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Mr. President and Congress: Do Not Undermine Efforts to Combat Human Trafficking

By J. Herbert Nelson “I was locked up in a cage like the goats and chickens, and all the time, I was surrounded by death. Each day, five or six of us would die, either from illness or were beaten up and shot.”  

These horrifying words come from a Rohingya man from Burma, who became a victim of human trafficking and fortunately managed to escape one of the 28 migrant camps recently uncovered in Wang Kelian, Malaysia.  

The conditions in the camps described by survivors and recent evidence of 139 mass, unmarked graves found in the area shock the conscience. Many of us like to think that the sale and trade of people is a shameful part of our past. And yet, every day, on every continent, men, women and children are bought and sold into modern day slavery.  

Despite these realities, both the Obama administration and the U.S. Congress could be poised to take a terrible step backwards in the struggle against the global scourge of human trafficking by weakening a key amendment to the Fast Track trade authority bill. Even more shocking are reports that the State Department is set to compromise its own Trafficking in Persons report to “upgrade” Malaysia without merit for narrow economic interests.  

For the past seven years, the Presbyterian Church has made combatting human trafficking an explicit focus of our ministry and advocacy. We applaud some of the bipartisan efforts taken in the U.S. Congress to fight against this most extreme example of human suffering in our world today. The Trafficking Victims Protection Act requires the State Department to publish an annual report that ranks countries based on the extent of government action to combat trafficking.  

On April 22 of this year, a House subcommittee emphasized the need to maintain the integrity of Trafficking in Persons report. On that same day, the Senate voted 99-0 for the Justice for Victims Trafficking Act, and the Senate Finance Committee agreed to include the important “No Fast Track for Human Trafficking Amendment” to the Fast Track trade authority bill. That amendment, which later passed the full Senate and the House of Representatives, would help to ensure that narrow economic interests do not undermine critical efforts by the U.S. government to combat human trafficking.  

This commonsense amendment would not allow expedited consideration of U.S. trade deals with countries designated by the State Department as the lowest “Tier 3” with respect to human trafficking. A “Tier 3” designation means that the government is not complying with the minimum standards to eliminate trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so. Malaysia is on the Tier 3 list, and recent revelations of the horrors of these slave camps In Wang Kelian confirm the need for this designation.  

But this is where cynical and tunnel-vision political considerations may be getting in the way of the obvious, moral obligation to uphold human dignity against the scourge of slavery. Malaysia is participating in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks with the U.S. and ten other Pacific nations, and the White House is desperate to complete the controversial deal before the public can know its contents, particularly now that Congress narrowly passed “fast track” authority to disallow any amendments to the bill when brought before Congress.  

Therefore, the White House and House Ways and Means Chair Paul Ryan worked together to water down the “No Fast Track for Human Trafficking Amendment” on a separate customs and enforcement bill that passed the House. Furthermore, now the State Department is poised to “upgrade” Malaysia to “Tier 2” in its upcoming Trafficking in Persons report, despite Malaysia’s having taken no meaningful action to justify such an upgrade, according to Human Rights Watch.  

I pray that both the State Department officials and the Senators and Representatives who will decide the fate of this important amendment on the customs bill will not close their ears and hearts to the stories of Rohingya and other trafficking victims who live in misery or who lost their lives in the Malaysian slave camps.  

The U.S. has never “fast tracked” a trade pact with a country with such serious human trafficking problems. Why would we want to start now, and reduce our leverage to compel action?  

As Thelma B. Burgonio-Watson, one of our ordained members of the Plains and Peaks Presbytery, wrote, “We dare not, as the church, remain deaf to the cries of those in bondage, cries which God surely hears.” As people of faith, we must listen to those cries. We will be watching to ensure that the State Department does not compromise the integrity of its own human trafficking report to secure a trade deal and that Congress rejects any attempt to weaken the “No Fast Track for Human Trafficking” amendment.  

Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson is the Director of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of Public Witness (OPW) in Washington, DC.  

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