Sri Lanka must prevent child sex trafficking


In 2018, the Sri Lankan justice system condemned a human trafficker under a new trafficking legal status. This was the first time that anyone had been sentenced under this status since it had been introduced a few years earlier. As much as this is a victory, there is still much that needs to be addressed by the government.

Human trafficking has been an issue in Sri Lanka for many years. Forced labour and sex trafficking is known to mainly affect women and children. Indeed, this year Sri Lanka was listed on the Tier 2 Watch list of the Trafficking in Persons Report issued by the U.S. State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons report published on the 20th of June. This means that Sri Lanka has failed to provide evidence of increasing efforts to combat human trafficking.

While the Sri Lankan government took an important step toward the prohibition of all forms of trafficking in 2006, many improvements are still needed. For instance, Sri Lanka has ratified the two conventions for the Abolition of Forced Labour, yet they have scarcely convicted any human traffickers in recent years. Complicity has remained a serious issue in Sri Lanka. Some government officials have been involved in human trafficking, but the state never convicted nor prosecuted them.

Furthermore , human trafficking in Sri Lanka often involves the trafficking of children. In 2018, the EU published a report on Sri Lanka as part of the Special Incentive Arrangement for Sustainable Development and Good Governance status (GSP+) granted to them by the European Union (EU) in 2017. In this report, the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy expressed concern about the weak state of law enforcement on child trafficking issues in Sri Lanka. Although the Sri Lankan law on child trafficking meets the international standards, the government’s action on the matter remains limited. Granting that the government adopted a National Plan of Action (NPA) for Children (2016-2021), the efficiency of this plan still needs to be assessed as it was approved without any reference to a budget. Currently, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) is gathering data on the numbers of Sri Lankan children affected by commercial sexual exploitation. This data should be a significant tool in helping the government shape and implement an efficient policy plan.

Prostitution is forbidden in Sri Lanka, and it is not as common a practice as in neighbouring countries. However, child sex tourism and sex trafficking remains a problem in Sri Lanka. Women and children are subjected to forced prostitution in brothels. In the case of child sex tourism, young boys are the most common victims of exploitation.

Unfortunately, advances in the legal process intended to put an end to human trafficking has created a judicial smokescreen that hides an absence of concrete actions. The government continues to offer limited protection for female victims and near nonexistent protections for male victims. In addition, although the state has funded specialised training to local officials in the last years, their capacity to identify victims remains low, and they do not show satisfactory efforts to screen for indicators of human trafficking among individuals arrested for prostitution, vagrancy, illegal immigration or other offences. As detailed in the most recent report of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), this is a problem because victims of human trafficking are often coerced into committing these types of offences. In light of this situation, the CEDAW has recommended the adoption of gender-specific protection measures for women and girls victims, including exit programs for women who wish to leave prostitution.

In particular, minority women suffer from inequality of access to justice and often struggle to report the violence they have endured. Language barriers add another challenge, which makes it very difficult for these women and girls to report gender-based violence. The Sri Lankan law stipulates that statements made to the police have to be written in Sinhala and signed, yet Tamil women often do not understand nor read Sinhala. If they refuse to sign the report because they cannot understand it, the case is dropped. Minority women have been requesting the mandatory presence of a Tamil police officer in each police station to ensure equal access to justice, especially in the North and the East of the country. The 2017 CEDAW report emphasised the need to respond to this request but the government has not implemented any changes so far. This is one of the first steps that must be taken if Sri Lanka is genuinely intent on tackling gender-based violence throughout all regions.

On top of Sri Lanka’s GSP+ status, the EU has also provided a total of approximately EUR 760 million in assistance to Sri Lanka over the past decade to support development in the country. Relations between the EU and Sri Lanka are governed by a Cooperation Agreement on Partnership and Development. This agreement is mainly focused on trade, but human rights are part of the fundamental values of the EU. Therefore, the EU’s advantageous position could be used to ensure that the Sri Lankan state provides support and equal access to justice to all victims of human trafficking and gender-based violence.

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