IN her 15 years as Assistant United States Attorney in Georgia, Susan Coppedge prosecuted more than 45 human traffickers in federal cases involving transnational and domestic sex trafficking of adults and children, and labour trafficking. The prosecutions assisted more than 90 victims of trafficking.
It seemed only fitting that she was appointed Ambassador-at-Large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons to lead the US’ global engagement against human trafficking in 2015. Freeing victims, preventing trafficking, and bringing traffickers to justice are the ultimate goals of the US government’s anti-human trafficking policy and its annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report.
“Coming on board the Department of State’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (TIP office), the non-criminalisation of victims was very important to me. I’ve talked about that with every government I have travelled to meet with,” says Ambassador Coppedge who was in Malaysia recently to speak to our government officials about increasing efforts to combat human trafficking in the region.
She adds, labour trafficking is another issue she has been working hard to highlight around the world as “it is sometimes harder to find than sex trafficking cases and harder for law enforcement and judges to understand.”
In the recent 2016 TIP Report – which looks at the governmental efforts of 188 countries to confront and eliminate human trafficking – Malaysia remained in the Tier Two Watchlist. In her interview with Sunday Star, Ambassador Coppedge talks about how Malaysia can increase its efforts to curb human trafficking in the country while taking the victims’ experience into consideration.
Q> Where does Malaysia stand in terms of human trafficking?
A: In our Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report which was released on June 30, Malaysia was adjudicated Tier 2 on the watchlist. This is because of Malaysia’s relationship to the minimum standards, as specified by US laws and the international standards from the Palermo Protocol. Under those standards, we look at a variety of factors to see how countries around the world are doing.
We evaluate the laws of 188 countries and see how they are doing with respect to victim protection measures, prosecutions, convictions, prevention efforts and protection efforts and across those standards, the report (and the analyst who worked on the report along with individuals here at the embassy at KL) evaluates all those factors. This year, Malaysia was judged to be making significant efforts but not increasing efforts; and that places them on the Tier 2 watchlist.
> What do you suggest we do to increase efforts to curb human trafficking here?
The report for every country has recommendations where a country can improve. The real problem is that they (trafficking victims) are hidden from society; the trafficker intimidates, physically abuses and psychologically coerces victims to not come forward to law enforcement. These cases are very hard to work on. If you think about it, most victims of crime go to the police to report what happened to them. Trafficking victims are just the opposite – they are told not to speak to the police or they’ll be locked up or deported. They are told not to speak to the police because they won’t be believed anyway.
Sometimes they are threatened or their families are threatened, so one of the things we do is to encourage law enforcement agencies to look at trafficking crimes in a different way, to be very proactive and try to understand the signs or indicators of trafficking to determine whether a person is a potential trafficking victim.
The report talks about training law enforcement including prosecutors and police, immigration officials, and about how the judges need to be trained on the laws of every country. That is one of our key recommendations and the goal of that training is to increase successful prosecutions and convictions (of the traffickers).
Another part of the report looks at victim protection measures. It is very important that trafficking victims are not criminalised or penalised for crimes they may have committed as a result of being trafficked. If you think about it, they don’t do this willingly – they may commit an immigration violation or a prostitution violation but it is not of their own volition, it is because someone is forcing them to do it. So it is very important that victims have freedom of movement and not be locked up pending trial or deportation. In fact, even if they come into the country illegally, they shouldn’t be criminalised for that.
> Talking about entering illegally, Malaysia has these “lorong tikus” – tiny secluded places that boat operators use to bring in and take people out illegally; how do you think we should handle this?
The report talks about Malaysia being a destination and transit country because of its geographical location and economic success. People want to come here to work or want to come here to move on to other countries to work, and so certainly, if there are known places where people are smuggled in or brought in illegally, then law enforcement needs to pursue those areas as places where they may find trafficking victims.
> You were appointed in 2015. What has been accomplished since then?
Not only does my office handle the report, we also have international programmes that we fund for countries that have the political will but may not have the financial resources. So, all year round, we gather information, share best practices, fund training for other NGOs who work with victims... this is a year-round effort. When I came on board (the TIP office), the non-criminalisation of victims was very important – I’ve talked about that with every government I have travelled to meet with. I’ve talked about that at home with the Attorney Generals of all 50 US states; this is a very important point. I’ve also talked about labour trafficking because it is sometimes harder to find than sex trafficking cases and harder for law enforcement and judges to understand. So we’ve certainly been pushing the labour trafficking efforts around the world as well. The report this year featured the theme of prevention – which is one of the areas we looked at – and we talked about vulnerable groups including economic and natural disaster migrants, such as victims of the earthquake in Nepal and migrants from conflict areas. We hear about this all over the world and those migrants are much more vulnerable to traffickers. They are looking for jobs, and some may be stateless even. For all these reasons, they fall prey to the lies that traffickers tell them, so that theme of prevention was also highlighted during my first year.
>How do we prevent traffickers from continuing their businesses?
We make it too costly for them to do business that way. They are making money off people and we need to have price and consequence for their deplorable behaviour. So what we do is we prosecute them and jail them and we take away any financial benefits they may have gained from trafficking. We bring in the public and let them know these crimes do exist and we need to have the public be on the lookout and be aware of it as well.
Also a problem all over the world is domestic servitude, which is bringing someone into your home and not paying them appropriately and requiring them to work too many hours and abusing them. I prosecuted some of those domestic servitude cases in the US and they are very challenging to find, so we need the public to care about their fellow human beings and we need to make this a public issue.
>What about human trafficking’s connections with terrorism?
We certainly know terrorist groups are involved in trafficking – to provide women and children to work for their military and also to use in sexual servitude – so that is a big problem. Human trafficking does destabilise governments and societies because it creates an economy outside of the legitimate economy. It hurts all workers in a country; it also threatens safety and security because there are people that aren’t following the law. So, this is a very important area for government stability and economic security as well.
>I understand you will be meeting with our Home Minister/Deputy Prime Minister. What suggestions will you be making to our government?
The same ones as in our report. Increasing convictions and prosecutions, becoming more aware of labour trafficking, and allowing victims’ freedom of movement.
>How do you feel about the stand on human trafficking in Malaysia?
I can’t have this job and be a pessimist. If I was a pessimist, it would be too depressing. But because I believe we can make a difference in individual lives, and that every case that is brought forward will help a fellow human being, I’m very optimistic that countries care about their citizens and the people in their country. I hope more can be done to protect trafficking victims and prevent the crime from occurring.
> On a personal note, when you were prosecuting sex offences etc, how do you sleep at night, knowing that these people went through so much?
In every case I prosecuted, I was helping someone move on with their life... helping someone regain their life... helping to detain the criminal perpetrator... so that was very meaningful work to me. I used to say I was working on the side of angels. I found it very rewarding and fulfilling. And now getting to talk to governments about my experience – every country that has trafficking has this same kind of growing pains in learning how to investigate and prosecute cases successfully – so I can share our national best practices. I feel like I am still making a positive difference for trafficking victims.
> Which was more difficult – this job or prosecuting?
This job is more difficult but that is because I’ve only been at it a year. I imagine I would get better at it. As long as you’re on the job, you tend to get better. The trafficking cases were very challenging to bring to trial but after the first case, you understand how the traffickers operate and how to present the victims’ stories. So, the more of those cases I tried, the easier that job became; I’m hoping the more governments I talk to, the easier this job will become.
> This job requires a lot of travel and time away from home, so how do you juggle the job and your family life?
You sound like a dad. I have two children at home and I am very proud of them and very proud of the support I get from my husband. I don’t think this is a job you can do without the support of your spouse, so I really appreciate my family and I appreciate you asking about it because a lot of women need to know that you could do jobs like this and still have a family and children.
> Do they come with you on your travels?
No, they don’t.
> Would you say we are at our adolescent stage in dealing with human trafficking and smuggling?
Both the US law and the Palermo Protocol were passed in 2000; I believe Malaysia’s law was passed around 2007, and so it is a little behind the international and US standard. But i think every country is still learning best practices in this area because it is a new law and a new crime and we are all struggling to handle it the best we can.
> And the US welcomes Malaysia to study its best practices?
And also regional best practices, through other Asian nations who are doing well in fighting trafficking. We do a lot of regional meetings as well. There are certainly best practices in various countries that we can learn from.
> How do you think we should train our law enforcement, specifically the immigration department and police who are the front-liners in the fight against human trafficking and smuggling?
Training on trafficking involves looking at the indicators. For labour and sexual trafficking, you look at whether people withhold travel documents; look at whether they are free to go and whether they keep a fair share of their earnings – all of these things are indicators. I used to talk to American juries about freedom of movement, it is very important that you are able to leave an exploitative work situation and if you are held there by force, fraud, or coercion, then that is trafficking.
> We have these agencies that provide maids and some hold their passports – are they trafficking?
A key recommendation of the report is that workers be allowed to hold their travel documents because again, it’s just an indicator that they may not be free to leave. If you remove that indicator, then you put freedom back in the hands of workers. Enforcement needs to be very careful with how we treat victims. They’re often facing trauma, sometimes physical or sexual abuse, and fear for their families back in their home countries, so victims need to be provided appropriate services, including medical services, and if necessary, psychological services. We need to look out for their safety because victims of trafficking are also often in a very fragile state.
Malaysia’s ranking in the recent 2016 TIP Report remained unchanged in the Tier Two Watchlist. Ambassador-at-Large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons Susan Coppedge says there is still a lot Malaysia can do to increase its efforts to curb human trafficking in the country.