Hong Kong Slams US Human Trafficking Watch List

The US has criticized Hong Kong's handling of trafficking, citing its restrictive national security laws and lack of specific anti-trafficking laws, raising human rights concerns.

Hong Kong Slams US Human Trafficking Watch List

29-06-2024

Marina Sáenz

Human Rights Researcher 

Global Human Rights Defence

In a contentious response to the latest US Department of State report, Hong Kong finds itself at odds with Washington over accusations of an inadequate response to human trafficking. The 2024 Trafficking in Persons Report has downgraded Hong Kong to a "watch list" status, citing concerns that recent security laws have hindered NGO engagement crucial for combating trafficking. Hong Kong officials have swiftly rejected these claims, labelling them as unfounded and asserting that trafficking is not a prevalent issue in the city. The dispute highlights escalating tensions between the two governments and underscores broader concerns about human rights and governance in Hong Kong's evolving political landscape.

The US Department of State's 2024 Trafficking in Persons Report has ignited a heated debate between Hong Kong and the United States, centred on the city's response to human trafficking. Despite Hong Kong's allocation of HK$77 million in the 2024-25 budget towards anti-trafficking efforts—an increase from HK$62 million the previous fiscal year—the report raises concerns about the efficacy of these measures. It highlights that the city's government continues to publicly downplay the prevalence of trafficking, contrasting with reports from NGOs and independent observers. "We vehemently oppose and firmly reject the unfounded and false remarks in the Report against the situation in Hong Kong. Trafficking in persons (TIP) is never a prevalent problem in Hong Kong," a government spokesperson said in the statement. "The findings in the Report are groundless. The rating of Hong Kong at Tier 2 (Watch List) is utterly unfair, misconceived, and not substantiated by facts." Hong Kong, a global financial hub with significant migrant worker populations, has long been a focal point for human trafficking concerns. Migrant domestic workers, primarily from Southeast Asia, are particularly vulnerable to exploitation, including underpayment, excessive work hours, and abusive conditions. Critics argue that despite government initiatives, including an anti-trafficking steering committee and increased budget allocations, systemic challenges persist. Since the implementation of Beijing-imposed national security laws in 2020 and 2024, which criminalised activities such as secession and foreign collusion, NGOs have reported increased caution in engaging with authorities on trafficking issues. This cautious stance has been further compounded by the March 2024 enactment of the Safeguarding National Security Ordinance under Article 23 of Hong Kong's Basic Law, which critics argue has further restricted civil liberties. In response, Hong Kong officials maintain that these laws are essential for safeguarding national security and do not undermine efforts to combat trafficking, insisting that the city remains committed to protecting human rights while ensuring law and order.

From a human rights law standpoint, Hong Kong's response to human trafficking presents significant challenges despite recent legislative efforts. The absence of a dedicated anti-trafficking law raises concerns about the adequacy of legal protections for victims and the enforcement of anti-trafficking measures. International human rights standards, such as those outlined in the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children (Palermo Protocol), emphasise the importance of comprehensive legal frameworks tailored to combat human trafficking effectively. Hong Kong's reliance on broader legal provisions, such as proposed bills addressing modern slavery, suggests a partial alignment with international norms but leaves gaps in addressing the specific complexities of trafficking cases.

As Hong Kong responds to criticisms and navigates international scrutiny over its approach to human trafficking, the debate highlights critical gaps in the city's legal and governance frameworks. Despite efforts to address modern slavery through proposed legislation and increased funding, the absence of a dedicated anti-trafficking law and the impact of recent national security measures continue to raise concerns. These challenges underscore the delicate balance between safeguarding national security and upholding human rights, shaping ongoing discussions on effective policies and protections for trafficking victims. The outcome of these debates will not only influence Hong Kong's domestic governance but also its standing in the global community committed to combating human trafficking and promoting human rights.

Sources and further reading:

Mercedes Hutton. (June 26th, 2024). After US downgrades Hong Kong to ‘watch list’ over response to human trafficking, gov’t rebuts ‘unfair’ report. Hong Kong Free Press. https://hongkongfp.com/2024/06/26/after-us-downgrades-hong-kong-to-watch-list-over-response-to-human-trafficking-govt-rebuts-unfair-report/. (Accessed July 8th, 2024).

Alisha Bibi. ( June 26th, 2024). HK slams 'false, unfounded' US human trafficking report. The Standard. https://www.thestandard.com.hk/section-news/section/4/263915/HK-slams-'false,-unfounded'-US-human-trafficking-report#:~:text=Hong%20Kong%20has%20%22vehemently%20opposed,helpers%20%22false%20and%20unfounded.%22. (Accessed July 8th, 2024).

US Department of State. (June 25th, 2024). 2024 Trafficking in Persons Report. https://www.state.gov/briefings-foreign-press-centers/2024-trafficking-in-persons-report#:~:text=Yesterday%2C%20Secretary%20Blinken%20released%20the,P%20framework%20of%20prosecuting%20traffickers%2C. (Accessed July 8th, 2024).