by Jade Anderson
Today, the world marks World Day Against Trafficking in Persons. The United Nations asks each country “to overcome this transnational threat by supporting and protecting victims while pursuing and prosecuting the criminals.” But how much is Hong Kong supporting and protecting victims?
This year, Hong Kong was downgraded to the Tier 2 Watch List in the US Government’s annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report. Hong Kong now sits alongside the governments of Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Saudi Arabia. As the report explains, the Tier 2 Watch List is for governments who may be making significant efforts to meet the minimum standards laid out by the US Government, but do not fully meet these standards.
The Hong Kong Government rejects this assessment, insisting that the present legislation in Hong Kong is comprehensive and sufficient for tackling human trafficking. This is despite that fact that the current legislation only addresses the prosecution of trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation and says nothing about protections or support mechanisms for victims.
Nothing in policy or legislation covers any other forms of human trafficking, least of all trafficking for the purpose of forced labour which globally represents the vast majority of all cases of human trafficking. In commenting on Hong Kong’s downgrade, the outgoing US consul general to Hong Kong explained that it is not enough for Hong Kong to maintain that the legislation as it stands is enough: “international anti-trafficking standards have evolved. Standing still is slipping backwards in the face of a growing global challenge.”
None of this is news, however. As has been opined repeatedly by human rights groups and other stakeholders, the government frequently denies Hong Kong is a source, destination, or transit country for human trafficking, citing the low numbers of identified victims as evidence of the absence of human trafficking in the territory.
But how are victims being identified? Without any transparent policies in place for the identification of victims of trafficking, or referral mechanisms for their protection and support, we are left to guess about who these victims are, how they were identified and what has happened to them. And remember, this is only victims of trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation. We know very little about the people who may have been trafficked for the purposes of forced labour. Except for the advocacy of migrant’s rights groups and trade unions, it is likely we would not even know about the egregious cases of abuse which manage to catch the attention of the press.
Early this month, the government issued a press release notifying the public that since September 2012, a series of operations have been launched across the territory to “combat ïllegal employment activities.” As a result of operation “Windsand,” 2,921 migrants were arrested. 231 were prosecuted for breach of conditions of stay and the remaining 2,690 people were repatriated. The press release explains that all of these people were from mainland China and that they were suspected of being involved in parallel goods trading.
What screening, if any, was undertaken to examine the working and living conditions of any of these people? Focused only on their immigration status and the illegality of their work, how do we know if they were coerced into coming to Hong Kong to work? How do we know if they were deceived into coming into Hong Kong or deceived about the conditions under which they were entering Hong Kong? How do we know if they came knowingly to Hong Kong but that the illegality of their stay in Hong Kong allowed employers to exploit them – to steal their wages, to overwork them, to coerce them into other forms of illegality. The answer is: we don’t.
Herein lies a big part of the problem in Hong Kong. The government is only looking for victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation. Hong Kong has a vibrant and active civil society, but all of us are busy and often only working with one or two sections of the population. There are very few groups who have the capacity to go out into the communities and proactively search across the communities for people who may be victims of any of the forms of trafficking or be vulnerable to trafficking.
The groups who are, shouldn’t be doing it alone. They should be doing it in tandem with Hong Kong Government, with the police, with the Labour Department, with the Immigration Department. And they shouldn’t be doing it in the very justifiable fear that any victims who approach them, or who they encounter in their work will be prosecuted for breaches of their immigration status and imprisoned or deported. We cannot expect any people who are victims of trafficking to come forward when they will be punished in spite of what they have endured.
Human trafficking in Hong Kong is not an issue of domestic helpers. Nor is it an issue of sex workers. It is an issue of vulnerable workers regardless of their immigration status and regardless of the type of work they are doing. Until we can look beyond these silos and have an honest and open conversation about the vulnerabilities of migrant workers in Hong Kong to deceit, coercion and exploitation, we will never have adequate legislation to combat human trafficking, let alone be responding in a way which protects and upholds the rights of all victims.
Jane Anderson is the Anti-Human Trafficking Coordinator of Justice Centre Hong Kong.