Don't Reward Human Traffickers

The horrors along the Thai-Malaysian border revealed in the past week have shocked our consciences, and put the scourge of human trafficking at the front of international news. In this most recent revelation, 139 graves were discovered at the site of what was virtually a prison camp run by human traffickers. The scene described in news reports included cages for the human victims, and in one painfully poignant image, a single tiny orange slipper — evidence that children had been among them.

As shocking as those stories are, they are not the first reports from Malaysia, from the border it shares with Thailand, or from far too many other locations around the world. The victims in this case are likely to have been Rohingya, fleeing persecution in Burma. But other marginalized and vulnerable people, seeking refuge and employment, fall victim to highly organized criminal operations that have sprung up to prey on them. These criminals extort money for passage, not to freedom or a decent job, but to what turn out to be wretched employment conditions. Some victims are simply kidnapped for ransom. Those whose families cannot pay are disposed of in shallow jungle graves.

This reality is why I introduced an amendment to the “fast-track” trade promotion bill that for the first time prohibits expedited, unamendable congressional consideration for any trade deal including the very worst human-trafficking country.

Human trafficking — essentially modern-day slavery — is an international problem. In the United States, our Trafficking Victims’ Protection Act guides our policies and actions to confront human trafficking domestically and around the world. Under that law, countries are assigned a rank based on the scale of the problem and the level of effort to address it. The lowest ranking, for those who fail to take the most basic actions to prevent trafficking and to protect its victims, is Tier 3. I am proud that the Senate passed legislation that included my provision to make it clear that the United States will not reward Tier 3 human traffickers.

Malaysia, where those shocking events were just revealed, is a Tier 3 country under our official ranking system. Malaysia is also in discussions with the United States and 10 other countries to be part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement now wrapping up negotiations. The legislation just passed by the Senate, and on its way for a vote in the House, would prohibit fast-track congressional consideration of that trade deal if Malaysia is included with its current record.

These recent discoveries should strengthen our resolve to add this fundamental human rights principle to our trade policy. With those images fresh in our minds, with new revelations of the scope of the trafficking problem in Malaysia and other countries coming every day, now is the time for our colleagues in the House to add their voice to a clear statement of bipartisan American values: no fast track for human traffickers. If House Leadership or the Obama administration wants to make substantive changes to the Menendez anti-trafficking provision they need to do it in the light of day and not in a backroom deal on unrelated legislation. Any effort to strip or change this provision, should be addressed in the fast-track trade promotion bill and open to debate.

Robert Menendez, a Democrat, is New Jersey’s senior senator.

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