Human Trafficking:

State Has Made Improvements in Its Annual Report but Does Not Explicitly Explain Certain Tier Rankings or Changes

GAO-17-56: Published: Dec 5, 2016. Publicly Released: Dec 5, 2016.

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Thomas Melito
(202) 512-9601
melitot@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
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youngc1@gao.gov

Human traffickers around the world exploit men, women, and children for profit—often through commercial sex work or forced labor. The State Department annually reports on global antitrafficking efforts—ranking countries into 1 of 4 tiers based on their actions.

We found several key shortcomings in State's 2015 and 2016 reports—potentially limiting their usefulness as tools to encourage governments to fight trafficking. For example, the reports lacked clear explanations for some countries' rankings, or for decisions to upgrade or downgrade a country to a different tier.

We recommended that State improve the transparency and clarity of the Trafficking in Persons Report. (An earlier version of this summary was not clear about the nature of GAO’s recommendations. It has been updated.)

Tier Ranking by Country in Department of State's 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report

World map showing countries color coded by tier in State's

World map showing countries color coded by tier in State's "Trafficking in Persons Report."

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Thomas Melito
(202) 512-9601
melitot@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

What GAO Found

The Department of State's (State) Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (Trafficking Office) compiles information on countries' actions to combat human trafficking and recommends tier rankings for the Trafficking in Persons Report but did not post information on waivers within mandated timeframes. The figure below shows the percentage of countries by tier in the 2015 and 2016 reports. Disagreements about tier rankings between the Trafficking Office and other parts of State, which have different priorities, are usually resolved at the working level, according to officials, with only a few elevated to the Secretary of State for resolution. The Secretary of State determines all final tier rankings. The Trafficking Office recommends whether to grant waivers for countries that otherwise would be automatically downgraded to the lowest tier. The Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) requires State to post a detailed description of the credible evidence used to support these waivers on its website annually, but State did not do so for the 2014 through 2016 reports until September 2016.

Figure: Percentage of Countries by Tier in 2015 and 2016 Trafficking in Persons Reports

Figure: Percentage of Countries by Tier in 2015 and 2016 i Trafficking in Persons

State has made improvements to the Trafficking in Persons Report since 2006 but does not explicitly explain the basis for certain countries' tier rankings or, where relevant, why countries' tier rankings changed. GAO's analysis of the 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report found that, compared with GAO's previous report in 2006, there were fewer instances in which minimum standards and criteria were not mentioned in the narratives. However, most narratives for the highest-ranked, or Tier 1, countries in the 2015 and 2016 reports did not explicitly explain the basis for the tier rankings. The narratives sometimes included language that seemed contradictory to certain standards and criteria. In addition, GAO found that, for countries that changed tier from one year to the next, most narratives did not provide an explicit explanation as to why the rankings changed. Standards for Internal Control in the Federal Government states that information should be communicated in a way that is useful to internal and external users. Lacking such clarity could diminish the report's usefulness as a tool to advance efforts to combat trafficking.

State and other officials indicate that the Trafficking in Persons Report can be a useful tool to engage other countries about trafficking, but State has not systematically assessed the report's effectiveness. As a result, the effect of the report in encouraging governments to make progress in combating trafficking is not well understood. However, State officials stated that they are working on efforts to assess the report's effectiveness at achieving the goal of addressing trafficking worldwide.

Why GAO Did This Study

Human traffickers exploit men, women, and children for financial gain. Congress enacted the TVPA in 2000, which requires the Secretary of State to report annually on governments' efforts according to the act's minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking. Each year since 2001, State has published the Trafficking in Persons Report , ranking countries into one of four tiers. GAO found in 2006 that the report did not fully describe State's assessment of compliance with standards or provide complete explanations for ranking decisions.

The explanatory statement accompanying the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2014, included a provision for GAO to review the report's preparation and effectiveness. This report addresses (1) the process to develop the report, (2) the extent to which country narratives discuss minimum standards, and (3) the extent to which State assesses the report's effectiveness as a tool to address trafficking. GAO compared 220 country narratives in the 2015 and 2016 reports with the minimum standards and analyzed 82 narratives for countries that changed tier. GAO also interviewed State and other officials.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making four recommendations to the Secretary of State to improve the clarity and usefulness of the Trafficking in Persons Report by posting evidence to support downgrade waivers on State's website, improving explanations for tier rankings and changes, and assessing the effectiveness of the report as a tool to address trafficking. State agreed with GAO's recommendations.

For more information, contact Thomas Melito, (202) 512-9601, melitot@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In comments on the report, State concurred with this recommendation and said that it had updated its standard operating procedures to ensure a description of the credible evidence used to support automatic downgrade waivers will be posted to State's website. For the 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report, State posted the credible evidence to its website on July 18, 2017. This was within the 30-day required deadline, since the report was issued June 27, 2017.

    Recommendation: To improve the transparency and clarity of the Trafficking in Persons Report and improve its usefulness as a diplomatic tool to encourage countries to address trafficking, the Secretary of State should, on an annual basis, ensure the full implementation of recently revised Trafficking in Persons Report preparation guidance that includes posting a detailed description of the credible evidence used to support automatic downgrade waivers on its publicly available website, incompliance with the 2013 TVPA.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: In comments on the draft report, State concurred with this recommendation and said that it seeks to make the Trafficking in Persons Report as useful as possible to a broad array of stakeholders and will continue its commitment to ensure each narrative better serves this purpose. GAO will continue to monitor State's efforts to fully implement the recommendation.

    Recommendation: To improve the transparency and clarity of the Trafficking in Persons Report and improve its usefulness as a diplomatic tool to encourage countries to address trafficking, the Secretary of State should improve explanations in narratives for Tier 1 rankings, including using consistent language, as feasible, in the Trafficking in Persons Report.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In comments on the draft report, State concurred with this recommendation. State noted in its 2017 TIP Report that, in response to GAO's recommendation, the tier ranking justification for each country is now contained in the first paragraph of each country narrative and includes new language that more explicitly highlights the factors that support a given tier ranking. State further noted that these changes are intended to provide clear linkages between statements in each country narrative and the respective tier ranking, especially in the case of tier upgrades and downgrades. To determine whether State had addressed GAO's recommendation, GAO analyzed the 48 country narratives for those countries that changed tier in 2017 and found that, in contrast with GAO's previous review in 2016, all country narratives provided explicit linkages between the tier change and information cited in the narratives.

    Recommendation: To improve the transparency and clarity of the Trafficking in Persons Report and improve its usefulness as a diplomatic tool to encourage countries to address trafficking, the Secretary of State should provide an explicit linkage between statements in the Trafficking in Persons Report and decisions to upgrade or downgrade a country's tier ranking.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: In comments on the draft report, State concurred with this recommendation and described steps it is taking to more systematically assess the effectiveness of the Trafficking in Persons Report in encouraging governments to address human trafficking, including the recent establishment of a monitoring and evaluation position in the Trafficking Office. GAO will continue to monitor State's implementation efforts.

    Recommendation: To improve the transparency and clarity of the Trafficking in Persons Report and improve its usefulness as a diplomatic tool to encourage countries to address trafficking, the Secretary of State should take actions, such as tracking the recommendations in the Trafficking in Persons Report, to assess the effectiveness of the report as a tool to encourage countries to address human trafficking.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

 

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