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Marshall Islands questions trafficking ‘demotion’

MAJURO — The Marshall Islands Foreign Minister questioned the conclusions of the latest U.S. State Department trafficking in persons report on the Marshall Islands, which demoted the country to Tier 2 Watch List, the last step before the so-called blacklist of Tier 3. Marshall Islands was ranked Tier 2 in last year’s Statement Department report.

The report, released at the end of June and available on the State Department’s website, state.gov, said the Marshall Islands “does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but is making significant efforts to do so.”

Click to enlarge
The cover of the 2019 Trafficking in Persons Report issued by the U.S. State Department.

Among key points, the State Department’s 2019 trafficking in persons report said the Marshall Islands government “decreased law enforcement efforts,” “decreased efforts to protect victims,” and “decreased efforts to prevent trafficking.”

Marshall Islands was bumped to Tier 2 Watch List this year after one year at Tier 2. It was on Tier 3 in 2015 and 2016, gradually improving to Tier 2 Watch List in 2017, then Tier 2 last year before this year’s decline.

“Our status in terms of what brought us to Tier 2 last year remains the same,” said Foreign Minister John Silk Thursday. “So it is not entirely accurate to say that there is a decrease in RMI government efforts to protect victims, decreased law enforcement efforts, and decreased efforts to prevent trafficking.”

The latest U.S. trafficking in persons report includes the Marshall Islands and six other Pacific nations: Papua New Guinea is ranked on Tier 3, Fiji joined Marshall Islands on the Tier 2 Watch List, and the Federated States of Micronesia, Palau, Solomon Islands, and Tonga are ranked on Tier 2.

The Marshall Islands “government did not demonstrate overall increasing efforts compared to the previous reporting period,” said the new trafficking report.

“In June 2018, local media alerted police to a brothel with potential child sex trafficking victims and alleged complicity of high-ranking government officials in the brothel’s operation,” said the report. “The police reportedly took no action until after the local newspaper published the story; the police investigation remained ongoing at the end of the reporting period — nine months later.”

In addition, the report said, “The government did not report efforts to identify these girls as trafficking victims or any other trafficking victims and did not report providing assistance to any potential or confirmed victims during the reporting period. The government did not report any investigations, prosecutions or convictions of government officials complicit in trafficking and it had not prosecuted or convicted any traffickers since 2011. Therefore the RMI was downgraded to Tier 2 Watch List.”

The RMI Attorney General’s Office filed in early April its first trafficking-related charges in the High Court against three individuals involved in adoption of Marshallese babies in the U.S. But this was after the current report’s reporting period ended March 31.

“I am informed by the attorney general that there was a reported case of prostitution (in Majuro),” said Silk. This was reported on page one of the local newspaper, the Marshall Islands Journal, in June 2018 under the headline, “Delap sex hub flourishing.” Silk said it was his understanding that prosecutors will be filing charges soon related to this situation.

Silk said that for protection of victims, the country’s Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons Act provides immunity for victims of trafficking. “We are also in the process of acceding to the Palermo Protocol as we have already acceded to the U.N. Transnational Organized Crime Convention,” said Silk.

He called the State Department report “a useful tool as far as gauging our efforts and how far we still have to go. There are a number of recommendations stemming from the report which we have taken under review. Perhaps the biggest challenge that we continue to face is the reporting commitments similar to the other human rights conventions, but nevertheless, we are, and will continue to take steps to better address this issue.”

The top recommendation for the Marshall Islands in the U.S. State Department’s annual trafficking report: “Increase efforts to vigorously investigate, prosecute, and convict traffickers, including complicit officials, and sentence traffickers to adequate penalties.”