Tens of thousands of people are vulnerable to being trafficked in Southeast Asia, with governments struggling to understand and respond collectively to the problem, say experts and government officials.
A 2012 UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report on human trafficking recorded more than 10,000 cases of trafficking in persons in South Asia, East Asia and the Pacific between 2007-2010, but it is unclear what the situation is today.
“Nobody has been able to convincingly demonstrate the scale of the problem, let alone come up with clear ways of how to address it,” Sverre Molland, a lecturer at the Australian National University in Canberra who specialises in human trafficking, told IRIN.
“After all these years, we are still debating what trafficking actually is,” he said, noting efforts to combat it were suffering from donor fatigue because of a lack of tangible results.
The 2000 UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons defines human trafficking as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons by means of coercion, abduction, fraud or deception, for the purpose of exploitation.” Child trafficking is defined as the “recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of a child for the purpose of exploitation.”
In 2011, 16-year-old Evi* left her remote village in Indonesia’s Banten Province in the hope of making more money to help her family.
“My auntie introduced me to a broker who forged my travel documents so I could work,” she said. “The broker then took me to a recruitment agency in Jakarta. I just wanted to earn more money. I thought God would protect me.”
The agency arranged for Evi’s travel to Jordan and placement as a domestic worker in Amman, but she soon found she was being exploited by her employer.
“I was allowed to sleep for about two hours a day, sometimes less,” said Evi. “I had to take care of four children and clean the house. The mother and auntie of the children often beat me with sandals or punched me for no reason, and sometimes my nose bled.”
In 2012, having endured physical abuse for over a year, her employer began to withhold her pay, and Evi attempted suicide by drinking a glass of kerosene.
“My employer found me unconscious and allowed me to rest, but the next day, they made me work again,” she said.
Later, Evi ran away from her employer and roamed the streets of Amman looking for work until a local shopkeeper took her to a police station. Jordanian police then took her to the Indonesian Embassy, which arranged for her repatriation to a shelter for trafficked children in Jakarta, where she is recovering.
Cooperation between the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to tackle human trafficking has resulted in high-level initiatives and memorandums of understanding (MoUs).
“The MoUs should facilitate the exchanging of information and evidence between governments,” said Sean Looney, operations, monitoring and evaluation manager at SISHA, an anti-trafficking and exploitation NGO in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
“But in practice this does not happen at all. In a lot of human trafficking cases there’s no resolution because there’s no cooperation, despite the fact that agreements are in place.”
According to Looney, cooperation was also hindered by a lack of trust between Cambodia and Thailand, and Cambodia and Vietnam, due in part to past conflicts.
Martin Reeve, a UNODC regional adviser on trafficking in Bangkok, said law enforcement agencies across the region were still developing.
“Securing a human trafficking conviction is at the best of times a difficult process,” he said. “Intelligence-led policing is immature or non-existent, so the offenders arrested are less likely to be those organising the trafficking, and police-to-police cooperation remains weak.”
All ASEAN governments are part of the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime, a non-binding, voluntary forum co-chaired by the governments of Indonesia and Australia, which began in 2002.
Febrian Ruddyard, director of international security and disarmament at the Indonesian Foreign Ministry, said the Process had only recently begun to address trafficking in persons because not all countries had strong national legislation in place.
To date, all ASEAN governments have passed anti-trafficking legislation with the exception of Laos and Singapore.
Indonesia and Australia have faced challenges in encouraging members of the Bali Process to take practical action to address human trafficking, Ruddyard said.
“Many member countries are interested in the Process but attracting funding from them [for projects] is difficult, not only because the issue is still a low priority in some countries but also because the process is non-binding,” he said.
Ruddyard cited last year’s creation of a regional support office in Bangkok to implement practical arrangements to combat trafficking, and a plan to use the Jakarta Centre for Law Enforcement Cooperation in Indonesia to train law enforcers across the region to better deal with human trafficking cases, as achievements of the Process.
International Organisation of Migration (IOM) Indonesia chief of mission Denis Nihill said the changing nature of human trafficking made it more difficult to tackle.
“There’s been a lot of work done on the Greater Mekong Region for many years on trafficking, but it’s become more complex, as it’s now inextricably woven with labour migration, which is a much more difficult nut to crack because it is less easy to detect than trafficking linked to the sex industry.”
Nihill also pointed to the difficulties of tackling internal trafficking, which IOM’s 2011 counter trafficking report highlighted as particularly problematic in Indonesia.
“For cross border trafficking, people must pass through the hands of several government agencies, but internally trafficked people need not come to the attention of any officials, so in many ways it’s a more alarming situation,” he said.
The US Department of the State’s 2012 Trafficking in Persons Report categorises most ASEAN countries as Tier 2, meaning they do not fully comply with minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, but are making significant efforts to do so.