The Battle Against Trafficking in Persons: Is ASEAN Heading in the Right Direction?

Written by Firstya Dizka Arrum Ramadhanty, International Relations Undergraduate Student, Faculty of Social and Political Sciences, Universitas Gadjah Mada


In the last two decades, ASEAN’s battle on acknowledging the increasing trend of transnational crimes and human rights and security matter has been interesting to look at. Progress have been considerable. In 2004, there was the first ASEAN Declaration Against Human Trafficking in Persons Particularly Women and Children. The blueprint for ASEAN Political-Security Community (APSC) 2015 also resulted in the creation of ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) and a set of actions planned to combat transnational crimes, including trafficking in persons (TIP). In November 2015, the 2004 declaration was updated with the ASEAN Convention Against Human Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (ACTIP) and the creation of Bohol TOP Work Plan 2017-2020.

There are, however, three things in ASEAN’s journey in combating TIP that are problematics:the dilemma of border-control as a solution to TIP and people-smuggling, the consequence of ASEAN’s focus on women and children in the discourse of TIP, and most importantly, how labour migration, one of the key components of ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), is still separated from the discussion of TIP.

Trafficking-in-Persons and People-Smuggling: The border-control dilemma

From the blueprint of APSC 2025 to the annual new set of visions and agreement in April 2018, “trafficking in persons” is considered as a transnational crime along with drug trafficking and “smuggling of people”. TIP is defined by ASEAN as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion […] to achieve the consent of a person…for the purpose of exploitation”. There has yet to be an official definition by ASEAN on people-smuggling, but the term has been used many times in the UN that inferred the difference between the two lies in consent and the existence of exploitation.

Nevertheless, people-smuggling can quickly turn into TIP.  Migrants who ‘consent’ to the risk and the journey of being illegally smuggled to another country might still end up being exploited, coerced, and trafficked. In 2015, migrants who tried to leave south Thailand to the border of Malaysia by paying smugglers were held as captives for ransom and abused in camps instead, many ended up being enslaved or become a forced-labor in Thailand’s fishing companies. The similar case also happened to the Rohingya thathad no choice but to pay smugglersin 2016 to reach Malaysia and Indonesia, only to be abused and exploited.ASEAN too had recognizedthis in 2012 that there is a close connection between TIP and smuggling of migrants.

Yet, ASEAN’s plan to prevent both issue is to tighten border control, migration policies, and other issuance of papers – which can easily backfired. While focusing on border patrol and coast watch can help spot the movement of the traffickers, such tight policies could encourage people-smuggling, since the change in policies have no automatic impact in the pushingfactors of migration. Inevitable reasons why people migrate, such as economic condition, war, and natural disaster make preconditions for legal migration impossible to access. This will make them seek for smugglers, which in its vicious cycle, will also increase the possibility of TIP. And as history tells, as long demand exists, the market sustains. In UNODC’s “Global Study of Migrants” 2018, the same concern was also expressed, saying that such policies would only shifts the transport routes and provide more opportunities for smugglers.

The Narration of Gendered Human-Trafficking: The Good and the Bad

Just like the U.N, ACTIP put a highlight on “women and children” – which reasons should not be questioned. Dana Raigrodski, in her 2015 article ‘Economic Migration Gone Wrong’ stated that women constitutes those who illegally migrate for survival due to economic struggles and gender-based repression, hence became the majority of those who are being exposed to larger risks, exploited, and trafficked. This narrative of gendered-human trafficking, however, can also have a major downside.

Having women and children as the primary focus would downplay TIP, an obvious humanitarian issue, to be a human-rights issue and a gender-issue only. This makes many sides of the issue go unnoticed. ASEAN has indeed show progress in recognizing the combination of factors as the cause of TIP, including “government corruption, poverty, economic instability…and the demand…that lead to trafficking”. However, the many-situations that makes trafficking becomes possible – from flawed migration policy, people’s perceptions and understanding, to market singularity which ASEAN is actively supporting – tends to be neglected.

The “women and children” discourse and the vulnerable sense that came with it, had, first, led ASEAN to be very victim-oriented. This reflects in how ACTIP has one full chapter that consists of six articles about criminalization, one chapter on “protection” and victim protection with two articles that has 21 points in total, and only three articles are focusing on prevention. In fact, out of thirty-one articles, only one highlights preventive measures. Second of all, it narrows people’s perceptions of TIP restricted to the market of sexual exploitation of women and children and that the traffickers are only men, which in ASEAN’s territory and history of cases, there might be a mistarget.

In the 2014 Global Trafficking In Persons Report, UNODC mentioned that between 2010-2012, trafficking for sexual exploitation Asia takes about 26% of total cases. This is a smaller number compared to forced labour, servitude, and slavery-alike that comprised about 64% of forms of exploitation detected in trafficking victims. Obviously, each country varies. In Cambodia, out of 189 repatriated victims, only 17 are under the categories of ‘sexual exploitation’ and ‘others’, the rest of the 91% are forced-labour in different sectors of work. The proportions were not much different in Thailand and Singapore. In Indonesia, however, sexual exploitation and forced labour are in the exact same proportions. From 2012 to 2015, out of 195 victims, 96 are trafficked for sexual exploitation, and 96 are for forced labour.What can be concluded from the mentioned statistics is that, in a larger part of Southeast Asia, TIP for the cause of work-exploitation might outweigh sexual exploitation.

Human-Trafficking and Labour Migration should be an integrated matter

In April 2018, the ASEAN member-states leader once again sat in the same table to create a new set of visions. Amongst the statement, there are four collective agreements that will be highlighted, which are Point 1, 10, and 35. In Point 1, the ASEAN leaders agree about the commencement of ASEAN Extradition Treaty to strengthen ASEAN’s capacity and resilience to combat transnational crimes. Under “Non-Traditional Threats” in Point 10, the leaders agree to put Border Management as one of its focus. Finally, under “People and Institutions” in Point 35, migrant workers are mentioned.

The gap between each point are not far without a reason: the issue of TIP and labour migrants are seen as categorically different, handled by different bodies, and are under different ASEAN pillars. TIP, people-smuggling, and other transnational crimes are under the APSC, while labour migrants and their protection is under the ASSC. It is clear by now that both issues are seen from separate approach, while it should not be the case. The more people depart, the more exposed they are to risk. More people migrating can also reduce the cost of the traffickers. With the AEC 2025 Vision, it is safe to say that ASEAN encourage the regional labour flows and therefore, migration.

ASEAN has indeed stated its concern on the relation of labour migration and TIP. In the Bohol TIP Working Plan, for example, there is a section on how to adopt labour laws to reduce the risk of trafficking. ASEAN’s awareness of it can also be seen on how ACMW invited representatives from related-bodies such as the mentioned AICHR and ACWC in a one-time workshop regarding the border controls to prevent irregular migration and trafficking in 2016.

There has yet, however, to be a regular forum amongst those bodies that address labour migration and TIP as an integrated-issue despite the similarities in agenda. Having more than one body dealing with different dimension of the issue would be useful for the variation of information, research, and possible solution of their own respective focus. Yet, different bodies mean different structural matters, and it complicates the aim to reduce TIP itself. For instance, AICHR is allowed to exchange information and interact with intra-ASSC bodies, APSC, and AEC; while ACWC can only interact with its fellow ASSC bodies – as stated by Kranrattanasuit in ‘ASEAN and Human Trafficking’.

Having a regular forum would help these bodies to effectively work together, otherwise, the vision of a single market and regional integration will be at the cost of the increase in transnational crime.  

Towards a Resilient ASEAN: Ways Forward

Driven from the arguments above, it can be concluded that despite ASEAN’s noteworthy progress towards addressing the growing issue of transnational crime, especially trafficking in persons, there are some things that ASEAN yet to anticipate. The decision to tighten border control in response of TIP and people-smuggling must be reconsidered, as the result could be very different from the desired. ASEAN’s highlight on women and children as well as its victims-oriented procedures in TIP must also not narrow TIP’s problem scope and underplays the need of preventive measures. At last, in the light of the 2025 AEC vision, ASEAN must provide a regular forum that accommodate all bodies with the concern of TIP.

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