BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – Brunei has been downgraded to the lowest tier of the US government’s human trafficking assessment, alleging weak efforts to assist migrant workers and combat trafficking.

In its annual trafficking report, the State Department said Brunei does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is “not making significant efforts to do so”.

It also highlighted the lack of trafficking convictions in the country, adding that Brunei continued to “detain, deport, and charge potential victims for crimes without employing a victim-centered approach”.

Brunei joined Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Myanmar on “Tier 3”, the lowest rung of the assessment.

The only ASEAN countries that achieved Tier 1 status were Singapore and the Philippines, while Thailand and Laos were on Tier 2, and Indonesia on the Tier 2 watchlist.

Nations that are put on the Tier 3 blacklist are subject to US sanctions, although the administration routinely waives punishment for friendly nations that promise improvements.

In response to the report, Brunei’s National Committee on Trafficking in Persons (NCTIP) said it “strongly disagrees” with the assessment made by the US government, saying national laws and frameworks were consistent with United Nations and ASEAN protocols.

The committee added that it had implemented “almost all” recommendations set out in the US Trafficking in Persons report for 2021, and had initiated prosecution in two high profile trafficking cases involving Bangladeshi workers.

“It is disappointing to see Brunei Darussalam’s efforts are not being given any fair consideration in this year’s report. We therefore hope that a more transparent, consistent and accurate form of assessment will be used in future reports,” it said in an emailed statement to The Scoop.

Among the criticisms levelled at Brunei was that it often detained or deported potential trafficking victims for labour and immigration violations, without making efforts to ascertain if they had been trafficked.

The report claimed that there was a “fundamental lack of understanding about the pervasiveness of trafficking in Brunei” among government officials and an “institutional lack of understanding of labour-related trafficking indicators” such as passport retention and non-payment of wages.

The report stated there had been no human trafficking convictions in the past five years, despite police investigating upwards of 100 suspected cases each year.

In 2021, 134 suspected trafficking crimes were investigated by police.

“Observers indicated that an overreliance on victim testimony and lack of special investigative measures to corroborate evidence led to cases being investigated and prosecuted under non-trafficking statutes. Government officials ascribed poor prosecutorial efforts to high evidentiary standards,” the report read.

Brunei’s response to US TIP report

The NCTIP said it strongly disagreed with several assertions made in the Trafficking in Persons report, adding that there were a “significant number of factual inaccuracies and misrepresentations”.

The committee pushed back against the claim that Bruneian officials lacked understanding on trafficking indicators, saying the government introduced a National Standard Operating Procedure (NaSOP) in January 2021 to ensure government agencies are “capable of effectively handling TIP cases”.

“The NaSOP includes a list of TIP indicators that is used by our personnel on the ground to identify potential human trafficking cases.

“The Department of Labour and the Department of Immigration and National Registration also ensure that all individuals reported for labour or immigration violations are screened thoroughly for elements of TIP,” the NCTIP said.

Enforcement agencies under the NCTIP include the Royal Brunei Police Force, Royal Customs and Excise Department, Department of Labour, and the Department of Immigration and National Registration.

Touching on the courts’ lack of trafficking convictions, the NCTIP said all trafficking cases “need to be considered carefully” in accordance with Brunei’s laws.

“Prosecutions cannot be done simply for the sake of prosecution… If elements of TIP could not be established in the course of investigations, other offences will be considered and individuals would only be charged if there is satisfactory evidence,” the committee said.

The NCTIP also disagreed with the assertion that Brunei lacked a victim-centred approach, saying the government had allocated $100,000 to a special fund for trafficking victims and also renovated a dedicated shelter.

The committee added that victims of trafficking were also allowed to seek alternative employment should they remain in Brunei.

There are approximately 75,000 foreign workers in Brunei, mainly from Indonesia, the Philippines, Bangladesh, and China.

Men and women migrate to Brunei primarily for domestic service, retail, and construction work.