BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – Brunei has avoided a downgrade to the worst ranking in human trafficking despite not meeting minimum standards in the US Department of State’s annual human trafficking report.

For the third consecutive year, Brunei has been rated on the Tier 2 Watch List for its efforts in combating human trafficking after it was granted a waiver from a downgrade to Tier 3 — the lowest grade.

Countries that remain on the Tier 2 Watch List for three years in a row are usually automatically relegated to the Tier 3 list of worst offenders in human trafficking.

Seventeen countries were listed in the lowest tier this year, including newcomer Malaysia, Myanmar, China and North Korea.

The 2021 report, which was published last week, said Brunei was not demoted to the lowest tier as the government “devoted sufficient resources to a written plan that, if implemented, would constitute significant efforts to meet the minimum standards”.

The US Department of State said the Brunei government made significant efforts to eliminate human trafficking over the past year, including setting up an inter-agency team to investigate potential trafficking cases and allocating funding towards male and female trafficking shelters.

“However, the government did not demonstrate overall increasing efforts compared to the previous reporting period [in 2020], even considering the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, if any, on its anti-trafficking capacity,” the report stated.

In its 2020 human trafficking report, the US State of Department said Brunei stepped up initiatives to fight human trafficking such as enforcing its 2019 Anti-Trafficking in Persons Order, which separated the crimes of migrant smuggling and human trafficking.

Brunei also ratified the ASEAN Convention against Trafficking in Persons in January 2020, and the National Committee on Trafficking in Persons was established in the same period.

The latest report further said Brunei did not formally identify any trafficking cases for the third year running, despite the significant number of migrant workers who exhibit multiple trafficking indicators.

Moreover, the government did not prosecute or convict any traffickers for the fourth straight year.

Out of 824 cases screened for human trafficking since 2011, just two people were convicted under Brunei’s human trafficking laws, according to Royal Brunei Police Force figures.

Senior labour official investigated for corruption

Human traffickers were reported to have exploited foreign victims in Brunei over the past five years.

While there were no reports of investigations, prosecutions or convictions of government employees complicit in human trafficking offences, authorities did prosecute officials for crimes that increased foreign workers’ vulnerability to trafficking.

The US Department of State said four government officials, including a senior labour official, were under investigation for corruption related to visa fraud for migrant workers at the end of the reporting period in 2021.

Earlier last year, the government charged a Department of Immigration officer and two Bruneian labour recruiters with committing visa fraud to bring Bangladeshi workers to Brunei on false visas without existing jobs.

Citing sources from the Bangladesh High Commission in Brunei, Dhaka-based English daily New Age reported that about 75 percent of about 2,000 Bangladeshi workers were purportedly sent to Brunei without proper visas in 2018.

The high commission had claimed that victims were cheated into paying $7,000 to $8,000 to labour brokers with the promise of jobs in Brunei.

His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah last year alleged that some freelance labour agents received preferential treatment from labour and immigration authorities following reports of an “uncontrolled influx of workers”.

Data from the Department of Economic Planning and Statistics showed that there were about 83,900 foreign residents in 2020 compared to 94,200 in 2019 as fewer migrant workers were allowed to enter the country amid COVID-19 travel restrictions.

Most of Brunei’s migrant workers hail from Indonesia, Philippines, Bangladesh and China.

The US human trafficking report said traffickers exploit some migrant workers in Brunei through debt-based coercion, contract switching, non-payment of wages, passport confiscation, physical abuse, or confinement.

“Although it is illegal for employers to withhold the wages from their employees for more than seven days, some employers withhold wages to recoup labour broker or recruitment fees or to compel the continued service of workers,” the report added.

Non-payment of wages was one of the most common labour offences with 35 cases in 2020, statistics from the Labour Department showed.