Cabinet asks home ministry to submit action plan for combating human trafficking

The Model UN Session on Trafficking in Person, which was live telecast on BBS-2 organized by the Ministry of Home and Cultural Affairs at Babesa Higher Secondary School in December last year ( Pic : MoHCA)

In a stark revelation, Bhutan failed to meet minimum standards for the elimination of human trafficking and remains in Tier 2 Watch List for the second consecutive year in 2021 U.S. report

Lhakpa Tshering

In its continued efforts to combat all forms of human trafficking, the cabinet has asked the Ministry of Home and Cultural Affairs (MoHCA) to submit an action plan along with a brief report.

The home ministry has been identified as a lead agency to expedite and ensure all the relevant agencies achieve the nine specific recommendations reported by the U.S. State Department in the Trafficking in Person (TIP) report 2021 which the government described as important, urgent, and critical.

This comes after the 101st session of the Lhengye Zhungtshog held on 31 August following where the Cabinet Secretary Sangay Duba, on 6 September, wrote to the ministry that the secretariat shall follow up regularly and submit updates to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).

The U.S. State Department’s TIP report 2021 has continued to place Bhutan’s ranking at Tier 2 since it does not fully meet the minimum standards of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) in 2021 although it is making significant efforts to do so.

As such Bhutan did not make sufficient progress to address trafficking in persons, demonstrating the weaknesses of the government’s efforts in the areas of prosecution, protection and prevention, and trafficking people in 2021.

“Bhutan’s trafficking laws do not criminalize all forms of child sex trafficking. Officials did not initiate any new trafficking cases, convict any traffickers, or identify any new trafficking victims during the reporting period,” reads the report.

Mounting concerns about human trafficking, it stated that traffickers have exploited Bhutanese women and girls in sex and labor trafficking, including in forced domestic labor and caregiving, through debt bondage and threats of physical abuse.

It states that the government did not make efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts and provide anti-trafficking training for its diplomatic personnel.

Findings and recommendations

The 2021 TIP Report highlights four areas – prosecution, protection and prevention, and trafficking people – where the government of Bhutan purportedly demonstrated increasing efforts compared to the previous year.

During the reporting period, it was found that the government amended Section 154 of the penal code, which criminalized “trafficking in persons,” to further align the definition of trafficking with the definition under international law.

However, it recommended drafting and finalizing a national action plan, disseminating information, and training officials on the amended Penal Code Section 154 and the implementation of anti-trafficking laws.

While it noted that the government continued to work with an international organization on anti-trafficking training and public awareness events, it pointed out the government did not demonstrate overall increasing efforts compared to the previous reporting period, even considering the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on its anti-trafficking capacity.

And it recommended amending anti-trafficking laws to ensure that a demonstration of force, fraud, or coercion is not required to constitute a child sex trafficking offense, consistent with international law.

The report also provides clear evidence that several efforts have been weak and ineffective. It recommended vigorously investigating, prosecuting, and convicting traffickers with significant terms of imprisonment.

While the government demonstrated mixed protection efforts, it did not identify any victims during the reporting period. It is recommended to increase proactive trafficking victim identification, including by training officials on, and implementing, existing standard operating procedures (SOPs).

Given the labor inspectors lacked adequate anti-trafficking training, it is recommended to train and instruct labor inspectors to screen cases of labor violations for indicators of forced labor, including nonpayment of wages, and refer to police for criminal investigation.

It was found that Bhutanese women and girls who work as entertainers in drayangs are vulnerable to labor and sex traffickers. And recommended finalizing and implementing guidelines to oversee drayangs, including ensuring workers have access to contracts.

It also found that the department of labor generally mediated claims of nonpayment of wages, and it did not report violations to police for the criminal investigation of potential forced labor offenses or penalize employers if they paid the outstanding wages.

It thus recommended taking steps to eliminate all recruitment fees charged to workers by recruitment agents and investigate claims of nonpayment of wages, contract switching, and illegal fees charged by agents.

In addition, it pointed out that some officials continued to lack an understanding of human trafficking, especially internal and transnational forced labor, although recent high-profile cases have helped increased awareness. 

“The lack of diplomatic relationships or mutual law enforcement agreements with destination countries hindered Royal Bhutan Police (RBP) efforts to investigate some potential trafficking cases.”

Increase awareness of human trafficking, including forced labor of Bhutanese students abroad, and accede to the 2000 United Nations (UN) TIP protocol are among the specific recommendations.

Meanwhile, the government did not initiate any new investigations but did re-investigate one case and made new arrests in existing cases during the reporting period, compared with two investigations – labor trafficking of three Bhutanese women and a government-approved work-study program in Japan reported indicators of forced labor – in the previous reporting period.

Ministries did not have dedicated budgets to support trafficking victims, which created gaps in services in some reported cases. The National Commission for Women and Children (NCWC) maintained a budget to assist women in difficult circumstances, which was available to support female and child trafficking victims.