want to misspeak on the issue of cultural norms, which I suspect has a number of particular variations in terms of what the authors of the report meant, so let me take that question, Carol, and get back to you if I may.



QUESTION: Yes. I wanted to ask about Cuba. Could you explain the reasoning for the Cuban upgrade?


QUESTION: And also the same question, really – were there any political considerations there given the – all the effort that’s been put into the rapprochement with Cuba over recent months?

UNDER SECRETARY SEWALL: Sure. So Cuba was upgraded to the Tier 2 Watch List because of the progress that the government’s made in addressing and prosecuting sex trafficking, as well as the commitments that the Cuban Government has made to become compliant with the minimum standards. As noted in other cases, a Tier 2 Watch List ranking does not mean that a country is free from problems or free from human trafficking.

The report – the government reported significant efforts to address sex trafficking, including the conviction of sex traffickers, the provision of services to sex trafficking victims, and continued efforts of the ministry of tourism to address sex tourism and the demand for commercial sex. We also recognize the commitments the government has made to reform its laws to become compliant with the UN Palermo Protocol, which is a significant step, as well as the Cuban Government’s willingness to welcome the UN special rapporteur to the island.

However, we remain concerned in the case of Cuba, and the reason that it would still be on the Tier 2 Watch List includes a number of concerns such as the failure to recognize forced labor as a problem or to act to combat it. And so this will be very much a topic in our dialogue with Cuban officials as we work over the next year to try to help Cuba make more concrete progress in the realm of human trafficking.

MR KIRBY: We got time for just one more. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Lonnie Everson, TV Asahi. So in addition to Malaysia, several countries that are negotiating the TPP are on Tier 2 – in the Tier 2 category, and essentially, you’re saying that they don’t even meet the minimum standards for trafficking. I mean, how does them being involved in TPP inspire confidence in that they will adhere to standards that are being negotiated?

UNDER SECRETARY SEWALL: Well, the Tier 2 standards – both Tier 2 and Tier 2 Watch List – both indicate that minimum standards are not being made, but that significant efforts to become compliant are being made, and it’s that trajectory of progress that is really the hallmark of the TIP ranking progress – process. It’s why countries are evaluated in the context of their own experience and it’s why even countries that are on Tier 1 are expected to be continuing to make significant progress.

My understanding is that the aim of U.S. trade policy continues to be, in the event of particular agreements, to maintain a robust dialogue about rights protections to include protections to prevent human trafficking. And so that becomes another venue in which these issues can be discussed and moved that will not affect the way we work in the context of the Trafficking in Persons Office and other elements within the Department of State as a matter of diplomacy and programming to continue to push for progress on the specific issue of modern slavery.

QUESTION: John, could you – just quickly. Can you just talk about efforts in the United States? I mean, we don’t rank ourselves really, but where do you think the U.S. would fit in in terms of efforts versus – there’s always been talk about that there is a trafficking problem here in the United States although there’s a lot of efforts being made to – could you just talk a little bit about the situation here?

UNDER SECRETARY SEWALL: I would prefer to not characterize our efforts overall. I think you have characterized them adequately, which to say we all recognize that modern slavery exists here in the United States. That’s part of the logic behind the Blue Campaign, which seeks to raise awareness. You sometimes see the ads in airports and other places, helping to educate Americans about this invisible crime that is often undetected and really does require vigilance, even by countries that are considered Tier 1 countries and making significant efforts.

And so one of the distinguishing aspects of modern slavery is that it will continue to challenge even those countries that have the most resources, the strongest rule of law, the greatest commitment to human rights. And the United States will continue to face challenges in this arena, and we are not shy about sharing that fact with other partners whom we urge to make greater efforts, because we believe that this is in fact a global problem and we all have to work together to address it.

MR KIRBY: Okay. Thanks, everybody. Appreciate your time this morning. That concludes the briefing.