IPCS Review

Sri Lanka: Trafficking, Child Sex Trade and Human Security

08 Jul, 2013    ·   4024

Thiranjala Weerasinghe reviews the 'Trafficking in Persons Report 2013' published by the US Department of State

The ‘Trafficking in Persons Report 2013’ published by the Department of State, United States of America, provides a lucid analysis of initiatives on anti-human trafficking around the globe and characterises the slow progress that has been recorded for the past year. The report categorises the countries into four tiers- tier 1, tier 2, tier 2 Watch List and tier 3. The placement of countries into one of the four tiers is based more on the extent of government action in combating trafficking than on the magnitude of the problem in each country.

Sri Lanka has been placed on the tier 2 Watch List. According to the report, although Sri Lanka is not so much a destination, but is a source of men, women and children subjected to forced labour and sex trafficking. While several arbitrary initiatives have been taken and action plans drawn at the state level, there is a less cohesive effort in combating human trafficking in all forms and a greater unwillingness on the part of the state to reach the TVPA’s minimum standards.

In terms of the magnitude of human trafficking, Sri Lanka has a far better record than most countries categorized under the tier 2 Watch List. However, the inapt government regulations and policy level failure in protecting, preventing and prosecuting the agents of human trafficking are strong reasons for the country’s placement on the tier 2 Watch List. As it is stated in the report, the increase in the number of trafficking victims, the inability of the state to testify its capacity in curbing trafficking, the lack of state’s determination to bring in the minimum level of compliance standards has definitely led countries like Sri Lanka to be placed under this tier.

The report highlights several burning issues relating to human trafficking in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankans who consensually migrate to Middle Eastern countries face inhuman conditions ranging from forced labour, physical and sexual abuse, prostitution, restrictions on movement while important documents and passports having being confiscated. Most of these migrants come from socio-economically backward regions. The inability to feed their families and generational accumulated debts leave them with no option but to migrate and wish a better life for their children and loved ones at home. It is this promise of a better life and income that lure the victims of forced labour and sex trafficking who most often become easy prey. 

The episode of Rizana Nafeek, a Sri Lankan maid executed in January 2013 for having allegedly killed the baby she was taking caring of, is only one such case where the state’s oversight and reluctance to bring in measures and strategies to prevent, protect and prosecute the fraudulent agents/agencies and have stricter measures in migrating to countries without a bilateral understanding on labour conditions, safety and protection is evident. Rizana Nafeek had migrated to Saudi Arabia in 2005 to sustain her poor family who could hardly meet both ends. She was only seventeen years old when she was sent to Saudi Arabia by a recruitment agent who had falsified her documents, seizing her passport by over-stating her true age by 6 years. The Ministry of Foreign Employment Promotion and Welfare and other institutions like Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE) and Sri Lanka Foreign Employment Agency (SLFEA) have not been effective in bringing in measures that would ensure safety, protection for those who migrate and opportunity to recourse to legal action for the victims of trafficking. 

The significant amount of remittances that flow into Sri Lanka due to the migrant workers-a majority of them employed as unskilled labourers and as house maids-has led the state to promote foreign employment opportunities while compromising on their safety and protection. It is estimated that over 1.7 million (in 2010) Sri Lankans work outside the country and have remitted approximately US $ 4.1 Billion in 2010. This remittance income is by far the highest foreign exchange earner for Sri Lanka, providing 33 percent of her foreign exchange and it amounts to 8 percent of Sri Lanka’s GDP. The approximate figures of remittances during 2011 and 2012 are US $ 5.15 billion and US $ 6 billion respectively. Hence, the contribution made by Sri Lankan Migrant Labour Force has exceeded the income received from traditional export income generating sectors such as tea, coconut, rubber, gem and garments. 

Other major issues that were highlighted in the report that require urgent attention is the booming child sex trade in the coastal belt of Sri Lanka and the abuse and exploitation of massive Tamil populations living as refugees in temporary shelters, makeshift houses and those who are living under highly militarized environments.

The child sex trade thrives in certain geographical spaces with the aid of individuals in law and enforcement agencies. Due to this reason, first and foremost, the identification of victims has been problematic. Most of the victims choose to be silent for the fear of their lives and the safety of their loved ones. Moreover, during and after the Ealam War IV, women and children are recorded to be the most victimized section of the society. The recruitment of child soldiers, abuse and rape has been widely reported. The state has shown little interest in doing justice and creating mechanisms to help the victims to cope with their traumatic memories and move on in life.