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Liberia ‘Not Fully Meeting Minimum Standards’ on Stopping Human Trafficking

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Washington – The Liberian government is not doing enough to combat human trafficking, according to the latest Trafficking in Persons Report from the US State Department.

The report released last Friday notes: “Government of Liberia does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but is making significant efforts to do so. The government demonstrated significant efforts during the reporting period by supporting victims during trial by providing transportation, security, and shelter; organizing public awareness events with high-level officials; and training more law enforcement officials on identifying and investigating trafficking.”

The report however noted that the government did not demonstrate overall increasing efforts compared to the previous reporting period. Complicity and corruption inhibited anti-trafficking law enforcement action, and law enforcement officials continued to lack adequate resources and understanding of trafficking to effectively investigate and prosecute trafficking crimes. “Shelter and services for victims remained limited, and the government did not allocate an operating budget to the anti-trafficking task force or its working-level body, the TIP Secretariat. Because the government has devoted sufficient resources to a written plan that, if implemented, would constitute significant efforts to meet the minimum standards, Liberia was granted a waiver per the Trafficking Victims Protection Act from an otherwise required downgrade to Tier 3. Therefore, Liberia remained on Tier 2 Watch List for the third consecutive year.”

The US report recommended that the government of Liberia increase efforts to more vigorously investigate and prosecute trafficking cases, including internal trafficking cases and officials accused of complicity. 

The report also recommended that the government amend the 2005 anti-trafficking law to remove the requirement of a demonstration of force, fraud, or coercion in child sex trafficking cases and to prescribe penalties for adult trafficking that are sufficiently stringent and commensurate with the penalties for other grave crimes. 

In partnership with international organizations and experts, the US report recommended that the administration train and equip law enforcement, immigration officials, labor inspectors, and social workers to more effectively identify trafficking victims as well as to identify, investigate, and prosecute trafficking offenses and provide operating and victim protection budgets and in-kind resources, as feasible, to the anti-trafficking task force.”

Action Lacking Maximum Penalty for Traffickers

The report further recommended that the administration endorse the national referral mechanism, and facilitate training for law enforcement and social workers on implementation. “Increase efforts to raise awareness of trafficking, including internal trafficking. • Expand victim services—particularly for victims outside the capital, males, and victims requiring long-term care—through increased financial or in-kind support to shelters and enforce the 2005 law requiring restitution be paid to trafficking victims.”

The report said that while the government maintained anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts, the 2005 Act to Ban Trafficking in Persons criminalized some forms of sex trafficking and all forms of labor trafficking and prescribed minimum sentences of one year imprisonment for adult trafficking and six years’ imprisonment for child trafficking, it did not include maximum sentences. “The prescribed penalties for child trafficking were sufficiently stringent but those prescribed for adult trafficking were not. The penalties for child sex trafficking were commensurate with those prescribed for other serious crimes, such as kidnapping, but those prescribed for adult sex trafficking were not. Inconsistent with international law, the law required a demonstration of force, fraud, or coercion to constitute a child sex trafficking offense, and therefore did not criminalize all forms of child sex trafficking,” the report stated.

The report commended efforts by the government to investigate five cases, initiate prosecutions of two defendants, and convicted one trafficker, compared with four investigations, four prosecutions, and four convictions in the previous reporting period. However, the report said many officials continue to view internal trafficking, especially child domestic servitude, as a community practice rather than a crime and therefore did not often investigate or prosecute these cases. “In other cases, prosecutors may have pursued other charges, including rape, in lieu of sex trafficking. Beginning in May 2018, judges prosecuted a suspected labor trafficker; the government convicted the suspect, a Sierra Leonean woman, and sentenced her to eight years’ imprisonment. In March 2019, the government-initiated prosecution of a suspect who allegedly brought two children from Guinea and exploited them in street vending; the prosecution was ongoing at the end of the reporting period.”

Citing Expelled Diplomats from UK

The report further noted that the government did not report efforts to investigate, prosecute, or convict allegedly complicit officials. “Contacts reported law enforcement occasionally accepted bribes from suspected traffickers to end investigations. During the previous reporting period, the United Kingdom expelled two Liberian diplomats for allegedly facilitating prostitution and potentially sex trafficking; the government has not reported investigating these allegations and one of the accused diplomats is reportedly serving in a new post. NGOs and officials reported some government employees may have been directly complicit in child trafficking, including for domestic servitude and street vending.”

According to the report, the Women and Children Protection Section (WACPS) of the Liberian National Police (LNP) was responsible for investigating most trafficking cases while  the Ministry of Labor (MOL) was responsible for investigating forced labor, and the Liberian Immigration Service (LIS) could investigate transnational trafficking. 

The report added that while the LIS created a new Anti-Human Trafficking and Migrant Smuggling Unit comprising five officers, with one stationed at each of Liberia’s five major ports of entry, the Liberia National Police did not have dedicated anti-trafficking funding or in-kind support and therefore lacked basic resources and equipment to fully respond to and investigate allegations of trafficking, especially outside the capital. With support from an international organization, the LNP incorporated anti-trafficking training into its curriculum and trained 12 LNP trainers who then trained approximately 41 law enforcement officers. 

Stated the report: “The head of the LIS anti-trafficking unit trained 30 border security officers on trafficking. The government partnered with an international organization to conduct a four-day workshop on human trafficking and child labor attended by 17 government officials from the MOL, LIS, LNP, Ministry of Gender, Children, and Social Protection (MOGCSP), Ministry of Justice, and Ministry of Internal Affairs. The government provided some support for two officials to participate in two separate international conferences on trafficking. Nonetheless, officials and NGOs reported many labor inspectors, police, prosecutors, and judges remained largely unable to identify trafficking, which posed serious impediments to investigating and prosecuting such cases. In addition, some high-level officials did not have a clear understanding of trafficking.”

The report said the government did maintain modest efforts to identify and protect trafficking victims and identified at least two trafficking victims, compared with four trafficking victims identified the previous reporting period. Nevertheless, poor record keeping and inadequate resources hindered reliable data collection, and statistics were often not disaggregated to differentiate trafficking from similar crimes. “The MOGCSP estimated that it provided assistance to at least eight victims and 30 potential child trafficking victims during the reporting period. While the government had standard operating procedures to identify trafficking victims, authorities reported the majority of law enforcement, immigration, and social services personnel lacked training on such procedures and, at times, identified some trafficking victims as victims of other crimes.”

The report further noted that many officials continued to view internal trafficking, especially child domestic servitude, as a community practice rather than a crime. “Due to this lack of awareness of trafficking among authorities and communities, as well as insufficient government resources to identify trafficking victims, most trafficking victims remained unidentified. In November 2018, the government finalized the national referral mechanism to direct victims towards services, but the cabinet must formally endorse the mechanism before it can be implemented. As a result, the government remained without a formal process to refer victims to care and agencies responsible rarely coordinated such efforts.”

The report said while the government-maintained efforts to prevent trafficking in persons, the anti-trafficking task force met regularly but neither the anti-trafficking task force nor the TIP Secretariat had an operating budget. 

Liberia – Environment Vulnerable to Trafficking

The report took the government to task for making limited efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex and forced labor. “The government inspected artisanal gold mining operations—where most child labor in the gold mining sector took place—for child labor or forced child labor but did not report any such violations. The government did not provide anti-trafficking training for its diplomatic personnel; there were allegations that two Liberian diplomats in the United Kingdom engaged in human trafficking during the previous reporting period.”

As a result of major lapses, the report said human traffickers exploit domestic and foreign victims in Liberia, and traffickers exploit victims from Liberia abroad. “Trafficking within the country from rural to urban areas is more prevalent than transnational trafficking, and the majority of victims are children. Most trafficking victims originate from and are exploited within the country’s borders, where they are subjected to domestic servitude, forced begging, sex trafficking, or forced labor in street vending, gold and alluvial diamond mines, and on small-scale rubber plantations.”

Traffickers, the report noted, typically operate independently and are commonly family members who promise poorer relatives a better life for their children or promise young women a better life for themselves, take the children or women to urban areas, and exploit them in forced street vending, domestic servitude, or sex trafficking. Traffickers are also often well-respected community benefactors who exploit the “foster care” system common across West Africa. “While Liberian law requires parents to register children within 14 days of birth, about 25 percent of births are registered. Although the government has made improvements in birth registration accessibility, continued lack of birth registration and identity documents increase individuals’ vulnerability to trafficking. Orphaned children are vulnerable to exploitation, including in street vending and child sex trafficking. In some poor families, parents encourage their daughters to be exploited in prostitution to supplement family income. Liberian nationals and—to a lesser extent—foreigners exploit children in sex trafficking in Monrovia.”

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