Countering Human Trafficking

Countering Human Trafficking

The Indo-Asia-Pacific region has improved prosecution, protection and prevention efforts, but many challenges remain


An earthquake ravaged Nepal on April 25, 2015, killing 9,000 people and leaving more than 600,000 families without homes or means to make a living. Preying on the devastated, newly vulnerable population, human traffickers moved in, according to a report by the Public Radio International website, Under nefarious pretenses, “a man marries one woman and sends her abroad, then marries another woman and sends her away,” explained Sunita Bhukhaju, who operates Partnership Nepal, a local nongovernmental organization.

“After the earthquake, [trafficking] is increasing by the day,” she said. Soon, “the office might close, so there won’t be anyone to stop them” because their funding was due to run out, Bhukhaju told Public Radio International in November 2016.

Families who face economic hardship after natural disasters make easy targets for human traffickers, experts say.Nepal police and activists estimate trafficking has increased as much as 20 percent in the aftermath of the quake. Without much hope, “many are sold into a global network that includes the dance bars of Kenya, the brothels and underground organ clinics of India, ‘paper marriages’ of South Korea and China, home-cleaning services in the Middle East, slave labor in South Asia and smuggling rings at the Mexico-U.S. border,” Public Radio International reported.

Trafficking and forced labor are growing problems across the Indo-Asia-Pacific. The 2016 Global Slavery Index estimated that more than 30.4 million people were enslaved in the Asia-Pacific region (includes Pakistan and Afghanistan), which is more than two-thirds of the people entrapped worldwide in modern slavery. That number includes trafficking and forced labor. “Trafficking in persons” and “human trafficking” have been used as umbrella terms for the act of recruiting, harboring, transporting, providing or obtaining a person for compelled labor or commercial sex acts through the use of force, fraud or coercion, according to the U.S. State Department definition. In 2016, more than 18.3 million people were living in slavery in India and more than 11.8 million were in member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Over 11.7 million people are victims of forced labor in the Indo-Asia-Pacific, according to the United Nations International Labor Organization. Males and females of all ages, including children, are used as slave laborers for domestic work, construction and the seafood industry. In Phnom Penh, Cambodia, for instance, experts estimate that more than 28,000 children work as domestic slaves, according to a report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Myint Naing, a former slave fisherman, rests at a government hostel in Yangon, Burma. He spent more than two decades in Indonesia after being enslaved on Thai fishing boats.

Companies often use forced labor in Southeast Asia’s seafood industry, according to media reports. Workers fall prey to debt bondage, passport seizure and fake job offers, and end up facing abuse and wrongful detainment aboard fishing vessels, widespread media accounts have revealed in recent years.

“The high prevalence of modern slavery in the region reflects the reality that many countries in Asia provide low-skilled labor for the production stage of global supply chains for various industries including food production, garments and technology,” wrote the authors of the 2016 Global Slavery Index, an annual study of worldwide slavery conditions published by the Walk Free Foundation.

Although the prevalence of natural disasters in the region contributes to the conditions that increase peoples’ susceptibility to human trafficking and forced labor, other factors such as armed conflict, religious persecution and racial discrimination also impact the situation. Poverty, lack of employment, economic underdevelopment, poor education and a lack of rule of law in source countries also contribute, according to “Australia and the Anti-Trafficking Regime in Southeast Asia,” a November 2016 report released by the Lowy Institute for International Policy, an Australian think tank, and written by Jiyoung Song, director of its Migration and Border Policy Project. Corruption of government officials and a lack of police training also contribute, Song wrote.

“Vulnerability to modern slavery is affected by a complex interaction of factors related to the presence or absence of protection and respect for rights, physical safety and security, access to the necessities of life such as food, water and health care, and patterns of migration, displacement and conflict,” explained the authors of the 2016 Global Slavery Index, which also ranks countries by relative vulnerability. In the extended Indo-Asia-Pacific region, Afghanistan, Brunei, Burma, China, India, North Korea, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines and Thailand, round out the top 10 at-risk nations, according to the index.

Although progress has been made to counter human trafficking and other forms of modern slavery in the Indo-Asia-Pacific, much work remains, especially in ASEAN nations, because the risks continue to evolve and expand in the region and globally. Virtual trafficking — trafficking created, simulated or carried on by means of a computer or computer network, which often involves children — is an emerging type of this crime. Many experts look to multilateral engagement as a key part of effective anti-trafficking endeavors.

The 2016 “Trafficking in Persons Report,” published by the U.S. Department of State, reveals that no country in the Indo-Asia-Pacific has what it considers an excellent record of fighting human trafficking and that many countries need to do much more to keep pace with traffickers as economies rapidly develop and populations grow. The report authors put Burma, the Marshall Islands, North Korea, Papua New Guinea and Uzbekistan in the lowest ranking tier (red on p. 35 map) for their policy responses to human trafficking — essentially, they are not making significant efforts to meet the minimum standards defined by the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which was enacted in 2000 to combat human trafficking worldwide and domestically by assisting in coordinating such efforts. Meanwhile, Brunei, China, Kiribati, Laos, Maldives, Malaysia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Tonga fall in its second lowest tier or watch list (orange), which mean although these nations are making efforts, trafficking remains a significant problem and may even be increasing there.

However, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Taiwan and South Korea have done the most in the region to curb trafficking and fall in the report’s top tier (green) of countries, which means their governments fully meet the minimum standards of the act.

Two prostitutes live near the red light district of Moroseneng in Klakah Rejo in Indonesia. [AFP/GETTY IMAGES]

Multilateral Countermeasures

The 2000 U.N. Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, known as the Palermo Protocol, initiated the international effort to combat human trafficking. The protocol is a multilateral treaty against transnational organized crime. Since then various multilateral organizations have increased efforts to fight trafficking by combining their member states’ expertise and resources to break down trafficking networks and empower vulnerable populations. Multilateral forums also provide a way for member states, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), the private sector and survivors to share lessons learned and develop innovative solutions to address new and emerging issues related to human trafficking.

For example, the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime soon followed in 2002 to set up a stronger framework for fighting trafficking in Southeast Asia. Since then, the members of ASEAN, with the exception of Laos, have toughened laws to counter trafficking. Moreover, the laws of Brunei, Cambodia, Singapore and Vietnam could still be strengthened, Song wrote in the 2016 Lowy Institute study.

Australia has shown the strongest government response to modern slavery in the region since the Palermo Protocol was established and in recent years has become increasingly multilateral in its approach. In August 2013, Australia launched the U.S. $50 million Australia-Asia Program to Combat Trafficking in Persons to build capacity of governments in the region for criminal justice responses. It mainly targets source countries such as Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam. Australia also established bilateral agreements with many ASEAN countries on human trafficking.

ASEAN members are moving toward signing and ratifying the U.N. Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children as a supplement to the Palermo Protocol. In 2015, ASEAN adopted the ASEAN Convention Against Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children. To date, Cambodia, Singapore and Thailand have ratified it, and more member nations are expected to follow suit, including Indonesia. Six of the 10 member countries must adopt it for it to be enforced.

In January 2017, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) announced a new regional program to combat human trafficking in Asia. USAID’s Regional Development Mission for Asia’s five-year, U.S. $21.5 million USAID Asia Counter Trafficking in Persons program will support ASEAN member states as they implement the convention and take steps to stem the demand and supply for trafficked people, the Nation magazine reported. At first, the program will address the problem in the Lower Mekong countries of Bangladesh, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam and then reach to other ASEAN member states, South Asia, and destination countries in East Asia and the Gulf states. USAID and Winrock International, a U.S.-based development organization, will work with Asian governments, civil society organizations, government social services, law enforcement and health care providers in the region to counter human trafficking in Asia, according to a USAID statement. Ongoing USAID activities to combat human trafficking in Asia include three programs in Bangladesh, Cambodia and Nepal, according to the Nation.

Innovative Solutions

Countries in the region are also tackling specific components of human trafficking. In March 2016, 13 Indo-Asia-Pacific nations, including Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Papua New Guinea, endorsed the Kathmandu Declaration to end child marriage in South Asia. The minimum age for marriage is now lower than 18, according to the Kathmandu Declaration. Many steps remain to make this a reality, but India, Bangladesh and Nepal are making progress by developing national strategies.

Governments and the private sector, often through partnership agreements, are using other successful innovations. Interpol provides its 190 member countries with resources to combat transnational crime, including human trafficking. When requested, Interpol, for instance, publishes lists of people who present a public danger on the basis of past criminal history.

The Philippine Overseas Employment Agency organizes community seminars and forums for prospective migrant workers to advise them on illegal practices (see sidebar) and to help them identify illegal labor recruiters and human traffickers. The agency’s Bureau of Immigration issues guidelines on departures for people traveling abroad and has established rules for inspectors to identify potential victims of trafficking before they leave the country.

Burmese men, who were forced to work for little or no pay on Indonesian fishing boats, arrive at Yangon International Airport. [REUTERS]

Meanwhile, Manav Sansadhan Evam Mahila Vikas Sansthan, an Indian NGO that has worked for decades with communities in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh to eradicate forced and bonded labor, developed a community empowerment model to assist vulnerable populations, which decreased trafficking in the area over a four-year period, according to a 2016 Harvard University study, “When We Raise Our Voice: The Challenge of Eradicating Labor Exploitation.” Another Indian NGO engaged with journalists to raise awareness of human trafficking within minority and marginalized communities through a 2015 pilot program, according to a U.S. State Department report. “The organization trained journalists on how to better report cases of human trafficking, including bonded labor, for their audiences. These efforts aimed to better inform people in remote communities who may only get news in their local language, and may not often see reporting on human trafficking,” the U.S. State Department said. Moreover, “reporters uncovered human trafficking cases within their own communities and increased attention on the role of state government and police in prevention efforts,” the report said.

The number of successful rescue operations continues to increase. In India, police and activists have teamed up with a project called Operation Smile, which provides facial reconstruction surgery to children, to free children from forced labor. “Over 2,000 children have been rescued from Hyderabad alone since 2015, and the numbers in each drive have gradually been declining,” Mohammed Imtiaz Raheem, Hyderabad district’s child protection officer, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. In 2015, the U.N. International Labor Organization estimated that, of the 168 million child workers worldwide (people 5-17 years of age), 7.5 million are in India, Reuters reported, but many NGOs contend the real figure is up to 60 million. About half of child laborers work in agriculture and a quarter in manufacturing, according to the U.N. agency.

“We are investigating the nexus between the employers and the traffickers,” said Swathi Lakra, a police commissioner in Hyderabad, after the rescue of 200 more children in January 2017 from a brick kiln on the outskirts of the city, according to Reuters. “In many cases, parents are only too willing to send their children for work, which works well for the traffickers.”

Similarly, officials in countries plagued by forced labor have rescued an increasing number of trafficked fishermen. In 2015, Indonesia authorities with help from the International Organization for Migration, freed 2,000 fishermen and returned them to their home countries and revoked the licenses of the companies who used their work.

[FORUM Illustration]

Future Directions

In the 26 years since the introduction of the Palermo Protocol, the international push to combat trafficking has improved prevention, prosecution and protection efforts, yet significant challenges remain, experts contend.

“Despite sustained anti-trafficking efforts, millions of individuals are bound by mental, physical, and financial coercion and manipulation by traffickers who exploit their vulnerabilities for profit. Whether they are victims of sex or labor trafficking, the suffering of these individuals is unconscionable,” the authors of the 2016 “Trafficking in Persons” report wrote. “Governments must work in partnership with NGOs, survivors, community and religious leaders, and the private sector to study vulnerable populations and develop targeted strategies to prevent and address the factors that drive modern slavery in their communities. Without prevention, governments are left to respond to the consequences of human trafficking without coming any nearer to seeing its end.”

In general, victims need to be better protected, and more work must be done to help reintegrate them back into communities, other experts argue. For example, “within ASEAN states significant gaps remain in the implementation of legislation and policies to combat trafficking, especially in relation to victim protection and sustainable return,” Song asserted in the Lowy Institute report.

Multilateral cooperation and partnerships between internal and external stakeholders can raise awareness, share knowledge and develop and implement new and better solutions. Although prevention efforts are often difficult to quantify, they can be successfully executed with broad-based support from all sectors of society, many policy experts and advocates contend.

Philippine Overseas Employment Agency Bureau oImmigration

Prohibits these practices by any individual, entity, licensee or holder of authority:

  • To charge or accept, directly or indirectly, any amount greater than that specified in the schedule of allowable fees prescribed by the secretary of labor, or to make a worker pay any amount greater than that actually received by him as a loan or advance.
  • To furnish or publish any false notice or information or document in relation to recruitment or employment.
  • To give any false notice, testimony, information or document or commit any act of misrepresentation for the purpose of securing a license or authority under this code.
  • To induce or attempt to induce a worker already employed to quit his employment in order to offer him to another unless the transfer is designed to liberate the worker from oppressive terms and conditions of employment.
  • To influence or to attempt to influence any person or entity not to employ any worker who has not applied for employment through his agency.
  • To engage in the recruitment or placement of workers in jobs harmful to public health or morality or to the dignity of the Republic of the Philippines.
  • To obstruct or attempt to obstruct inspection by the secretary of labor or by his duly authorized representatives.
  • To fail to file reports on the status of employment, placement vacancies, remittance of foreign exchange earnings, separation from jobs, departures and such other matters or information as may be required by the secretary of labor.
  • To substitute or alter employment contracts approved and verified by the department of labor from the time of actual signing thereof by the parties up to and including the periods of expiration of the same without the approval of the secretary of labor.
  • To become an officer or member of the board of any corporation engaged in travel agency or to be engaged directly or indirectly in the management of a travel agency.
  • To withhold or deny travel documents from applicant workers before departure for monetary or financial considerations other than those authorized under this code and its implementing rules and regulations.