IPCS Debate

Human Trafficking in Southeast Asia: A Crime Against Humanity

17 Jul, 2013    ·   4041

Aparupa Bhattacherjee assesses the “Trafficking in Person 2013” Report from a Southeast Asian perspective

Aparupa Bhattacherjee
Aparupa Bhattacherjee
Research Officer

The US State Department’s Report, “Trafficking in Person 2013” elaborates the form of human trafficking in different countries around the world. According to the Report, trafficking involves both men and women, who are either forced into sexual exploitation or bonded labour. Although the Report did not specify this, it also includes the causes of those migrant labours who travel to another country in the hope of better livelihoods, but are tricked into similar trafficked conditions.

Trafficking in Southeast Asia
All countries are differentiated on the basis of being a source, destination, or a transit country, depending on the economic prosperity of that country. Among the Southeast Asian countries, Brunei, Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand are mostly the destination countries due to a growth in industrialisation, which creates demand for labour in these countries. The source countries are Laos, Cambodia, and Philippines. Generally, the source countries are those countries that lack industrialisation, job opportunities, and rampant illiteracy pushing citizens to choose semi or unskilled work. Vietnam and Indonesia are both a source and destination of trafficking. This region includes both internal trafficking and external trafficking to different countries around the globe. There are several groups which operate as traffickers and they lure people with the hope of better living conditions. However, in the destination countries, they are forced into sexual exploitation, bonded slavery, domestic help, or factory workers. These groups operates in chains, they might also involve a person from the locality of the victim. In some cases, these victims are married and then taken to the destination countries in order to sell them either as slaves or prostitutes. This is very common in some of the Southeast Asian countries like Laos and Philippines.

Pertinent Issues in the Region
Interestingly, there is a similar pattern of problems in most of the Southeast Asian countries when it comes to the success of the anti-trafficking measures. In most Southeast Asian countries, although several initiatives have been taken in order to identify victims, the involvement of government officials in such rackets makes it difficult to get hold of trafficking groups. Often, these groups are huge syndicates backed by strong political people. Moreover, the epidemic of corruption in these countries most of the time does not allow cases to be reported. Although legal migrants do face similar problems, the condition of illegal migrants remains more vulnerable. Even if they approach the authorities, they will be treated as convicts rather than victims. The porous borders of the region help trafficking, especially between Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Migrant workers can cross borders without any hindrance. The role of the prosecution unit in any country is very important. However in most of the Southeast Asian countries, even if the legal procedure is initiated, it takes so long that in majority of the cases, either there is an out of court settlement or the culprits are freed within some years.

In countries like Myanmar, Philippines, and southern Thailand, internal conflict makes the situation worse. In Myanmar, as the Report states, some victims who were deported from Thailand into the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) controlled areas of Myanmar continued to be extorted and re-trafficked by DKBA elements, in collusion with Thai officials. Since authorities refuse to recognise certain ethnic groups like the Rohingya as citizens, it makes them vulnerable to victimisation. Another pertinent issue is that trafficking also involves children who are either forced to join as child soldiers in different anti-state groups and begging, or are subjected to exploitation. Many Southeast Asian countries attract paedophiles across the world; in certain cases, if caught, they are deported back to their countries without further prosecution. Moreover, social network is increasingly used by traffickers to attract victims with sugar-coated offers of jobs, or to advertise them as a product in the market.

Although most of the Southeast Asian governments have taken certain pertinent steps to combat trafficking, like passing of laws, creation of shelters for the victims and so on, there are certain hurdles that the governments still need to overcome. Most of the governments do not have sufficient funds to help these victims, in case they have proper shelters and facilities, they are only limited to women and children, whereas one third of the victims are males in this region. Moreover, significant changes have to be initiated with regards to the approach towards the victims. As highlighted by the Report, the victims should not be immediately seen as violators of the law and put into jail for being illegal immigrants. This will enable victims to approach the authorities. Severe penalties should be awarded to traffickers.

The state should play a significant role in stopping such crimes with strict legislations, penalties, and identifying the victims and criminals. In fact, the state is the one that can help victims revive from their horrific memories and join the mainstream as respectable human beings.