“Against my better judgment, I found myself the other day charging into a well-armed brothel in a police raid.” This was how Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist Nicholas Kristof started his New York Times op-ed after joining a bust on a Cambodian brothel in 2011. It was the kind of story that everyone wanted to read: terse, no-nonsense cops; innocent victims of human trafficking; and a brave, well-intentioned journalist. Readers were treated to a palatable narrative of good versus evil, and it reinforced the idea that underage girls are widely trafficked in Southeast Asia’s exploitative sex industry.
While the story received praise from many of its readers, it also earned the condemnation of leading anti-human-trafficking activists who continue to use it as an example of how not to talk about the illegal trade.
“Human trafficking is a complex phenomenon requiring a nuanced understanding,” said Annette Lyth, regional project manager for Southeast Asia with the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking. “Simplified, highly emotional or ideologically rooted approaches, as they exist in the anti-trafficking community, are often counterproductive.”
Next year, Asean is set to take two steps that could be very influential on anti-human trafficking efforts in the region. Since 1997, there have been no fewer than 20 regional declarations, memorandums of understanding, organisational bodies and task forces established by Asean members to tackle the issue. The newest addition to these will be the Asean Convention on Trafficking in Persons (ACTIP), which was first discussed in 2007 and is expected to be agreed next year. It is expected to go further than previous agreements by increasing regional collaboration and by providing assistance to victims for reintegration.
“In principle, the convention is a very positive step,” said Lyth. “It will be legally binding, seek to hold countries accountable to the commitments made and is set to be accompanied by a regional plan of action, which may help operationalise the pledges.”
As well as the ACTIP, the formation of the Asean Economic Community (AEC) – which also has a 2015 deadline – could be significant for anti-human- trafficking efforts. The AEC aims to transform Southeast Asia into a single market and production base, leading to the freer flow of goods, services and labour in the region.
“At the moment, it’s unclear how the AEC will affect patterns of human trafficking,” continued Lyth. “There’s speculation that the freer movement of people will increase migration between states and hence the supply of people to be exploited.
“At the opposite end is the perspective that, with eased migration options, migrants are less likely to be pushed into the hands of deceptive brokers and are in a better position to ‘own’ their migration and avoid exploitative outcomes.”
However, there are concerns that, much like Kristof’s sensationalist article, the ACTIP and the AEC could have a limited impact on human trafficking as they fail to address the more nuanced factors behind the trade.
“Human trafficking must be understood in a context of considerable labour migration,” said Sverre Molland, a senior lecturer at the Australian National University and an expert on human trafficking. “Within the Asean region a lot of people migrate for wage labour, which is often low-skilled and poorly paid.”
Thousands of Southeast Asians migrate each year, often from poorer countries, such as Cambodia and Laos, to more developed countries such as Thailand. While most are able to cross borders legally or illegally without being exploited, a significant number fall prey to traffickers while attempting to get around strict border controls.
Molland added that these controls are designed to keep out ‘unwanted’ migrants, rather than offering protection to those who are exploited. “[Even after the AEC and ACTIP], governments will be more interested in tackling, or at least appearing to tackle, illegal migration.”
One major policy of the AEC that could have surprisingly little impact on human trafficking is the freer movement of workers. The plans are expected to aid the movement of specific skilled occupations in particular, such as engineers, doctors and teachers. Those vulnerable to human trafficking are rarely employed in these areas.
According to Ismail Wolff, executive director of Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights, anti-human-trafficking efforts also fail to address the underlying social and economic factors that drive the trade. “Economics are indeed one of the drivers of human trafficking,” he said. “The blueprint for the AEC is one that appears to support big business and governments. Economic disparity is likely to increase, and that will lead to more victims being churned out, ready to be preyed upon by trafficking gangs.”
A recent joint report by the Asian Development Bank and the International Labour Organisation estimated that the AEC could boost the region’s economies by an average of 7.1% each and generate 14 million additional jobs by 2025. However, it also stated that unless managed properly “the AEC may instead add to existing labour market deficits and increase inequality”. Wolff was also sceptical of the ACTIP’s effectiveness. “Like many of the conventions that Asean has brought in over the years, it will have no impact unless it is backed up by some form of agreement on enforcement,” he said.
He added that the ACTIP risks being “neutered of any power” if it fails to act against the officials implicated in human trafficking networks, which is unlikely, as human trafficking is “still too lucrative for too many people”.
Last year, an investigation by Reuters uncovered evidence that Thai naval security forces had been part of a human trafficking network that smuggled Rohingya Muslims, who had fled Myanmar, from Thailand’s immigration detention centres to traffickers in the south of the country or Malaysia. Thus in June the US State Department’s annual human trafficking report downgraded Thailand and Malaysia to the lowest tier of its international scoring. The report criticised the two countries for corruption within law enforcement and a “wilful disregard” of regional legislation on human trafficking. It also stated that despite frequent reports of human trafficking by NGOs and the media, particularly in Thailand, the government demonstrated little interest in tackling the trade. Furthermore, the likelihood that the introduction of the AEC will positively affect human trafficking could be decreased by a “dysfunctional counter-human-trafficking structure”, according to Naparat Kranrattanasuit’s recently published book, Asean and Human Trafficking.
Along with the AEC will come the Asean Community, which will consist of the widely mooted ‘three pillars’: the AEC, the Asean Political-Security Community (APSC), and the Asean Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC). Under the plan, transnational crimes, such as human trafficking, will be part of APSC’s remit, while labour migration will be considered as part of the ASCC. “This creates a problem because if Asean is seriously committed to combating human trafficking, it must be considered in tandem with labour migration,” Kranrattanasuit wrote. “The problem arises from the fact that not only will the two issues be seen as separate matters, specialists in both fields will also be separated.”
Experts agree that there is no quick fix for Southeast Asia’s human-trafficking industry. While anti-human-trafficking efforts have become a top priority for regional governments over the past two decades, the results have been opaque. Some believe things are heading in the right direction. Others are more sceptical.
“I think we must admit that, across the board, Southeast Asia has failed to approach with any real conviction the myriad human rights problems that it has been facing over the past 20 to 30 years,” said Wolff. “A regional effort to end human trafficking is beyond our grasp for the time being.”
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