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Remarks by Ambassador Sison at the Opening of a Shelter for Women Victims of Human Trafficking

Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall (BMICH)
Colombo, Sri Lanka
December 12, 2012

[As Prepared] 

This is the first government-run shelter for victims of trafficking in Sri Lanka.  The United States is proud to be part of the team that made it a reality.  This partnership with the government of Sri Lanka also included the National Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force and the International Organization for Migration.  This is an example of how our two governments, non-governmental organizations, and the international community can work together to share expertise and best-practices and marshal resources to improve lives here in Sri Lanka. 

I want to thank in particular the Honorable Minister Tissa Karalliyadda for his work.  I also want to thank our good friend Richard Danziger of the IOM for his sustained leadership and commitment to Sri Lanka.  This shelter also shows the commitment of the government to help victims of trafficking. We are pleased the government is taking steps to combat human trafficking, and we are happy that we could help.  

Supporting the creation of this shelter is one piece of a larger commitment by the U.S. government to benefit women in Sri Lanka.  We support greater access to education, assisting women with economic development projects, and protect vulnerable women such as those who have been trafficked.  These efforts represent our pledge to empower women and ensure they can fulfill their hopes and dreams, live in dignity, and fully contribute to the future of Sri Lanka.

This shelter was completed thanks to a $300,000 donation by the United States Department of State.  In total the U.S. State Department has given almost $1.3 million dollars through IOM to assist the Sri Lankan government on trafficking issues.  This includes a $450,000 grant announced in September that will help support the operation of this shelter as well as other programs that combat trafficking and aid victims. 

Whether it is a young girl lured away from her family only to be trapped in sexual slavery or an aspiring man who hopes to make a better wage to support his family only to find himself a victim of forced labor, human traffickers often prey on those who seek a better life. We still see the media, especially, confuse human smuggling – itself in important issue – with human trafficking.  There is nothing voluntary about being trafficked.  We need to be clear that anyone who is compelled into service, whether through physical or psychological means, is a victim. 

As Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said, “let’s call it what it is – modern slavery.”  Each year the State Department drafts the Trafficking in Persons report that surveys trafficking issues around the world.  We use the report as a tool to work with governments to address trafficking challenges.  Last year, the report highlighted that Sri Lanka has made progress to prevent trafficking, both internally and externally, by convicting labor recruitment agents involved in fraudulent recruitment.  The government also has increased inter-ministerial coordination through monthly meetings of the National Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force.  In recognition of such efforts, Sri Lanka was removed from the Watchlist and achieved a Tier 2 status in the 2011 report.  This is the same level as large number of countries, including Japan, Iceland, and Switzerland. 

But we must remain vigilant.  Too many Sri Lankans – especially women – are finding themselves in conditions of forced labor through practices such as restrictions on movement, withholding of passports, threats, physical or sexual abuse, and threats of detention and deportation.  We commend your efforts to support victims of abuse abroad by creating a number of short-term shelters at your embassies around the region.

Together, there is more we can do to prevent trafficking, prosecute traffickers, and protect victims. Prevention lies in initiatives that, for example, better regulate labor recruiting companies and educate the foreign and citizen workforce about their rights.  It is our duty not to wait for victims to come to us, but for us to proactively find and dismantle these illegal operations that reduce people to conditions of modern slavery. Stopping human trafficking also requires providing a more robust response to punish traffickers with criminal penalties.

Sentences should be commensurate with other grave criminal offenses such as rape, kidnapping, and murder. Unfortunately, in many cases traffickers simply pay fines, receive suspended sentences, or return to trafficking after just one or two years in jail. It is also important that we do not forget that at the heart of the problem are victims that need our help.  We not only have a duty to punish the trafficker, but to offer assistance and restore the victim.

For instance, establishing mechanisms that allow for temporary immigration status and work authorization to both restore the trafficked person and incentivize them to seek justice.  Relying on detention and deportation punishes the victims and helps the traffickers keep them in slavery.  The victims need comprehensive services, including a shelter like this one.

The United States recognizes that there is a gap between the resources available and the resources that are needed to improve counter-trafficking measures.  To assist in these efforts to combat trafficking, the U.S. State Department’s Trafficking in Persons office awarded grants to local organizations to address counter-trafficking issues, including our grant to IOM to continue their work in this area.  Because human trafficking is, by its nature, an international problem that requires all of us to work together for an international solution.

The real-world importance of a shelter like the one we are honoring today cannot be overstated.  It will ensure that identified victims will be provided appropriate assistance and that re-victimization is prevented.  It will also prevent victims being placed in remand homes and detention centers due to the lack of proper shelter facilities. It will fulfill Sri Lanka’s international obligations in the protection of victims of human trafficking.  It is also symbolically important because it demonstrates Sri Lanka’s dedication to helping some of its most vulnerable people, and it shows what we all can do by working together.