Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Co-Chair of the Senate Caucus to End Human Trafficking, was joined by 18 of his Senate colleagues in sending a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry expressing deep concerns following press reports of a possible unwarranted ranking upgrade for Malaysia in the 2015 Trafficking In Persons (TIP) report. Earlier this year, Portman voted for an amendment to the Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) legislation signed into law by President Obama that penalizes countries such as Malaysia that do not comply with global anti-trafficking standards.  In 2014, Malaysia was placed in Tier 3, the lowest rank for non-compliance, alongside countries such as Iran, North Korea, Syria, Yemen and Venezuela.

 “It is difficult to fathom how the State Department could justify upgrading Malaysia given that the country failed to address the problem in the year leading up to the June 1, 2015 statutory deadline for the TIP report’s publication,” wrote the Senators, adding “As the U.S. government’s principal tool to engage foreign governments on human trafficking, the integrity of the TIP report ranking process is a reflection of our country’s principles and must be upheld. An unwarranted upgrade for Malaysia in the 2015 report, especially if based on actions undertaken after the closing of the 2015 reporting period, would weaken the credibility of our TIP ranking system. Ultimately, it would undermine the value of the TIP review process to obtaining meaningful international progress on human rights.”

The letter, led by Senator Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), is also signed by Senators: Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Ed Markey (D-MA), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Gary Peters (D-MI), Bob Casey (D-PA), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Kristen Gillibrand (D-NY), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Al Franken (D-MN), and Marco Rubio (R-FL).

A copy of the letter can be found here and full text is below.

Three of Portman’s bills to combat human trafficking were included in the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act, a bipartisan and comprehensive trafficking bill signed to law in May.

The Bringing Missing Children Home Act is bipartisan legislation Portman introduced with Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) to improve the way we find missing kids by refining and streamlining how cases of missing children are handled and enhancing the critical information needed for law enforcement to investigate cases of missing and abducted children. Specifically, for the first time ever, law enforcement will be required to add a photograph to the missing child’s file if available. Portman’s bill also replaces the term “child prostitution” with “child sex trafficking,” reinforcing that children who are sex trafficked or sexually exploited are victims, not criminals, and making it clear that we must save these children from abuse.

Ensuring a Better Response for Victims of Child Sex Trafficking was originally part of the Child Sex Trafficking Data and Response Act, bipartisan legislation Portman introduced with Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) to amend the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) to require that child victims of sex trafficking are considered victims of child abuse. Under the amendment, CAPTA state plans must also contain provisions and procedures requiring identification and assessment of all reports involving children known or suspected to be victims of sex trafficking, training for child protective services workers to identify and provide comprehensive services victims and a  description of efforts to coordinate with state law enforcement, juvenile justice, and social service agencies such as runaway and homeless youth shelters to better serve victims of sex trafficking.

The Combat Human Trafficking Act is bipartisan legislation Portman introduced with Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) to strengthen law enforcement efforts to investigate and prosecute all who commit sex trafficking crimes, particularly the buyers of sex acts from trafficking victims. Enforcement efforts often focus on prosecuting the sellers of these acts because of challenges in prosecuting buyers. Portman’s legislation sends a clear message to those who victimize children that we will prosecute them to the full extent of the law. By strengthening laws against buyers, we can take steps toward reducing demand for child victims and ensuring criminals are fully prosecuted.

These bills follow up on Portman’s extensive efforts to combat human trafficking. Last year, Portman’s provisions to protect children from violent criminals were signed into law as part of the Child Care Development Block Grant. Additionally, key provisions of Portman’s Child Sex Trafficking Data and Response Act, which requires state child welfare workers to identify and document victims of sex trafficking within the child welfare system, were signed into law last year. In December 2012, Portman’s bill to strengthen protections against trafficking in connection with overseas federal contracts, the End Trafficking in Government Contracting Act, was signed into law as part of the National Defense Authorization Bill.

 

July 14, 2015

 

The Honorable John Kerry

Secretary of State

U.S. State Department

2201 C Street, NW

Washington, DC 20520

 

Dear Secretary Kerry:

Fighting human trafficking is one of the great moral challenges of our time. It is therefore with grave concern that we now hear Malaysia may be upgraded in this year’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report based on developments that occurred after the end of the review period. A premature upgrade of Malaysia would undermine the integrity of the TIP report process and compromise our international efforts to fight human trafficking.

The 114th Congress has undertaken a vigorous bipartisan agenda to address human trafficking. In February of this year, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held two hearings on the subject of modern slavery and reported to the Senate the End Modern Slavery and Trafficking Initiative Act of 2015. On April 22, the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations held a hearing examining the State Department’s TIP Report and the need to maintain the integrity of the tier ranking system. Also on April 22, the Senate voted 99-0 to pass the Justice for Victims Trafficking Act. Later that day, the Senate Finance Committee passed an amendment to the Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities and Accountability Act of 2015 to prohibit expedited consideration of trade agreements with countries ranked Tier 3 on the TIP Report. That amendment was ultimately included in H.R. 2146, which was subsequently passed by both houses of Congress and signed into law by President Obama on June 29. An additional provision, originally introduced by Senators Menendez and Wyden, to establish an exception process for countries that have taken concrete actions to implement the principal recommendations in the TIP report was passed by the House during its consideration of H.R. 644, the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act of 2015.

The 2014 TIP report described the human trafficking crisis in Malaysia, noting that many migrant workers are exploited and subjected to practices indicative of forced labor, that the government made limited effort to improve its flawed victim protection regime, and that there were significant shortcomings in the Government’s anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts. 

In light of those findings, it is difficult to fathom how the State Department could justify upgrading Malaysia given that the country failed to address the problem in the year leading up to the June 1, 2015 statutory deadline for the TIP report’s publication. Passage of legislation to amend Malaysia’s anti-trafficking laws, while a step forward, occurred outside the 2015 review period and additional work remains to ensure that this legislation is implemented in a manner consistent with the recommendations in the 2014 report. Such action should therefore not be included in the Department’s evaluation of Malaysia’s 2015 ranking.

State Department officials have already stated that Malaysia must do more to warrant removal from Tier 3 and suggested that recent efforts to address the problem lie outside of the 2015 reporting period. As recently as April 17, the U.S. Ambassador to Malaysia, Joseph Yun, said that the Malaysian government needs to show greater political will in prosecuting human traffickers and protecting their victims if the country hopes to improve its Tier 3 ranking. On June 1, Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Migration and Refugees Anne C. Richard reaffirmed that, “the 2015 [TIP] report covers until March 2015, which mean Malaysia's handling of [the Rohingya refugee] crisis will only be reflected in the 2016 report.” While we applaud the State Department’s work to improve the human trafficking situation in Southeast Asia and welcome the Malaysian government’s newfound interest in addressing the problem, an upgrade in the 2015 TIP report would only be justified if Malaysia had made significant efforts to bring itself into compliance with the minimum standards for eliminating trafficking within the relevant reporting timeframe.

Sadly, the report is already more than five weeks overdue; it is on pace to be the latest report ever released. As the U.S. government’s principal tool to engage foreign governments on human trafficking, the integrity of the TIP report ranking process is a reflection of our country’s principles and must be upheld. An unwarranted upgrade for Malaysia in the 2015 report, especially if based on actions undertaken after the closing of the 2015 reporting period, would weaken the credibility of our TIP ranking system. Ultimately, it would undermine the value of the TIP review process to obtaining meaningful international progress on human rights.

 

We urge you not to prematurely upgrade Malaysia’s 2015 TIP ranking based on evidence outside of the review period.