ASEAN takes on human trafficking in Indo-Pacific

ASEAN takes on human trafficking in Indo-Pacific

Tom Abke

Criminal gangs drive 25 million Indo-Pacific residents into forced labor each year as victims are pushed into prostitution, pornography, domestic servitude and even cybercrime, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) reported. To counter the scourge, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has teamed with local operations on a pair of initiatives: the ASEAN-Australia Counter Trafficking (ASEAN-ACT) program and the South East Asia Justice Network (SEAJust).

Human trafficking levels in Malaysia and Myanmar were ranked at Tier 3 by the U.S. Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report for 2021, the worst grade on its scale. Brunei, Cambodia and Thailand were close behind on the Tier 2 watch list.

The report identifies the sex industry, drug trade and hazardous work environments such as mining operations and slaughterhouses as destinations for trafficking victims. One gang operating out of the People’s Republic of China lured victims to Cambodia, where it forced them to work on internet and telephone scams to defraud people — often their own family members — out of their life savings, the Nikkei Asia news magazine reported.

With about U.S. $60 million in funding from Australia, ASEAN-ACT was established in 2019 to help ASEAN member states counter human trafficking by implementing the 2017 ASEAN Convention against Trafficking in Persons. The convention identified human trafficking as a “threat to economic, political and societal stability” and set a framework to counter it.

Perhaps the biggest barrier to prosecuting human traffickers has been the reluctance of victims to testify. “To effectively investigate and prosecute traffickers, sometimes the only evidence is the testimony of victims,” stated a document released in July 2021 by the ASEAN-ACT office in Thailand.

ASEAN-ACT has prioritized victim protection and awareness of the role of judges and court employees in empowering and assisting victims, creating a list of important indicators to enhance victim-centered practices in courts. (Pictured: Lawyers and legal aid workers participate in a three-day training program organized by the ASEAN-Australia Counter Trafficking initiative in Vietnam in July 2021.)

“Many of the ASEAN partners have begun to implement some changes in practice,” the document added. Courts in Laos added curtains to create a barrier between the victim and the accused. The Philippines introduced video conferencing and virtual testimony in human trafficking cases, and Thailand began hearing applications for victim compensation at the conclusion of criminal trials and implemented a digital court system to better utilize electronic evidence and engage witnesses online.

Meanwhile, with backing from the United Nations and Japan, SEAJust aims to take on human trafficking gangs with teams of prosecutors, police and other law enforcement officials from ASEAN nations.

The framework, established in March 2021, attempts to eliminate delays caused by differences in language, legal systems and local practices that can congest the justice system and leave demands for documents unanswered for lengthy periods, Nikkei Asia reported. Each member state chooses two officials from among the participating authorities and guarantees that they keep in touch with their counterparts.

So far, Japan has provided nearly U.S. $1 million in funding for SEAJust, with the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime coordinating the initiative.


Tom Abke is a FORUM contributor reporting from Singapore.