The Trafficking in Persons report released by the US Department of State (DOS) in June, which put Palau at Tier 2, identified the challenges which limit anti-trafficking efforts, including official complicity, a lack of convictions for traffickers, and insufficient identification and protection services.
The DOS report asserts that “as reported over the past five years, human trafficking of foreign victims occurs in Palau.”
Despite this, the Attorney General’s Office (AGO) has said that it currently has no open cases of human trafficking, while the Anti-Human Trafficking Office (AHTO), which was established in 2018 as part of the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) to investigate sex and labor trafficking complaints in Palau, has said that not many cases of either come to its attention.
What, then, is causing this lack of government attention?
Ms. Jennifer Anson, Executive Director of the AHTO, said that, despite the limitations, her office has made headway in promoting awareness of human trafficking in Palau since its creation.
She also said that the victim-identification tool being used by the AHTO, which the June report refers to as “developing . . . but not completed or approved”, has already been completed and implemented.
The tool consists of a questionnaire which is used to determine if someone is a victim of human trafficking, or suffering from abuse. It was sourced from the International Organization for Migration and tailored to fit Palau.
However, Ms. Anson says that the top challenge the AHTO faces is human resources.
According to Ms. Anson, the office had two investigators at one point, but a recent reshuffling in the MOJ returned them to their old offices. She has one staff right now—a victim’s advocate.
The MOJ, she says, is waiting until the next administration takes over before making any changes to the personnel.
“I’m pretty much at a standstill right now,” said Ms. Anson. “I can still take complaints and refer people to the Labor Office and police station . . . but as far as going out and investigating a potential case, it’s going on a month since my two investigators were returned to their normal duty stations.”
Regarding the “official complicity” mentioned in the DOS report, which is reportedly “hindering law enforcement efforts to combat trafficking”, Ms. Anson linked it to a case going back several years in which former-Attorney General, Ms. Victoria Roe, reported on several officials allegedly involved in trafficking, but that follow-ups and investigations were limited. Shortly after, Ms. Roe was asked to resign.
The DOS, she said, has been following up on this particular instance.
Ms. Rebecca Sullivan of the AGO brought up the need for migrant workers to hold onto jobs, even ones which are below legal standards, and unwillingness to approach authorities as contributing factors to human trafficking in Palau.
“A lot of the trafficking here is labor-trafficking, and particularly since the virus hit, people want any job,” Ms. Sullivan said. “The laws of Palau define trafficking as [any case] where you are being paid less than what is the legal rate, or if you’ve been promised one job and you come here and you’re in another job and your salary’s half what you agreed to. But a lot of people still want to keep those jobs, so a lot of people don’t go to the authorities.”
Ms. Sullivan brought up three filed cases of trafficking since she began, two of which the victims backed out before the case was brought to trial, and one which was brought to trial, but lost.
Ms. Sullivan also brought up ongoing unawareness as being a potential factor of unreported trafficking.
“People who are wealthy may employ people from other countries for very low wages,” she said. “That’s been a historic trend, which maybe doesn’t seem like trafficking, but under these laws it is.”