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Regional News

Human traffickers get a slap on the wrist in Palau

HAGÅTÑA — While Palau has shown significant improvements in its law enforcement efforts against human trafficking, convicted perpetrators receive lenient punishments, reflecting “a failure to treat trafficking as a serious crime,” according to the U.S. Department of State’s 2018 Trafficking in Persons Report.

“Courts issued light penalties such as suspended sentences for trafficking crimes,” the report states.

Over the last five years, Palau has gained notoriety as a destination for women subjected to sex trafficking and for women and men subjected to forced labor.

“Women from the Philippines and China are recruited to work in Palau as waitresses or clerks but some are subsequently forced into prostitution in karaoke bars or massage parlors,” the report states. “Foreign workers on fishing boats in Palauan waters also experience conditions indicative of human trafficking. Official complicity plays a role in facilitating trafficking. Government officials — including labor, immigration, law enforcement, and elected officials—have been investigated for complicity.”

According to government data, Palau reported three convictions for human trafficking cases this year, compared to two cases last year. The government investigated 14 potential cases of trafficking with 24 defendants, a large increase compared with none reported in 2016. Investigations have also identified complicit local officials.

Palau’s Anti-Smuggling and Trafficking Act of 2005 and 2014 amendments to the criminal code prescribe penalties of 10 to 50 years imprisonment and fines of up to $50,000. The Department of State said these punishments are “sufficiently stringent” and  “commensurate with penalties prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape.”

However, the report noted that the court-imposed penalties “reflected a failure to treat trafficking as a serious crime.”

Two labor traffickers, for example, have been sentenced to five years imprisonment. However, the court suspended the sentences and required the traffickers to self-deport within 30 days.

Another labor recruiter convicted of trafficking and smuggling charges was sentenced to 10 years probation. She served one year before she was deported.

The government has also convicted four defendants — one of them a registered sex offender —  for promoting prostitution with minors with sentences ranging from six months to 13 years imprisonment.

On the policy side, the Palauan government has demonstrated increasing efforts by establishing a trafficking task force and funding a regional NGO that provides legal services to trafficking victims. Palau contributed approximately $15,000 to the Micronesian Legal Services Corp. specifically to assist trafficking victims with legal counseling and representation before labor and immigration hearings.

However, the TIP report said, Palau still “did not meet minimum standards” for elimination of human trafficking due to deficiencies in several other key areas.

“The government did not provide or fund emergency protective services such as shelter, medical, or psychological care. There was also a lack of proactive victim identification and referral protocols. There were no guidelines for proactive identification or referral process to guide officials in transferring identified victims to care providers or protective custody,” the report says.

Due to the general lack of support services, some victims are forced to leave the country rather than pursue legal recourse.

The Anti-Human Trafficking Office under the Ministry of Justice, which is tasked to conduct investigations and promote public awareness campaigns on human trafficking, did not do its job to educate employers or labor recruiters, nor provide anti-trafficking training for its diplomatic personnel.

“The government did not make efforts to oversee the labor recruitment and contract violations experienced by many foreign workers,” the TIP report says.

Palau President Tommy Remengesau earlier announced a special law enforcement operation targeting illegal business practices in the tourism industry to reduce the demand for forced labor and commercial sex. However, no report of any such actions was made during the reporting period.

Palau’s foreign population, about one-third of the country’s population of 21,400, is the most vulnerable to trafficking. Filipino, Bangladeshi, Nepali, Chinese, and Korean men and women pay thousands of dollars in recruitment fees and willingly migrate to Palau for jobs in domestic service, agriculture, restaurants, or construction; upon arrival, some are forced to work in conditions substantially different from what had been presented in contracts or recruitment offers, and some become trafficking victims.