Hong Kong has avoided a downgrade to the list of worst jurisdictions for human trafficking in an annual report by the US Department of State.

This is the third consecutive year that Hong Kong has been graded in the Tier 2 Watch List, joining Bangladesh, Iraq and South Africa in the ranking. 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. A Tier 2 ranking means that jurisdiction’s trafficking prevention measures did not fully meet those stipulated by the US’s Trafficking Victims Protection Act.

According to the US’s Trafficking Victims Protection Act, any jurisdiction that is ranked on the Tier Two watch list for three years in a row will be automatically downgraded in the third year.

united states tip trafficking in persons 2018 tier 2
Photo: U.S. Department of State.

However, the State Department granted Hong Kong a waiver from an otherwise required downgrade “because the government has devoted sufficient resources to a written plan that, if implemented, would constitute significant efforts to meet the minimum standards.”

In March, the government launched an action plan to tackle human trafficking – including training of front-line officers and setting up a hotline for migrant domestic workers – but it did not introduce any specific legislation.

The US report said the government demonstrated significant efforts in releasing the action plan, among other actions, but did not demonstrate increasing efforts compared to the previous year.

“The government reported fewer convictions for sex trafficking-related offenses and issued sentences that were insufficiently stringent for the seriousness of the crime. Some law enforcement officers did not properly investigate incidents with clear trafficking indicators reported to them by NGOs,” it said.

Hong Kong does not have specific anti-trafficking laws; instead, it uses relevant laws including the Immigration Ordinance and Crimes Ordinance to combat trafficking offences.

Patricia Ho, Partner at Daly, Ho & Associates, said in a statement on Friday that the government’s efforts in the last year amounted to “an exercise in smoke and mirrors.”

“On a day-to-day basis the system fails the most vulnerable population,” she said.

“To date, human trafficking and forced labour are not crimes in Hong Kong. The ‘rigorous legislative regime’ the government points to cannot begin to address or allow law enforcers to prosecute traffickers.”

patricia ho
Human rights lawyer Patricia Ho. File Photo: Women of Influence Conference 2017 via Youtube.

“I suppose waiver can be understood given the action plan and that one needs time to see if it will reap results. But there is certainly no illusion that so far the government is doing anything but an exercise in smoke and mirrors.”

Justice Centre Hong Kong called on the authorities to adopt comprehensive anti-trafficking legislation and to adopt the United Nation’s (UN) Palermo Protocols – to prevent, suppress and punish human trafficking.

Piya Muqit, the NGO’s Executive Director, said in a statement on Friday: “According to the Chief Executive, respect for human rights is a core value for the Hong Kong Government. The long-standing failure to enact comprehensive legislation to combat human trafficking continues to be a gap in the protection of human rights in Hong Kong.”

The Hong Kong government rejected the criticism in the report as “deplorable and unacceptable,” saying in a statement on Friday: “We strongly disagree with the US TIP Report 2018. It contains criticisms not founded on facts and allegations not supported by evidence.”

‘The HKSAR Government has always been fully committed to working with the international community in combatting TIP [trafficking in persons] through multi-faceted measures.”

Jennifer Creery is a Hong Kong-born British journalist, interested in minority rights and urban planning. She holds a BA in English at King's College London and has studied Mandarin at National Taiwan University.