WASHINGTON (CNN) - The State Department released its annual Trafficking in Persons Report Thursday, highlighting the state of human trafficking across the globe by ranking countries on their efforts to tackle the issue. But the report, released as the U.S. government faces international scrutiny for its processing of migrants along the southern border, is careful to differentiate between cases of "trafficking" and "smuggling."
In a speech last week to the National Federation of Independent Businesses, President Donald Trump said immigration "loopholes" have caused a "massive child smuggling trade."
"Can you believe this?" the president asked, before saying the smuggling of children and women is "the worst it's been in history."
But the State Department walked a fine line with its report, highlighting the vulnerability of migrants and children, while generally avoiding direct references to how the Central American migration crisis is playing out in the United States.
A senior State Department official told reporters ahead of the report's release Thursday that, "There are two distinct crimes of human trafficking and migrant smuggling." The official said, "our report, and the work of our office, focuses on human trafficking which is a crime of exploitation of individuals whereas smuggling is a crime against a state."
"Sometimes it may be part of the crime of human trafficking," the official added, "but our work focuses on the exploitation, so not smuggling."
Removal of a child
The official who spoke with reporters Wednesday faced especially pointed questions about a section in the report titled "child institutionalization and human trafficking," which noted that, "Removal of a child from the family should only be considered as a temporary, last resort."
"Studies have found that both private and government-run residential institutions for children, or places such as orphanages and psychiatric wards that do not offer a family-based setting, cannot replicate the emotional companionship and attention found in family environments that are prerequisites to healthy cognitive development." The report states, later noting: "Children in institutional care, including government-run facilities, can be easy targets for traffickers."
More than 2,500 undocumented children were separated from their families under President Donald Trump's zero-tolerance immigration policy before it was partially rolled back by executive order, while others have been put in government detention centers with their parents.
Human rights advocates were quick to note the irony of highlighting the dangers of child institutionalization at a time when the U.S. government is under criticism for detaining children, and for previously separating them from their parents.
"The State Department deserves credit for its comprehensive analysis of how separating and/or detaining children and removing them from family caregiving settings causes long-term emotional harm and mental health effects and heightens risks of human trafficking," Sara Margon, Washington Director of Human Rights Watch, told CNN in a statement. "Other (U.S. government) officials, particularly immigration and law enforcement officials, should take note of this guidance and ensure it is upheld."
"Combating human trafficking is not merely a moral issue or one that affects the interests of the American people," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in his introduction to the 2018 report, "it is also an issue that threatens international peace and security."
A mixed report
The 2018 report offers a mixed picture. Of the 183 countries that were ranked using the report's tiered system, 29 showed enough progress to be upgraded, while 20 countries received downgrades.
Four additional countries were featured in the report without being ranked, due to difficulties gathering reliable information or other extenuating circumstances.
The United States is ranked on the list as a Tier 1 country.
For the third consecutive year, the State Department did not rank Libya, where, as the report notes, the government has "struggled to gain institutional capacity and the resources to address trafficking, as the government was focused on consolidating control over its territory and countering violent extremism throughout 2017."
Nevertheless, the report highlights fraught conditions in the country, which is a transit point for African migrants who are especially vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation.
Last year, a CNN team exposed the existence of slave markets in Libya, where migrants are auctioned off to the highest bidder. The report sparked international outrage and calls for action, including from the United States.
"We read the horrific accounts of human trafficking and abuse of African migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Libya, resulting in modern day slave markets," Pompeo noted in his remarks. "We've engaged the Libyan Government of National Accord to bring the perpetrators to justice, including complicit government officials."
Countries with the worst record on human trafficking fall into the report's notorious third tier, which includes historic U.S. adversaries like North Korea, Russia, Iran, and, as of last year, China.
This year, the tier shrank modestly from 23 to 22, with the removal of six countries and the addition of five.
Of the five that were added, two - Bolivia and Laos - were automatically downgraded because a policy that only allows countries to stay on the next highest, "Tier 2 Watch List," level for a maximum of four consecutive years.
Myanmar, which has been facing a humanitarian crisis in its northern Rakhine state as a result of violence against the minority Rohingya community, was among those designated at Tier 3 this year.
The report faults the country's armed forces for conducting operations that have "dislocated hundreds of thousands of Rohingya and members of other ethnic groups, many of whom were subjected to exploitation in (Myanmar), Bangladesh, and elsewhere in the region as a result of their displacement."
The U.S. government has called the violence against the Rohingya "ethnic cleansing."
Movement up and down the list
Several countries were commended for taking steps to improve their handling of human trafficking cases in 2018, including Japan and Bahrain, which were among six countries elevated to Tier 1.
In Japan, the report noted increased efforts to combat child sex trafficking and forced pornography, but also expressed concern about insufficient or suspended sentences for convicted traffickers.
The report commended Bahrain for making its first conviction of a Bahraini national on forced labor charges, and its first conviction of a complicit government official. Nevertheless, the report cited the Bahraini government for being "disproportionately focused on sex trafficking," while largely avoiding forced labor investigations.
"We commend those countries taking action," Pompeo said Thursday at an event marking the report's release. "But we also will never shy away from pointing out countries that need to step up."
Ireland slid from the report's top tier in 2017 to Tier 2 in 2018 due to prior changes in the country's human trafficking law and "chronic deficiencies in victim identification and referral."
South Africa fell from Tier 2 to the lower Tier 2 Watch List. While the report commends the government for recent investigative and public awareness efforts, it ultimately found "the government did not demonstrate increasing efforts overall compared to the previous reporting period," and raised concerns that "allegations of official complicity affected the government's prosecution, protection, and prevention efforts and there were significant concerns for victim protection."
The Tier 2 Watch List is meant to be a provisional tier for countries that do not fully meet relevant standards on child trafficking, but are demonstrating efforts to achieve compliance. Countries can be on the list for two consecutive years, then another two if the Secretary of State grants them a waiver. After that point, they must either be upgraded or downgraded.
In 2018, Cuba and Saudi Arabia both received second waivers. If they fail to show significant progress in combating human trafficking in the next year's reporting period they will automatically be downgraded.
Update: This story has been updated with more comments from Secretary Pompeo, details from the report and comments from President Trump last week.
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