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Human Trafficking: Implementation from the perspective of three Southeast Asian countries
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Human trafficking is a global challenge that transcends the borders of each country. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) (2014) commented that — based on data from 2010 to 2012 — trafficking victims from 152 countries were identified in 124 countries. However, this is not a modern phenomenon; it has existed since ancient times, where, according to Watson (2011, as cited in Newman, 2013), records indicated that human beings were traded 5,000 years ago. The ancient Hammurabi code also recognized slavery (Newman, 2013). Since then, in every major civilization, slavery and exploitation of labor have continued to flourish.

The ancient problem has been given a boost in modern times. As a result of globalization, population growth, unequal income distribution and technological advances, the scale of the problem has been accelerated. This phenomenon has come together to impact the way that labor is divided, and more generally, developed nations have moved into service-based economies, whereas developing countries have concentrated on the production of goods. Within developed nations, the primary labor force is comprised of educated workers, whilst the secondary labor force consists of low - wage workers that are faced with greater instability. The trend in developing countries indicates a movement from rural areas to cities, as well as a movement to developed nations, particularly as a secondary labor force (Cottingham, Nowak, Snyder, & Swauger, 2013). Population growth and the lack of, or unequal, development in developing countries accelerates this trend further.  In this environment, workers are most likely to be exploited in an informal economy, characterized by undocumented, untaxed and unorganized workers, working in homes, factories and other illegal places such as brothels. This will likely affect domestic workers who have limited education and skills, as well as migrants (Cottingham et al., 2013).

Nations of the world have come together to endorse the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children, Supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime in 2000 (also known as Palermo Protocol). To date, there are 117 signatories and 169 parties to it (United Nations Treaty Collection). Nevertheless, despite the general acceptance that human trafficking is a global concern at the national level, many nations have not implemented adequate measures to combat this problem. This paper will consider human trafficking from two perspectives ­— that of selected Southeast Asian countries and their efforts in combatting the issue, and that of the broader and more holistic approach, in tackling the issue in tandem with corruption, labor rights, and human security and development.

Background of trafficking in persons

The measures under the Palermo Protocol

The Palermo Protocol has set the foundation, amongst others, in defining trafficking in persons to mean:

recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception… for the purpose of exploitation, [which] include… prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labor or services, slavery…  servitude or the removal of organs. 

It defines this crime as transnational in nature, as well as involving organized criminal groups and requires states to adopt legislative measures to establish criminal offences. Further, it also sets forth provisions to protect victims including rendering assistance and protection, allowing victims to stay in the country under humanitarian and compassionate considerations, and repatriation of victims to their home states. Finally, it outlines preventive measures and policies, promotes information exchange and training, and establishes border controls.

United States’ Trafficking in Persons report

The United States has put in place the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA) and has been compiling its Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report since 2001. These reports have served to name and shame states to take stronger measures against human trafficking. The United States places each country in one of four tiers, as required by the TVPA, based on its efforts in combatting trafficking. Tier 1 is the highest ranking where the minimum standards of the TVPA are met. Tier 2 places countries that do not meet the minimum standards but are making significant efforts to bring them in compliance. There is also a Tier 2 watch list, a sub-category of nations where the absolute number of victims is significant or is increasing. Nations are put on this list because there was failure to provide evidence of increasing efforts taken or of future steps to be taken. Tier 3 countries do not meet the minimum standards, nor are they making significant efforts to be in compliance. Additional rules have been introduced in 2013 where countries in the Tier 2 watch list are automatically upgraded to Tier 2, or downgraded to Tier 3 after being on the watch list for 2 years. There are implications for being on Tier 3, such as restrictions on non-humanitarian assistance and funding (Whiteman, 2015). As such, countries in Tier 3 with poor anti-trafficking measures are presented with incentives to address their shortcomings.

In the 2015 U.S. TIP report, 31 countries are ranked as Tier 1, 89 countries are in Tier 2, 44 countries are on the Tier 2 watch list, and 23 nations are considered Tier 3. In the Southeast Asian region, Brunei, Indonesia, Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam are on Tier 2; Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Malaysia are on Tier 2 watch list; whilst Thailand is categorized under Tier 3 (United States: Department of State [US], 2015). There are some changes in 2016 as follows: 36 Tier 1 countries, 78 Tier 2 countries, 44 countries are on Tier 2 watch list, and 27 Tier 3 countries. In the region, three were upgraded: Thailand to Tier 2 watch list, Cambodia to Tier 2 and the Philippines to Tier 1, whilst Myanmar was downgraded to Tier 3 (US, 2016).  What this means, is that progress was made in 2016, however globally, only 20 percent of the countries have minimum measures in place to address trafficking, and in Southeast Asia, only the Philippines has met this criteria.

Case study of three Southeast Asian countries: Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia

This section will consider three Southeast Asian countries’ implementation of the Palermo Protocol based on their role roles as countries of origin and/or countries of destination, and their respective responses on three aspects: prosecution efforts, protection of victims and preventive measures.

Background on Southeast Asia’s efforts in anti-trafficking measures

The Palermo Protocol and the TIP reports have made a tremendous difference to anti-trafficking measures in Southeast Asia.  Before 1998, according to David (2009, as cited in Ford et al., 2012), there were only a handful of anti-trafficking projects in the region, and only Thailand and Cambodia had laws against trafficking in women and children and for sexual exploitation, respectively (UNODC, 2009).  However, to date, all 10 Southeast Asian states have passed legislations to implement anti-trafficking measures. In November 2015, the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) signed the ASEAN Convention against Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (ACTIP).  To date, two ASEAN countries have ratified ACTIP, and 30 days after the ratification of the sixth member, it will take effect (ASEAN, 2016).

The region generally faces a high degree of migration, especially intra-regionally since the 1980s as a result of rapid economic growth in some countries. As a result, countries such as Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand are generally destination countries for migrants from Myanmar, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, the Philippines and Vietnam. Malaysia and Thailand are involved in sending and receiving migrants (Larsen, 2010). Thailand is a major destination for labor migrants from the greater Mekong area — Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam — and also those from Myanmar (Naparat, 2014). In this regard, this paper will concentrate on three countries: firstly, Thailand as both a destination country for forced labor and prostitution, and a source country for other regions; secondly, the response of Cambodia as a source country principally to Thailand; and thirdly, Indonesia, which is an important source country for forced labor across the border with Malaysia.

Legal framework

The basic foundation is the legal framework and each of the three countries has implemented the requisite laws. The anti-trafficking law in Thailand has been amended, from the focus on women and children in the 1990s, to provide protection to all victims, as required under the Palermo Protocol (Saito, 2011; Naparat, 2014). Likewise, anti-trafficking laws of Cambodia and Indonesia also prohibit all forms of trafficking (US, 2015).  However, to effectively evaluate the implementation of these laws, the following areas: prosecution efforts, protection of victims and preventive measures, will be considered.  

Prosecution efforts

Despite the existence of training programmers for police and public officials, all three countries found difficulty in their implementation. Cambodian and Indonesian authorities lacked knowledge in anti-trafficking laws and either used other laws or declined in handling these types of cases. Furthermore, as anti-trafficking cases occur across borders, ineffective coordination amongst the relevant authorities prevents successful convictions (US, 2015). Having said that, the major challenge appears to be the endemic corruption in Southeast Asia, which also exists in each of the three countries (Eilenberg, 2012; Naparat, 2014; US, 2015). It is noteworthy that ASEAN has recognised this problem, and the act of corruption has been criminalized in ACTIP.  In the latest TIP report, whilst Thailand and Cambodia have reported an increase in the number of prosecutions, corruption continues to hinder their progress (US, 2016).

Protection of victims

In the area of protection of victims, the following examples are provided. Under Thai anti-trafficking laws, victims are assured of privacy, the right to remain, provision of health care and housing, and the right to claim compensation from offenders (Naparat, 2014). Indonesia also provides the victims with trauma services and shelters, and the ability to obtain compensation (US, 2015). However, Cambodian anti-trafficking laws, which do not provide confidentiality in legal proceedings, victim protection such as physical protection, housing, counseling, medical attention, non-prosecution of victims, or the right to remain temporarily or permanently (Naparat, 2014), should be addressed.

Despite the efforts above, the main weakness is identifying trafficking victims. Thailand and Cambodia, in particular, have overly emphasized protection of sexual exploitation to the detriment of other forms of trafficking such as forced labor. In Cambodia, for example, it has been noted that the focus is skewed towards prostitution — that all who are engaged in sex work, whether they were coerced or otherwise, were considered as trafficked, whilst others who were actually at risk were not identified as trafficked persons (Sandy, 2012). Hence, its efforts concentrated on repatriating Vietnamese sex victims, providing them with housing and treatment, and setting up a transit center in Poipet for repatriated Cambodian victims (Naparat, 2014). 

In contrast, both Thai and Cambodian authorities have failed to make similar efforts to identify trafficked labor victims. Though Thailand has improved its interviewing processes and there is an increased vigilance in screening fishing boats for forced labor victims, many undocumented migrants have been deported (US, 2016). There were also insufficient shelters provided for men. Likewise, Cambodia has also not created measures to prosecute labor traffickers and protect Cambodian men working in Thailand.  Indeed, the International Organisation for Migration (2011, as cited in Naparat, 2014) highlighted the plight of hundreds of Cambodian and Burmese men who escaped from the fishing industry. These men were not identified as victims and were arbitrarily deported. Insufficient identification of victims by ill-trained officials from Cambodia and Thailand has resulted in a lack of prosecution for labor trafficking (Naparat, 2014).

Indonesia faces trafficking in persons primarily for domestic work abroad.  Other categories include: work on construction sites and plantations, prostitution and contract marriages, baby selling, and begging rings (Ford & Lyons, 2012; Eilenberg, 2012). In the hot spot border areas in Kalimantan and in Riau islands, many international agencies work with local NGOs on counter-trafficking activities.  However, the lack of understanding and cooperation between these actors or with government officials means that there is difficulty in differentiating between trafficked victims with illegal migrants (Eilenberg, 2012). In the Kalimantan area, with traditional illegal cross-border movements, it becomes even more difficult to identify trafficked victims (Eilenberg, 2012).

It is imperative that proper processes are put in place to identify trafficked labor victims.  Otherwise, the victims would continue to be exploited especially in the informal economy, and the appropriate relief would not be provided to them.  Further, it is difficult for policymakers and authorities to measure the effectiveness of their existing measures or to implement new ones, as the extent of the problem is unknown.   

Preventive measures

These three countries have implemented awareness sessions, border controls, and other initiatives to improve labor conditions. For example, in Thailand, multiple public awareness campaigns were conducted through different media on the dangers of human trafficking. There was criticism that this was only aimed at the Thai population and did not inform the foreign migrants living in Thailand. Similarly, Cambodia also had public awareness initiatives, but these were aimed at foreign tourists against commercial sex acts and, failed to address the locals who engage in such acts. In addition, all three held anti-trafficking training for its personnel, law enforcement, officials, diplomats, as well as military or peacekeeping forces (US, 2015).

In border areas, such as between Indonesia-Malaysia, and also between Thailand, with its neighboring countries, increased measures have been taken by the authorities to prohibit illegal crossing by traffickers and their vulnerable populations (Eilenberg, 2012; US, 2016).

Thailand has taken some noteworthy action in addressing trafficking of labor such as registering work permits and regularizing the status of foreign nationals in Thailand, providing citizenship to its hill tribe communities, addressing the labor conditions in the fishing industry and registering fishing boats (US, 2015). These efforts will be important in addressing exploitative practices against migrant workers. In addition, the Thai authorities have established a hotline for complainants. However, there are no interpreters provided for non-Thai speakers; hence, foreign victims would have limited recourse for redress at the moment (Naparat, 2014).

Indonesia has also taken proactive steps to protect its workers and has issued a moratorium on permits for Indonesians to work in foreign countries. In addition, Indonesia provides a hot line number for its overseas workers to complain (US, 2015). This is a start to addressing the issues faced by Indonesia, particularly in the area of labor trafficking. If Indonesia combines these efforts with strict enforcement of unscrupulous agents or recruiters — and it isn’t clear from the TIP report 2015 whether this was carried out — it would go some way in addressing these issues.

In comparison, the actions taken by Cambodia to protect the rights of its migrant workers abroad have been limited.  There were efforts to mobilize its foreign missions in this area, however, with funding issues and a lack of representation in areas where its migrants are, limits the efficacy of this proposal (US, 2016).  In that regard, Cambodia can consider some of the measures taken by Indonesia mentioned above.

Reconsidering human trafficking holistically: corruption, labor rights, and human security and development 

It goes without saying that anti-trafficking measures in the three countries and in Southeast Asia, as a whole, would be far worse or negligible, but for the pressure from the international community on implementing the Palermo Protocol and the TIP reports. As a starting point, all ASEAN countries have anti-trafficking laws in place, and as a region, they have also signed (though not ratified) the ACTIP. However, as shown, the implementation of the three countries leaves a lot of room for improvement, whether in prosecuting perpetrators, protecting victims or effecting preventive measures. And whilst this is the case, addressing the issue through anti-trafficking laws is only a partial solution, and three other inter-related areas must be considered in tandem.

The first area is corruption and good governance. In circumstances where officials are complicit in the trafficking activities, whether at the border, with the recruiters or the traffickers, it is impossible to root out the crime. There must be political will to tackle corruption and to implement the measures proposed in ACTIP.

The second area is inter-related with labor rights. Based on the examples in these three countries, trafficking in labor appears to be the most problematic, as there is either a lack of focus by the authorities, or difficulty in identifying the victims. Even if the victims were identified, the only recourse open to migrant workers would be repatriation to their home countries, where there is no economic opportunity for them, and which was the principal reason they left in the first place. Anti-trafficking laws may not provide satisfactory outcomes for the following categories: those who desire better working conditions or wages, those who want their status to be regularized, or those who wish to find new employment in the destination country (Ford et al., 2012). Anti-trafficking laws consider the problem through the lenses of crime and law enforcement.  Perhaps the issue should be reframed in another perspective, from the right of the migrant worker. In this regard, the efforts considered by the Thai and Indonesian authorities in addressing labor conditions should be considered in tandem and intensified along with addressing the shortcomings in anti-trafficking initiatives. This is considered appropriate, as labor migration intra-regionally is high.

The third area has to do with the lack of development in the home countries. The fact that certain countries within the region are poorer or have less economic development opportunities means that these people, generally with less education, are more vulnerable to exploitation. In order to effectively address human trafficking, there is a need to reframe it from the perspective of human security and development.  It has been said that, areas where there is a significant increase in population — meaning where there are lots of young people and children — have the greatest propensity for human trafficking. And unfortunately, it is most likely that those areas are in developing countries, where half of the world’s population, approximately three billion, lives on less than USD2 per day (Turek, 2013). These dire situations compel some to move to find a better life for themselves, or force others to either trade themselves or their women or children away.

Whilst this paper focuses primarily on human trafficking efforts, there needs to be recognition that human trafficking is a result or symptom of other global issues. Therefore, with the understanding that this is a complex issue, efforts should not be expended only in the area of law enforcement and border controls, or even in the area of repatriation or in protection of victims. At the international level, collaboration between criminal justice departments and other international agencies dealing with labor laws and with developmental issues should be forged. At the national level, these issues should also be dealt with the relevant different ministries.


Since 2000, with the Palermo Protocol, there have been more concerted efforts globally to tackle human trafficking. In Southeast Asia, its leaders have also signed the ACTIP in 2015. However, regardless of the regulatory framework, it is the implementation of anti-trafficking laws that matters. In this region, apart from sexual victims, an increasing number of forced laborers are also trafficked, though the extent could be understated due to the lack of identification. The three case studies also show that corruption is a stumbling block, and that greater attention needs to be placed on protecting the victims and on preventive measures. Nevertheless, the issue of human trafficking is broader than merely law enforcement or strengthening border controls, as it involves other inter-related areas such as corruption and good governance, labor rights, and human security and developmental issues. In that respect, in order to address human trafficking holistically, there ought to be a consideration of these various issues, and collaboration needs to be forged at the international, regional and national levels.

Karen Woo, B.Com., LL.B, PgDip and LL.M, is currently pursuing MA International Relations with Staffordshire University, UK on a part-time basis. She is working in Malaysia with the telecommunications regulator on ways to promote competition.  Previously, she worked on systems integration and subsequently, she was a consultant with KPMG. Her areas of interests include international issues relating to international relations, Internet governance, Intellectual Property and multilateral trade. 



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Wed, November 02, 2016 07:46 PM (about 54782 hours ago)
EXcellent research and analysis of the problem
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