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GAO Reviews U.S. Agencies’ Efforts to Fight Human Trafficking

Federal agencies implement a range of efforts to combat international human trafficking. But the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has found gaps that could impede these efforts, such as unclear roles and weaknesses in monitoring.

Human trafficking—also known as trafficking in persons —is a longstanding global problem. Though data are limited by trafficking’s clandestine nature, the International Labour Organization estimates that about 25 million people were victims of human trafficking worldwide in 2016.

Human trafficking victims are often held in slavelike conditions and forced to work in the commercial sex trade and other types of servitude. The U.S. government has also found forced labor overseas in a number of industries producing goods that are or may be imported into the U.S.

Various U.S. laws, regulations, and agency policies and guidance exist to combat trafficking. Several federal agencies also work to combat trafficking. For example:

U.S. international anti-trafficking programs. The Departments of State and Labor and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) manage development assistance projects aimed at preventing trafficking, prosecuting traffickers, and protecting survivors.

Global ranking and reporting. State and Labor publish reports with information about human trafficking and forced labor worldwide. For example, State’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report ranks countries on the extent of their governments’ anti-trafficking efforts.

Law enforcement. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) works to uphold a law prohibiting imports of goods produced with forced labor. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has a role in investigating potential crimes related to forced labor.

Contracting and procurement oversight. State, the Department of Defense (DOD), and USAID oversee contractors for services overseas to ensure they follow anti-trafficking requirements to help protect foreign workers from traffickers. DOD also has policies and processes for its commissaries and exchanges worldwide—which provide retail goods to service members—to prevent the resale of goods produced with forced labor.

GAO said its prior work has revealed that staffing gaps and unclear roles and responsibilities have impeded anti-trafficking efforts. For example, in October 2020, GAO found CBP had increased resources for its Forced Labor Division, which it formed in 2018 to lead efforts to prevent forced labor imports. However, GAO reported CBP had not assessed the division’s workforce needs, such as staff numbers, types, locations, or specialized skills. As a result, the division faced challenges in enforcing the prohibition on forced labor. For instance, it had to suspend some ongoing investigations because of a staff shortage. GAO recommended CBP assess the division’s workforce needs.

The watchdog also found previously that DOD, State, and USAID acquisition officials responsible for contracting and procurement oversight were not always aware of, or fulfilling, their anti-trafficking responsibilities because of unclear guidance.

In a September 1 update, GAO said agencies have taken steps to improve oversight of contracts, such as helping to update a regulation that could help prevent trafficking abuses related to recruitment fees, but that DOD still needs to clarify responsibility for reporting trafficking violations and investigations of contractors.

GAO had also previously found problems with data reliability and sharing of TIP information, which could hamper agencies’ efforts to ensure compliance with U.S. laws and regulations and with agencies’ policies and guidance. To address these concerns, CBP and DOD have taken steps to improve data reliability and information sharing. But in its update GAO said DOD hasn’t yet required its officials to use information from other agencies about at-risk goods.

In response to weaknesses found weaknesses in agencies’ monitoring of their international anti-trafficking efforts, GAO said on September 1 that agencies haven taken steps to improve. For example, State and CBP established targets to measure progress toward anti-trafficking goals. In addition, State, USAID, and Labor have taken steps to overcome challenges to evaluating anti-trafficking projects’ effectiveness. 

Looking ahead, GAO noted three policy considerations. First, the COVID-19 pandemic and other crises, such as the Ukraine conflict, have heightened international trafficking risks. The watchdog asks what lessons can be drawn to mitigate such crises’ impact on trafficking and guide agencies’ efforts to fight it?

Congress enacted the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act in December 2021 to ensure goods made with forced labor in China’s Xinjiang region do not enter the U.S. market. GAO asks what challenges do U.S. agencies and importers face in implementing the act’s requirements?

Finally, since 2015, the U.S. government has entered into child protection compacts with selected countries to combat child trafficking. GAO wants to know how the U.S. government implemented and assessed these partnership’s progress and says its future work will examine strengths and challenges of such approaches.

Read the full report at GAO

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