Hong Kong has remained on a US State Department human trafficking watch list after being added to it last year.

Washington issued its Trafficking in Persons report on Tuesday, which said Hong Kong failed to provide evidence that it increased efforts to prosecute traffickers or identify victims. The city’s government has rejected the criticism.

Photo: US State Department.

“Prosecutors sometimes used victims’ receipt of unlawfully low wages or their acceptance to work outside of their contracts under duress as evidence that victims violated their immigration status, instead of as evidence of abuse,” wrote the State Department.

Victims’ fears of being prosecuted discouraged them from seeking help, according to the report.

“NGOs reported fines and penalties for employment agencies exploiting foreign domestic workers were too light and did not act as a deterrent for unscrupulous agencies.”

The State Department cited Hong Kong government statistics in saying the city investigated 15 cases with elements of human trafficking in 2016, compared to six in 2015. It initiated prosecutions of seven employers accused of exploiting foreign domestic workers and five sex trafficking suspects.

36 trafficking victims were identified in 2016, compared with 16 in 2015.

File photo: Dan Garrett.

But Hong Kong remained on Washington’s Tier 2-Watch List, meaning that its trafficking prevention measures did not fully meet those stipulated by the US’s Trafficking Victims Protection Act.

The State Department adopts a tier-ranking system of 1, 2, 2-Watch List and 3, with Tier 1 consisting of countries that perform best.

See also: Hong Kong downgraded to join ranks of Uzbekistan, Niger, Afghanistan in annual trafficking report

The Hong Kong government rejected the report’s conclusions in a statement on Tuesday, claiming they were not fair and objective. It said the city has introduced a number of legislative and policy provisions against trafficking.

One example it gave was a new trafficking victim screening and identification mechanism adopted by the police and immigration since 2016, and by customs since 2017.

“The relatively small number of victims identified attests to the fact that trafficking in persons is not prevalent in Hong Kong.”

File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Piya Muqit, the executive director of local NGO Justice Centre, acknowledged the government’s efforts to combat human trafficking since Hong Kong’s status was downgraded by the US last year.

“While that is much appreciated, the concerns raised in the 2017 Trafficking in Persons report show that the issue has continued to draw international attention,” she said in a statement on Wednesday. “Much more needs to be done at the policy level.”

“We call upon the Hong Kong government to publicly acknowledge that Hong Kong is a source, transit and destination territory for human trafficking, and to meaningfully engage with civil society organisations.”

Elson Tong

Elson Tong is a graduate of international relations and former investigations consultant. He has also written for Stand News.