Stop Abusing Asia’s Victims

Whether they find themselves forced to work in factories, domestic labor, prostitution or construction and agriculture, victims of human trafficking are exploited by high-profit, low-risk organized crime syndicates.

These syndicates shift billions of dollars around the world through globalized financial systems and are adept at reshaping their strategies to circumvent criminal investigation and changing migration laws. According to the International Labor Organization, as many as 2.4 million people are in forced labor worldwide as a result of human trafficking.

The reality is that trafficking thrives in a world where the poorest are being driven into greater destitution and marginalization and avenues to legal migration are diminishing. The human cost of slavery can be devastating for individuals, families and communities, with victims exposed to potential blackmail, theft of passports, torture, rape, drug addiction and starvation.

In the Asia Pacific region, trafficking, which is different from people smuggling of migrants, is commonly associated with debt bondage, sexual servitude and contract slavery, where people are lured by guarantees of employment, but find themselves enslaved on arrival at their destination.

While regional initiatives such as the Asia Regional Trafficking in Persons Project aim to strengthen national criminal justice systems to increase prosecutions, investigations are long, complex, often transnational and very time- and resource-intensive. At the same time, governments and non-government organizations in the region are renewing a call for greater protection of victims at the prevention, support and prosecution stages, and empowering their role in the wider process of combating the cycle of exploitation.

According to Jennifer Burn, Director of the Anti-Slavery Project at the University of Technology in Sydney, one of the first challenges is that the characteristics of trafficked people are diverse and changing.

“Recent research and our knowledge of case law shows us that the old stereotypical image of the trafficked person is no longer valid, if it was ever valid,” Burn explained, “Any person of any visa status could be subject to trafficking. What that means practically is that the indicators of trafficking become much more complex because the trafficked person may not be unlawful, may not be hiding away.” Indeed, they may hold valid working visas for the country concerned.

Australia is a destination for vulnerable women and men trafficked from Southeast Asia. At the National Roundtable on People Trafficking, held at Parliament House, Canberra, on Nov. 24, anti-trafficking groups, unions, industry bodies and cabinet ministers discussed improvements to Australia’s counter-trafficking strategy, including new criminal charges to target slavery, forced marriages and exploitative labor practices in Australia. Also compensation to victims of trafficking and an improved framework of victim protection was proposed, which may include suppression of witnesses’ identities and more sensitive means of their providing evidence in court.

“Currently, each of the states in Australia has its own victim compensation scheme; each state has its own legislation,” Burn said. “But in no state is there a specific category for a person who has been a victim of trafficking. Rather, you have to be able to show that the claimant is a victim of some other kind of crime, like sexual assault, for example.”

Nina Vallins at Project Respect, a community-based organization working to support women trafficked into the sex industry in Australia, added:

“A really important step in recovery is compensation, because a lot of these women have been made financially worse off by the experience of being trafficked, but also in terms of giving them that recognition from the state of the pain and suffering that they have experienced.”

Last year, Project Respect and other Australian community service organizations assisted 109 women trafficked from South Korea, China, Thailand, Malaysia and Taiwan. For Vallins it is also crucial to stop the exploitation, rather than the movement of people.

“The real prevention is actually trying to stop exploitation here in Australia, and that is about reducing demand for trafficked women and then also better enforcement of laws and reducing the impunity of traffickers,” she said.

Trafficking is inherently a cross-border issue and any country in the region can be a source, place of transit or destination. According to the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking, Burma’s Anti-Trafficking Unit reported 155 cases in 2009 involving forced marriage, labor and prostitution. In Thailand, 530 people trafficked from Cambodia, China, Laos, Burma and Vietnam received assistance from the Bureau of Anti-Trafficking in Women and Children in 2009, while 103 Thai victims were returned from 12 countries including Bahrain, Singapore, Malaysia, United Kingdom and the United States.

Malaysia is a destination for people trafficked from countries including Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines, Cambodia, India and Pakistan, while Indonesia has identified trafficked people from China, Thailand, Hong Kong, Uzbekistan, the Netherlands, Poland and Venezuela.

Regional co-operation is therefore vital to protecting victims. Examples include the inauguration this year of the Asean Commission on Women and Children’s Rights, the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime and the Co-ordinated Mekong Ministerial Initiative Against Trafficking, as well as many bilateral and multilateral agreements that currently exist between governments in the Asia Pacific.

At the Seoul International Conference Against Trafficking in Migrant Women held in June, the Asia Pacific Forum emphasized the importance of a human-rights based approach to empower victims in the justice process.

“Victims of trafficking who are protected and supported are in a better position to co-operate in the prosecution of their exploiters,” their report said. “Protecting and supporting victims can therefore help to end the cycle of exploitation.”

According to APF, National Human Rights Institutions have a significant role to play in providing human rights training to law enforcement officers, public education and awareness, monitoring counter-trafficking initiatives, advocating for comprehensive birth registration and the right of victims to employment or government-funded education, as well as ensuring safe and voluntary repatriation.

Jennifer Burn believes there could be more research into the most effective ways of supporting those who return home to their country of origin, and there could be more than one model of repatriation.

“What happens is that there will be a government or church run shelter, but anybody who goes there is immediately identified as being a trafficked person,” she explained, “Some people don’t want to go to the shelter, because then everybody will know what happened to them. That’s why I’m thinking that there could be more work around identifying the best practices for return and repatriation.

But the best scenario is when the exploitation of people is prevented before it begins. In Thailand, the Development and Education Programme for Daughters and Communities is a non-profit NGO working for community-based freedom from trafficking and slavery, especially in northern Thailand and the Mekong Sub-Region. Working closely with teachers, monks, police, community and village leaders, DEPDC identifies women and girls at risk, providing them with safe accommodation, a secure education and life skills training.

This year alone, the Thai organization has given shelter to 116 children, provided education to 447 children and community members, and conducted awareness workshops on human trafficking, safe migration, nationality and citizenship, HIV/AIDS and domestic violence to more than 6000 children and community members in five countries of the Greater Mekong Sub-Region.

According to the Thai NGO, nationality and citizenship play an important role as statelessness is a primary risk factor for trafficking and exploitation.

“The percentage of stateless, migrant children that we serve varies from 48% in the prevention-oriented shelters to 62% in the Community Learning Centre,” said a DEPDC spokesperson, “Stateless and undocumented status affects ethnic minority children the most with more than 97% of children in our primary school for vulnerable children coming from one of seven different minority ethnicities.”

By ensuring children know their rights and have real opportunities for safe and legitimate employment, DEPDC claims to have prevented thousands from falling prey to sex trafficking and forced labor. The NGO now has more than 4000 ‘former daughters’ who represent success stories in the battle against trafficking.

Catherine Wilson is an Australia-based freelance writer.