Comprehensive anti-trafficking laws with severe consequences for violation, coupled with effective prosecution, is necessary to combat human trafficking worldwide, according to the U.S. State Department’s 2017 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report.

The Palermo Protocol was adopted by the United Nations in November 2000 to provide international norms for preventing, suppressing and punishing those engaged in trafficking in persons.

It has been in effect since December 2003, yet 20 nations still are not state parties to the protocol, the TIP report noted.

While most nations now have anti-trafficking laws, “many countries’ governments struggle to hold perpetrators of human trafficking criminally accountable.”

This is indicated by the fact that “worldwide convictions of human traffickers listed in this year’s Report were fewer than 10,000, while estimates of the number of victims of human trafficking remain in the tens of millions.”

The State Department emphasized the importance of treating trafficking as a serious crime with serious punishments.

Too often, the report explained, “when convictions are obtained, [governments] sometimes impose suspended sentences, fines or administrative penalties in place of prison sentences.”

Fines are ineffective, for example, because most traffickers have plenty of funding to cover such penalties and they “become a mere cost of doing business.”

In establishing protocols for prosecuting trafficking, the report urged governments to prosecute all parties knowingly involved in trafficking – recruiters, transporters, enforcers, financial beneficiaries – not simply those directly overseeing the exploitation.

It also urged a victim-centered approach that allows for “court-ordered restitution or compensation to victims in conjunction with the successful conviction of trafficker.”

The annual TIP report categorizes nations into tiers based on efforts to curb trafficking within their borders.

Tier 1 signals compliance with the minimum standards of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) – U.S. legislation enacted in 2000 to combat human trafficking within its borders.

Thirty-six countries made this list in 2017, the same as in 2016. The only changes were Cyprus dropping to tier 2 and Guyana moving up to tier 1.

Tier 2 has two divisions: one list for nations not fully complying with TVPA but making significant efforts to improve, and a watch list for nations with high levels of trafficking and a lack of evidence showing substantial improvement.

Eighty nations were in tier 2 (compared to 79 last year) with 45 on the tier 2 watch list (up from 44 in 2016). Afghanistan moved from the watch list to tier 2, while Burma moved onto the watch list from tier 3.

Tier 3, the lowest rating, is for countries not in compliance with TVPA and not making significant efforts to do so. The U.S. often withholds non-humanitarian aid to nations in this tier.

Twenty-three nations were rated tier 3 this year, down from 27 in 2016. China was downgraded to tier 3, along with the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Republic of Congo and Mali.

“No government can hold human traffickers accountable or address the needs of victims without stringent and comprehensive human trafficking laws, strong law enforcement and prosecutorial capacity funded with adequate resources, and an informed judiciary,” the report summarized. “Victims of human trafficking deserve timely and meaningful access to justice through a system that respects rule of law and due process rights. Without these measures, human trafficking will continue to flourish.”

“Human trafficking is as old as humankind, regrettably,” said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in a press conference announcing the report’s release, “but … it is our hope that the 21st century will be the last century of human trafficking.”

The full report is available here, and summary information is available here.

Editor’s note: articles related to human trafficking are available here. News briefs summarizing the 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report is available here and the 2015 report here.

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