Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken released the 21st annual Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP Report), documenting the efforts of the world’s governments to combat human trafficking in all its forms, as well as the ways the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the human trafficking landscape.

As was the case last year, Vanuatu is featured in the Report with its own country narrative—a recognition of the threat human trafficking poses for the protection of human rights and for the country’s development and security. This was illustrated clearly by a trafficking case—first uncovered in 2018—in which 101 foreign nationals were subjected to various forms of modern-day slavery in Vanuatu.

I commend the government for its ongoing effort to bring the alleged traffickers to justice, and I look forward to hearing the judiciary’s verdict in that case.

The global COVID-19 pandemic has changed the world over the course of the last year.

In addition to highlighting the importance of robust international cooperation on all matters that transcend political and geographical boundaries, the pandemic has brought about immense challenges to anti-trafficking efforts.

The pandemic has helped create conditions that allow human trafficking to thrive, in spite of border closures and other efforts to mitigate the spread the virus.

As a result of the widespread distress caused by COVID-19, individuals and communities in the Pacific and around the world face new or increased economic and social marginalization, making them more vulnerable to exploitation by traffickers. And as populations around the world endured the closure of schools and places of business, we’ve seen a dramatic rise in forms of online sexual exploitation, particularly against children.

Traffickers capitalized on the pandemic, taking advantage not only of individuals’ increased isolation and vulnerability, but also on reduced government capacity and the redirection of human and financial resources to COVID-19 prevention, mitigation, and response.

Ultimately, the TIP Report highlights the fact that human trafficking does not stop, even during a global pandemic. But we are not powerless.

The United States looks forward to working with Vanuatu’s government, its people, and civil society actors to support and increase efforts to prevent trafficking, to identify and protect trafficking victims, and to prosecute traffickers to the fullest extent of the law.

My team and I at the U.S. Embassy are working hard to lay a foundation for increased U.S.-Vanuatu law enforcement and security cooperation, particularly with regard to maritime domain awareness.

We were pleased to have been able to provide support for victims’ assistance and resettlement services in the previously-mentioned foreign trafficking case. And in the coming months, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) will award a new regional program, with a total estimated investment of $10 million over five years, that will reduce communities’ vulnerability to trafficking.

As our two countries push forward to make progress on issues of mutual interest, I urge that we all be unrelenting in our collective fight against human trafficking.

Erin McKee

U.S. Ambassador to Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, and Solomon Islands

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