State Department Report Warns Kids in Government-Run Facilities ‘Easy Targets’ for Human Traffickers

An annual government report sits awkwardly with the Trump administration’s policy of forcibly separating families at the border.

Protestors demonstrate against family separation outside the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego, California, on June 23. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)
Protestors demonstrate against family separation outside the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego, California, on June 23. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

Even as the Trump administration seeks to amend its policy of forcibly separating children from parents illegally crossing the U.S. border, the State Department on Thursday released its annual report on global human trafficking that highlighted the dangers of putting children in government-run facilities.

While Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in remarks Thursday trumpeted U.S. leadership in combating global human trafficking, the report underscored the risks to the well-being of children held in government facilities.

“Children in institutional care, including government-run facilities, can be easy targets for traffickers. Even at their best, residential institutions are unable to meet a child’s need for emotional support that is typically received from family members or consistent caretakers with whom the child can develop an attachment,” the report reads.

Experts and advocacy groups say the United States should heed its own advice.

“The report itself talks about the vulnerability of children in institutional care,” said Kerry Ward, an associate professor at Rice University and an expert on forced migration and human trafficking. “The report is recommending strategies to deal with vulnerable populations that have been trafficked that fly in the face of what is happening in our current border situation.”

At the unveiling ceremony of the “2018 Trafficking in Persons Report” at the State Department on Thursday, Pompeo touted progress in combating human trafficking around the world. Fourteen African countries out of the 48 included in the report received upgrades in recognition of their efforts to counter trafficking. Overall, 29 countries were upgraded in the report’s rankings, while 20 were downgraded.

“We … will never shy away from pointing out countries that need to step up,” said Pompeo, as he launched into a description of Libya’s modern-day slave markets and North Koreans trapped in forced labor overseas. “You’ll see from today’s report that there remains a great deal of work left to do. The world should know that we will not stop until human trafficking is a thing of the past.”

That message would carry more weight, advocacy groups and experts say, if the Trump administration itself followed the report’s suggestions on the southern border.

The report’s credibility “must first and foremost be grounded in the integrity of the government issuing the report,” said Melysa Sperber, an expert on human trafficking issues with Humanity United, a group that campaigns on the issue.

“Today, U.S. policies are deliberately marginalizing and demonizing the most vulnerable among us, making them even more vulnerable to a spectrum of exploitation and ensuring they have no path to refuge, no protections.”

President Donald Trump has yet to appoint the top State Department official who oversees human trafficking issues, the ambassador-at-large to the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.

Meanwhile, Congress let authorization for key legislation to combat human trafficking expire last year — though four bills are currently circulating in both the House and Senate to change that.

Sperber said her counterparts in other countries are privately expressing “deep concerns” about how U.S. immigration policies could perpetuate human trafficking and undercut its moral high ground.

The State Department’s trafficking report highlighted the ways in which breaking up families can actually make human trafficking easier.

“Children are especially vulnerable when traffickers recognize and take advantage of this need for emotional bonding stemming from the absence of stable parental figures. In addition, the rigid schedules and social isolation of residential institutions offer traffickers a tactical advantage, as they can coerce children to leave and find ways to exploit them,” the report reads.

When asked about the apparent contradictions — telling other countries they shouldn’t take children from parents while doing just that at the U.S. border — a senior State Department official said in a briefing with reporters: “We do have those mechanisms in place with our colleagues in [the Department of Homeland Security] that do screen for trafficking indicators when children either cross the border unaccompanied or if they are in their care separated from their parents.”

In April, the Trump administration began implementing its zero tolerance policy, which involved prosecuting every adult who crossed the border illegally, a strategy that separated 2,300 children from their parents. While Trump ordered an end to family separations last week, 2,047 children remain in custody. (Meanwhile, children as young as 3 are being forced to attend their own deportation hearings alone.)

Experts say human trafficking flourishes most in legal gray zones, including in the United States.

A recent report by the Polaris Project, a research and advocacy organization that monitors human trafficking, found that there were some 800 victims of human trafficking who worked in the United States under temporary work visas, a visa program administered in part by the State Department.

“There are definitely ways in which our visa system enables traffickers to exploit vulnerable individuals and vulnerable communities … particularly with labor recruiters,” Sperber said.

Another study, released in 2014 by the Urban Institute and Northeastern University, examined 122 U.S. cases of labor trafficking between 2000 and 2012. Of those, the vast majority were in the United States on a work visa, recruited under a guest worker program. Fourteen percent would eventually be arrested and charged with crimes, mostly immigration violations.

The administration’s zero tolerance approach to immigration violations is ironically making it harder for victims of human trafficking.

Colleen Owens, one of the authors of the 2014 study, said victims of trafficking are increasingly reluctant to file applications for a special type of visa — known as a T visa — for victims of trafficking that allows them to work and access benefits in the United States.

Owens said she’s heard from people on the ground and from those in government familiar with the process that “there’s a sense in the field … that those individuals may get prioritized for deportation if they’re not approved for a T visa.”

Martin de Bourmont is a journalist based in Washington. Twitter: @MBourmont

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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