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Indo-Pacific nations enhance cooperation to combat trafficking in persons


Nations across the Indo-Pacific have increased cooperative efforts in recent years to counter human trafficking.

In July 2023, for example, Indonesian authorities charged 12 people, including a policeman and an immigration officer, with trafficking 122 people to sell their kidneys for transplants, Reuters reported. The suspects recruited the Indonesians through social media and sent them to Cambodia for the surgery, according to Hengki Haryadi, director of the Jakarta Police’s criminal investigation unit. The suspects face up to 15 years in jail and steep fines if convicted.

The risk of trafficking is increasing worldwide due to global crises, conflicts and climate threats, according to a 2023 report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

The U.N.’s World Day Against Trafficking in Persons 2023, observed on July 30, “aims to raise awareness of disturbing developments and trends identified by the latest UNODC Global Report on Trafficking in Persons and calls on governments, law enforcement, public services, and civil society to assess and enhance their efforts to strengthen prevention, identify and support victims, and end impunity.”

“Human trafficking and migrant smuggling are examples of the complex, transnational security challenges we face today,” Adm. John Aquilino, Commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) said, focusing attention on the issue at a May 2023 workshop sponsored by USINDOPACOM’s Office of Women, Peace and Security. The event supported Malaysia’s efforts to strengthen institutional capacity, laws, policies and procedures to address human trafficking and smuggling of migrants.

“But we can’t face these challenges alone. Advancing human rights requires investment, commitment, and resourcing from all sectors of society,” Aquilino said. “Today, it is more important than ever that we work together to promote the rules-based international order as a means of achieving sustainable peace and lasting stability.”

In the Indo-Pacific, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has long been a leading opponent of trafficking people. During a May 2023 ASEAN summit, Southeast Asian leaders called for strengthening the regional approach to combat human trafficking and, for example, pledged to crack down on online efforts by traffickers to recruit vulnerable job seekers, often in the region’s poorest countries.

ASEAN leaders plan to expand anti-trafficking efforts by enhancing law enforcement agencies’ capacity to investigate, collect data, exchange information and conduct joint exercises, Reuters reported.

In early May 2023, Southeast Asian authorities rescued several thousand people forced to work in cyber and cryptocurrency scams in countries including Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and the Philippines, Reuters reported.

The Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Translational Crime, established in 2002, is another leading regional forum addressing human trafficking and smuggling of migrants. In 2017, at the inaugural meeting of the Bali Process Government and Business Forum (GABF) in Perth, Western Australia, high-profile government and business leaders from 45 countries in the Indo-Pacific committed to eradicating modern slavery. They have continued pursuing the goal, working with governments and the private sector to protect vulnerable people, especially migrant workers.

In January 2023, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Thailand, the Regional Support Office of the Bali Process and the Government of Australia published a guide for businesses and Bali Process member states to protect migrant workers.

Titled, “Protecting Migrant Workers in Indo-Pacific Supply Chains: A Good Practice Guide for Business and Bali Process Member States,” the booklet offers guidance on how to recognize exploitation in global supply chains, implement or reinforce preventive policies and legal frameworks and advance efforts through public-private collaboration.

“No country and no sector are immune to these issues, and no government or business can tackle these alone,” Lucienne Manton, Australia’s ambassador for people smuggling and human trafficking, said on the guide’s release. “Through public, private and regional collaboration and by adopting these good practices, we can make real progress together to end human trafficking, slavery and other forms of exploitation.”

The guide is built on U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the Act, Acknowledge, Advance Recommendations, endorsed in 2018 by the Bali Process’ GABF.

“Migrant workers are three times more likely than local workers to experience instances of forced labor. Protection of migrant workers is in everyone’s interest, an ethical responsibility but also very often a legal obligation for governments and businesses,” said Sarah Lou Arriola, IOM’s regional director for Asia and the Pacific.

At least 11 governments worldwide, including those of Myanmar, North Korea, the People’s Republic of China and Russia, have a documented “policy or pattern” of human trafficking, trafficking in government-funded programs, forced labor in government-affiliated medical services or other sectors, sexual slavery in government camps or employment of child soldiers, according to the 2023 Trafficking in Persons Report, released by the U.S. State Department in June 2023.

States must improve their efforts to implement the Trafficking in Persons Protocol to the U.N. Convention against Transnational Organized Crime by, among other measures, strengthening frameworks to identify and protect trafficking victims, especially during crises, according to UNODC.

To end human trafficking, “We must strengthen resilience against exploitation and the underlying socio-economic and cultural issues that are conducive to trafficking,” the 2023 UNODC report said. “We must sensitize everyone to the topic of human trafficking and thus push attention towards those who can make a difference in terms of changing policy and national resource management to strengthen prevention measures, improve identification of victims, increase support of survivors and end impunity.”

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