Foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong  gather in the city's financial district on their day off work. The city has more than 370,000 of them. Photo: WordPress
Foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong gather in the city's financial district on their day off work. The city has more than 370,000 of them. Photo: WordPress

An annual report compiled by the US State Department on the global effort against human trafficking has again placed Hong Kong on its “tier two watch list” for the third year running.

This leaves Hong Kong alongside Bangladesh, Iraq, Mali, Sudan and Zimbabwe due to the city’s failure to meet the lowest threshold in eradicating trafficking in people.

The report, released on Thursday, took potshots at Hong Kong’s futile attempts to tackle forced labor and commercial sexual exploitation last year, as seen in a drop in the number of prosecutions of related cases and disproportionately light sentences for convicted traffickers.

The report further slammed law enforcement’s inaction after receiving complaints and reports from NGOs and the fact that only nine victims were identified throughout 2017 after authorities screened thousands of vulnerable persons.

“Hong Kong is primarily a destination, transit and to a much lesser extent, a source territory for men, women and children subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking. Victims include citizens from mainland China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries as well as countries in South Asia, Africa and South America,” said the report.

Women wait outside a nightclub on Lockhart Road in Wan Chai, Hong Kong’s red-light district. Photo: International Coalition Against Human Trafficking

Other than the problem of exploitation of foreign domestic workers, the document also pointed out that criminal syndicates lured women to Hong Kong from the Philippines, South America and mainland China using false promises of lucrative employment and forced them into prostitution to repay money owed for passage to Hong Kong.

The report, however, did mention Hong Kong’s efforts in promulgating an action plan to combat human trafficking and to offer better protection to the 370,000-plus Filipino and Indonesian domestic helpers in the city.

A file photo shows Philippine human rights activists praying for three Filipinos convicted of trafficking in China during a candlelight vigil in Hong Kong. Photo: AP

Hong Kong authorities were swift to hit back at the raft of recriminations. In a lengthy statement issued in the early hours of Friday morning, the Hong Kong government said it “takes strong exception” to the report’s grading, calling it “deplorable and unacceptable.”

“The report treats Hong Kong unfairly and is self-contradictory … Trafficking in persons is a heinous crime that has never been tolerated in Hong Kong … As one of the busiest transport hubs and freest ports in the world, we fully recognize the need for maintaining vigilance,” the statement noted.

The Hong Hong government singled out and refuted the low percentage of victims identified, stressing the fact that only nine were found out of the 4,710 vulnerable persons screened last year, which it said was proof that human trafficking “is not prevalent in Hong Kong.”

It added that police conducted 247 anti-vice operations to smash syndicates as well as 1,515 inspections of domestic helper employment agencies last year.

“Our continuous commitment and all-out efforts to combat human trafficking have not received due and fair recognition,” said a government spokesperson.

That said, the report hailed a small Hong Kong-based NGO which collaborated with financial institutions for quality data on potential perpetrators of human trafficking, with a media monitoring program that collected and vetted media reports and other reliable data from NGO partners and packaged the most trustworthy data for further review by these firms.

According to the report, the NGO has introduced more than 5,000 names of suspected victims to these databases over the past two years, and now supplies on average more than 300 submissions per month, in collaboration with research partners spanning more than 20 countries.