Coronavirus pandemic makes more people vulnerable to trafficking, says annual U.S. report

Washington (Reuters) – The coronavirus pandemic had made more people vulnerable to human trafficking, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Thursday as an annual U.S. report added Afghanistan and Nicaragua to a list of worst offenders.

“Instability and lack of access to critical services caused by the pandemic mean that the  number of people vulnerable to exploitation by traffickers is rapidly growing,” Pompeo said in an introduction to the annual U.S. State Department Trafficking in Persons report.

The report kept China, a persistent target for criticism by Pompeo, on the lowest rung and again highlighted widespread use of forced labor, including through what the United States and human rights groups say is the mass detention in camps of more than one million minority Muslims.

It said Beijing had expanded this campaign into other provinces and begun implementing it among other religious minorities. China denies mistreatment and says the camps provide vocational training and are needed to fight extremism.

The report also took aim at Hong Kong, which U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened to strip of economic privileges over China’s tightened grip on the former British colony.

Hong Kong, alongside Pakistan, was downgraded to the report’s “Tier 2 Watch List,” a category denoting those meriting special scrutiny, on the grounds that it had failed to enact legislation to fully criminalize trafficking.

Afghanistan and Nicaragua were both demoted in this year’s report to Tier 3, falling into the lowest category, which can bring restrictions on U.S. non-humanitarian, non-trade-related assistance, a decision that would be made by the president.