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By Philip Cass of Kaniva News in Auckland

Tonga has not done enough to combat people trafficking and will remain on an American watch list, according to the US State Department’s annual report.

Since convicting its first trafficker in April 2011, the government has not prosecuted or convicted any traffickers, the State Department said.

The government had taken little action on people trafficking, even considering the pressures of the covid-19 epidemic.

The government had not investigated any potential trafficking cases for three years in a row. Police said their ability to pursue cases was affected by a lack of resources.

The Trafficking in Persons Report acknowledged that Tonga’s borders had been closed early in the epidemic and entry to the kingdom was extremely limited.

However, it said some Tongans and foreign individuals were vulnerable to trafficking in Tonga, and some Tongans are vulnerable to trafficking abroad.

Sex workers
Tongans working overseas were vulnerable to labour exploitation. However, it also said that Asian workers in Tonga were vulnerable to labour exploitation and being forced to become sex workers.

East Asian women, especially those from the People’s Republic of China (PRC), who were recruited from their home countries for legitimate work in Tonga were vulnerable to sex trafficking

They often paid excessive recruitment fees and sometimes ended up as sex workers in clandestine establishments operating as legitimate businesses.

Chinese workers working in construction on government infrastructure projects in Tonga were vulnerable to labour trafficking.

Tongan children were vulnerable to sex trafficking.

Reports indicated that Fijians working in the domestic service industry in Tonga experienced mistreatment typical of labour trafficking.

Tongans working overseas, including in Australia and New Zealand, were vulnerable to labour trafficking, including through withholding of wages and excessive work hours.

Some Tongan seasonal workers who were unable to leave Australia after the borders were closed due to covid-19, then became vulnerable to exploitation.

Some employers had rushed workers to sign employment contracts they may not fully understand, while others were unable to retain copies of their contracts.

Minimum standards
“The government of Tonga does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, but is making significant efforts to do so. These efforts included providing funding to an NGO available to assist trafficking victims,” the report said.

“However, the government did not demonstrate overall increasing efforts compared with the previous reporting period, even considering the impact of the covid-19 pandemic on its antitrafficking capacity.

“The government did not identify any victims, develop procedures to identify them, or investigate any cases of trafficking.”

The report said the government did not have a national action plan or conduct awareness campaigns. However, authorities informed Tongans participating in seasonal worker programmes overseas about workers’ rights.

The State Department said Tonga should sign up for the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons.

It said the government should also:

  • Develop and fully implement procedures for proactive identification of trafficking victims among vulnerable groups;
  • Increase efforts to investigate and prosecute trafficking crimes;
  • Amend trafficking laws to criminalise all forms of trafficking in line with the definition under international law, including such crimes lacking cross-border movement;
  • Develop, adopt, fund, and implement a national action plan;
  • Uee the Asian liaison position to facilitate proactive identification of foreign victims and their referral to care;
  • Provide explicit protections and benefits for trafficking victims, such as restitution, legal and medical benefits and immigration relief; and
  • Develop and conduct anti-trafficking information and education campaigns.

Dr Philip Cass is an editorial adviser to Kaniva Tonga and is editor of Pacific Journalism Review. Republished with permission as part of a Kaniva Tonga and Asia Pacific Report collaboration.

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