Human trafficking in Myanmar
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Myanmar is a source country for men, women, and children who are subjected to human trafficking, specifically forced labor, and for women and children, forced prostitution in other countries. Children of Myanmar are subjected to forced labor as sellers and beggars in Thailand. Many men, women, and children from Thailand, Malaysia, China, Bangladesh, India, and South Korea who migrate abroad for work are trafficked into conditions of forced or bonded labor or commercial sexual exploitation. Economic conditions within Myanmar have led to the increased legal and illegal migration of citizens regionally and internationally, often to destinations as far from Myanmar as the Middle East. Men are subjected to forced labor in the fishing and construction industries abroad. Women of Myanmar who migrate to Thailand, China, and Malaysia for economic opportunities are found in situations of forced labor and forced prostitution. Some trafficking victims transit through Myanmar from Bangladesh to Malaysia and from China to Thailand and beyond. The government has yet to address the systemic political and economic problems that cause the people of Myanmar to seek employment through both legal and illegal means in neighboring countries. Myanmar’s internal trafficking remains the most serious concern. Exploiters traffic girls for the purpose of prostitution, particularly in urban areas.
In some areas, in particular international sex trafficking of women and girls, the Government of Myanmar is making significant efforts. Nonetheless, serious problems remain in Myanmar, and in some areas, most notably in the area of forced labor, the Government of Myanmar is not complying with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking. The regime’s widespread use of and lack of accountability in forced labor and recruitment of child soldiers is the top causal factor for Myanmar’s significant trafficking problem.
The U.S. State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons placed the country in "Tier 2 Watchlist" in 2017.
The Government of Myanmar reported some progress in law enforcement efforts against cross-border sex trafficking during the reporting period. Myanmar prohibits sex and labor trafficking through its 2005 Anti-Trafficking in Persons Law, which prescribes criminal penalties that are sufficiently stringent and commensurate with those prescribed for rape. The recruitment of children into the army is a criminal offense under Penal Code Section 374, which could result in imprisonment for up to one year, or a fine, or both.
The military of Myanmar engages in the unlawful conscription of child soldiers, and continues to be the main perpetrator of forced labor inside Myanmar. The direct government and military use of forced or compulsory labor remains a widespread and serious problem, particularly targeting members of ethnic minority groups, such as the Shan people. Military and civilian officials systematically used men, women, and children for forced labor for the development of infrastructure and state-run agricultural and commercial ventures, as well as forced portering for the military. Those living in areas with the highest military presence, including remote border areas populated by ethnic groups, are most at risk for forced labor. Military and civilian officials subject men, women, and children to forced labor. Men and thousands of boys as young as 10 years old are forcibly recruited (due often to desertions) to serve in the National Army and ethnic armed groups through intimidation, coercion, threats, and violence. Children of the urban poor are at particular risk of involuntary conscription; UN reports indicate that the army has targeted orphans and children on the streets and in railway stations, and young novice monks from monasteries for recruitment. Children are threatened with jail if they do not agree to join the army, and are sometimes physically abused. Children are subjected to forced labor in tea shops, home industries, and agricultural plantations.
In December 2009, the military of Myanmar reported that it dismissed a captain from the military via court martial and sentenced him to one year of imprisonment in a civilian jail for child soldier recruitment – the first ever criminal conviction of a military official involved in child soldier recruitment. In the same case, an additional two privates were sentenced to three months' and one-month military imprisonment, respectively. Myanmar law enforcement officials generally were not able to investigate or prosecute cases of military-perpetrated forced labor or child soldier recruitment absent assent from high-ranking military officers. The government also reported investigating, prosecuting, and convicting some internal trafficking offenders, though there was only one reported criminal prosecution of a member of the National Army for his role in child soldier cases. The government continued to incarcerate six individuals who reported forced labor cases involving the regime to the International Labour Organization (ILO) or were otherwise active in working with the ILO on forced labor issues.
Government response to human rights
While forced labor is widely considered to be the most serious trafficking problem in Myanmar, authorities reported that most trafficking cases investigated and prosecuted involved women and girls subjected to forced marriage or intended to be subjected to forced marriage. The Myanmar regime rules arbitrarily through its unilaterally imposed laws, but rule of law is absent, as is an independent judiciary that would respect trafficking victims’ rights. The State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), Myanmar’s military government, has not acknowledged the prevalence of human rights issues within their country, specifically human trafficking. No one has been held accountable for the serious crimes committed by government security forces. These crimes include forced labor, child soldiers, and personal, including sexual, violence.
The Myanmar regime reported investigating 155 cases of trafficking, prosecuting 410 individuals, and convicting 88 offenders in 2009, an increase from 342 reported prosecutions in 2008; however, these statistics included 12 cases of abduction for adoption, which are not considered “trafficking” by international standards. Additionally, court proceedings are not open and lack due process for defendants. While the Myanmar regime has in the past been known to conflate illegal migration with trafficking, leading to the punishment of consensual emigrants and those who assist them to emigrate, the police reported some efforts to exclude smuggling cases from human trafficking figures during the reporting period, and improved their transparency in handling cases. Nevertheless, limited capacity and training of the police coupled with a lack of transparency in the justice system make it uncertain whether all trafficking statistics provided by authorities were indeed for trafficking cases. Corruption and lack of accountability remains pervasive in Myanmar, affecting all aspects of society. Police can be expected to self-limit investigations when well-connected individuals are involved in forced labor cases. Although the government reported four officials prosecuted for involvement in human trafficking in 2009, the government did not release any details of the cases.
ILO and international cooperation
Myanmar law enforcement reported continued cooperation with Chinese counterparts on cross-border trafficking cases, including joint operations, as well as general cooperation with Thai authorities. In 2009, the ILO continued to receive and investigate forced labor complaints; 93 cases were submitted to the Myanmar government for action, an increase from 64 cases in 2008; 54 cases remain open and are awaiting a response from the government. Despite a report of a child labor case involving as many as 100 children on an agricultural plantation near Rangoon, the regime did not report any efforts to investigate the allegation.
Many minors from Myanmar work in Thai border towns, particularly the town of Mae Sai. Drivers who smuggle illegal workers into Thailand go to villages to recruit minors, and then transport them to the border. In one such case found in a survey, a girl was deceived by a driver, and sold into prostitution. Between 20,000 and 30,000 women and girls from Myanmar are estimated to be working in the prostitution industry in Thailand. As illegal immigrants, they are often arrested and deported back to Myanmar. About 50 to 70 percent of the prostitutes are HIV positive.
In other cases, children from Myanmar were tricked during their recruitment, and not paid for the jobs they were promised. It is believed that the children from Myanmar make up the largest sector of foreign working children. Minors also participate in the fishing industry and work in Bangkok, though this is not as common. The ethnic minorities from Myanmar working in Thailand were also found to have the lowest education in all minor workers surveyed, at about 1.3 years, and Burmese were found to have only a slightly higher education level, on average roughly four years. The minors from Myanmar that work in Thailand usually left for economic reasons.
A lack of job opportunities in Myanmar has contributed to the rise of human trafficking operations; the trade is now no longer targeting just rural areas, but is reaching the country’s major cities. Many of the 2.5 million migrants from Myanmar came to Thailand to find low-paying domestic jobs during the militaristic regime previously in place. These migrants often lack basic education and access to social security benefits.
Conversations between the US and Myanmar have been more frequent in recent years. The U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, Luis CdeBaca, and Myanmar Police Chief Major General Zaw Win concurred in the need for government-civil society partnerships, health care, and prevention. The latest reports from Washington indicate that the US feels improvements are underway.
Prosecution of victims
Victims of forced labor cases are not protected from countersuit by regime officials. During the reporting period, 17 complainants and their associates in a series of forced labor cases involving 328 farmers in Magwe Division were prosecuted and jailed by local authorities for their role in reporting forced labor perpetrated by local government officials. Myanmar courts later released 13 of the individuals, but four complainants remain in prison. The central government did not intervene with local authorities to stop the politically motivated harassment, including lengthy interrogations, of the forced labor complainants. Such unaccountable harassment and punishment discouraged additional forced labor complaints. On February 28, 2014, Myanmar officials decided to ban Doctors Without Borders from the state of Rakhine after the organization discovered and treated 40 victims of a rampage between Muslim and Buddhist citizens that the government denies took place. The United Nations states that its negotiations with Myanmar to allow Doctors Without Borders into the Rakhine state are of special importance, as citizens lack the ability to report human rights abuses for fear of becoming victims of the human trafficking or violence themselves. For victims of human trafficking, Doctors Without Borders is often the only access to health care they have.
The regime made efforts to protect repatriated victims of cross-border sex trafficking to China and Thailand, though it exhibited no discernible efforts to protect victims of internal trafficking and transnational labor trafficking. In forced labor cases, some victims, notably 17 individuals in Magwe Division, were harassed, detained, or otherwise penalized for making accusations against officials who pressed them into forced labor. The government reported identifying 302 victims, most of whom were victims of forced marriage rather than explicitly trafficking victims, and reported assisting an additional 425 victims identified and repatriated by foreign governments in 2009, including 293 from China and 132 from Thailand. The regime did not identify any male trafficking victims. Victims were sheltered and detained in non-specialized Department of Social Welfare facilities for a mandatory minimum of two weeks, which stretched into months if authorities could not find an adult family member to accept the victim. While in government facilities, victims had access to counseling, thought it was often substandard, but had limited access to social workers. There were no shelter facilities available to male victims of trafficking. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) were sometimes allowed access to victims in government shelters, but the regime continued to bar NGOs from operating shelters for trafficking victims. The regime did not have in place formal victim identification procedures. While the government reported that it encouraged victims to assist in investigations and prosecutions, it did not appear to provide financial support or other assistance to victims to serve as incentives to participate in the prosecution of their traffickers. The regime cooperated with the ILO on the issue of the military’s conscription of children, resulting in the return of 31 children to their families. However, numerous children undoubtedly continue to serve in the Myanmar Army and in ethnic militias. The government has done little to help international organizations assess the scope of the problem. The regime did not permit UNICEF access to children who were released through the government’s mechanisms for follow-up purposes. Additionally, some child recruits have been prosecuted and sentenced for deserting the military and remain in prison.
Myanmar made limited efforts to prevent international human trafficking over the last year, and made few discernible efforts to prevent the more prevalent internal trafficking, particularly forced labor and child conscription by regime officials and ethnic armed groups. The government continued awareness campaigns using billboards, flyers, and videos during the reporting period and state-run television aired a documentary on human trafficking produced by the MTV EXIT Campaign. The government of Myanmar reported forming three new anti-trafficking units in 2009, and reported a 40 percent overall increase in spending on prevention efforts. During the reporting period, the government signed Memoranda of Understanding with China and Thailand on trafficking in persons. The regime sustained partnerships with Mekong region governments and the UN in the Coordinated Mekong Ministerial Initiative Against Trafficking (COMMIT), and hosted the COMMIT Senior Officials Meeting in January 2010.
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