Palau slid down on the US 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report from Tier 1 to Tier 2 Watch List status. The annual report issued by the US State Department placed Palau on Tier 2 Watch List as opposed to previous reports of just Tier 2 ranking.

Being on Tier 2 Watch List puts Palau in the precarious position of slipping to Tier 3 status and potentially losing non-humanitarian grant assistance that the country receives from the United States Government.

Should Palau fail to meet the recommended actions of the Report or show efforts to comply, it will fall to Tier 3, after which the United States can impose sanctions.

According to a recent memo signed on December 2021 by United States President Biden regarding the treatment of countries that are ranked as Tier 3 on the US Trafficking in Persons Report, the United States can withhold “nonhumanitarian, non-trade-related assistance until the countries comply with the minimum standards.” The memo also indicates that the United States can have organizations such as World Bank, IMF, ADB, and others to vote against and deny loans or use of funds to countries in Tier 3. The exceptions are those that apply to humanitarian assistance and trade-related or development assistance that addresses basic human needs.

The 2021 Report on Palau states that although Palau is making an effort to meet minimum standards for eliminating the trafficking of persons, it did not make a stronger effort than it did in previous years.

“The government remained without standard operating procedures (SOPs) for victim identification and referral services, leading to insufficient identification and protection services and the penalization of potential victims,” the report claims.

The report further alleges that Palau law is vague, leading to the prosecution of victims (including a child) and that for a second consecutive year, the country did not convict any traffickers.

“The government continues to not investigate indicators of trafficking in labor recruitment and contract violations. Officials complicity continued to play a role in facilitating trafficking and hindered law enforcement efforts. Therefore, Palau was downgraded to Tier 2 Watch List,” the report said.

In a letter to US Ambassador Hennessey-Niland, Vice President and Minister of Justice Uduch Sengebau-Senior questioned some of the statements made in the 2021 Report on Trafficking of Persons on Palau.

She said the report alleges that there is official complicity in Trafficking In Persons (TIP) criminal activities without elaboration.

The Ministry of Justice responded that there were isolated allegations regarding officials involved in TIP and other criminal activities; some are subject to legal proceedings, while others did not proceed due to a lack of sufficient evidence.

She said, “to be clear, there is no evidence of systematic or entrenched official involvement in TIP as suggested in the 2021 Report. Any related incidences are isolated, and therefore may not be reasonable, fair or just to undermine the good reputation of the Republic of Palau’s senior government and elected officeholders in the absence of solid evidence of complicity as alleged in the 2021 Report.”

Vice President Uduch Sengebau-Senior said that due to the pandemic and the resulting border closure, some of the planned activities for the Anti-Human Trafficking Unit (AHTU) halted, but have since resumed.

The Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), the 3 Year Anti-human Trafficking Action Plan, and the cross agencies MOUs have been adopted to address issues raised by the 2021 Report.

With the re-alignment of the government ministries, Immigration and Labor were reassigned from the Ministry of Justice to the Ministry of HRCTD and MOF. They have executed MOUs with those ministries to collaborate and share information on potential cases of human trafficking. They have also linked up through an MOU with Victims of Crime Advocate (VOCA), working with AHTU Victims’ Advocate to support the victims of Human Trafficking.

The Anti-Human Trafficking Unit falls under the Division of Transnational Crime Unit in the Ministry of Justice. 

Due to the border closures caused by the pandemic, the number of cases dropped. Officer Rickley Antonio, the Lead Investigator of the AHTU, said that they had 4 open cases, but one closed due to the alleged victim leaving the island, and 3 are under investigation.

The re-alignment process also slowed down the work as they had to reconnect with key referral agencies such as Labor and Immigration. MOUs executed with those agencies will allow for referrals and sharing of information on potential human trafficking cases.

Vice President Sengebau-Senior, in her letter, urged that the 2021 Report on Palau be amended or updated and that Palau be removed from Tier 2 Watch List “in respect of our national efforts to reduce and eradicate TIP (Trafficking in Persons)”.

The Anti-Human Trafficking Office has hotlines for anyone wishing to report possible human trafficking incidents. The hotline numbers are 775-4066 and 775-1684. Email contact is anti.traffickingpalau@gmail.com.

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