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FOCUS March 2012 Volume Vol. 67

Human Trafficking in the Mekong Region: One Response to the Problem

Matthew Friedman

Human trafficking – essentially the recruitment, transport, receipt and harboring of people for the purpose of exploiting their labor – affects almost all parts of the world and is widely believed to be increasing in both scale and gravity. In the Asia-Pacific Region, the International Labour Organization (ILO) estimated that 9.49 million people were in forced labor (2005), with a significant proportion thought to be in the Greater Mekong Sub-Region (referred to as the Mekong Region from this point on), which includes Cambodia, China, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. Although trafficking has existed for centuries, the uneven effects of globalization have, in recent times, contributed to an environment in which trafficking has been able to flourish into a highly profitable and generally low-risk criminal business.
The Mekong Region compared to many other parts of the world contains very diverse patterns of human trafficking, e.g. internal and cross-border; highly organized and also small-scale; sex and labor, through both formal and informal recruitment mechanisms; and involving the victimization of men, women, boys, girls, and families. Thus, within the Mekong Region, there is not so much a single pattern of trafficking in persons as a range of different patterns, with various victim and criminal profiles. 

Human Trafficking Myths and Misconceptions

Over the years, human trafficking has become increasingly complex and sometimes confusing for many, including those who work to address the problem as well as those who fund the response. There are several important myths that have influenced our collective anti-trafficking responses in Southeast Asia but, thanks to recent empirical research, they have been shown to be incorrect – based on assumptions or outdated data. Some of the “busted” myths include:

• Myth: Trafficking is primarily caused by poverty and a lack of education.

 Reality: Being at risk of human trafficking is often not as simple as poverty or lack of education, in terms of what motivates people to migrate or look for opportunities to improve their lives. The common assumptions often do not fully apply in this region, or perhaps others. The real risk factors – inability to access or afford formal migration mechanisms, a desire to utilize education and skills but no local opportunities to do so, lack of citizenship, or inability to access emergency medical loans or quick money when family members fall ill – need to be examined and proven before any intervention is designed.

• Myth: Large, organized criminal networks drive the human trafficking problem in Southeast Asia.

 Reality: Throughout much of Southeast Asia, human trafficking criminal networks are loosely organized, with often difficult to trace linkages. While larger-scale organized trafficking rings certainly do exist in the Mekong Region, moving both sex and labor trafficking victims, the vast majority of networks that do exist are more typically small-scale, loosely connect ed, and opportunistic.

• Myth: Human trafficking relates mostly to women and girls being exploited within the sex industry.

 Reality: A significant portion of trafficking is for the purposes of labor exploitation, victimizing men, women, and children. Trafficking is not only for sexual exploitation. Forced labor and slavery-like practices exist within a number of labor settings including exploitative factories, domestic servitude, fisheries, construction and plantations. Despite this, some national laws in Southeast Asia still limit the definition of trafficking to women and children.

• Myth: If we could catch all of the ‘traffickers’ and put them in jail, the problem would go away.

 Reality: Focusing mostly on those who trick, deceive and transport a person into an exploitative situation will only solve a portion of the problem. To address the real demand related to human trafficking, the response has to include more of an emphasis on actual exploiters and enslavers – those who own and run the establishments that enslave trafficking victims, and who make the most profits from slave labor.

Lessons Learned

After years of anti-trafficking programming in the Mekong Region, some key lessons learned have emerged that have helped policy makers and practitioners to better understand the issue and what is required to address it. A summary of some of the key factors include:

  •  Much of the trafficking in the Mekong Region is for labor exploitation. Counter- trafficking efforts should address both labor and sexual exploitation, with the understanding that this exploitation makes victims of human beings, whether men, women, or children.
  •  Interventions should be empirically based and targeted at the most exploitative destinations and the most vulnerable communities and victim populations, rather than taking a comprehensive and holistic approach that may spread efforts and resources too thin.
  • Objective impact assessments are needed to ensure that interventions are targeted and having the intended positive impacts at addressing the problem.
  • Exploitation and enslavement should be our target, recognizing that the transportation in human trafficking is often a peripheral factor in Southeast Asia and sometimes not a factor at all. 
  • Law enforcement should be targeted at those perpetuating the trafficking crime and all related crimes, with sentences commensurate with the crimes.
  • Victim support should be tailored to the needs of the individual victim first and the needs of the criminal justice process (and any others) second.

UNIAP: One Response to the Problem

The United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP) was established in June 2000 to facilitate a stronger and more coordinated response to human trafficking in the Mekong Region. UNIAP is managed by a regional management office in Bangkok, with country project offices in the capitals of Cambodia, China, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. The seven UNIAP offices have a combined staff of approximately thirty-five. To date, UNIAP has had three phases:

• UNIAP Phase I (2000-2003): 

This phase concentrated on creating linkages between the different organizations involved in combating trafficking, using a broad and responsive mandate to address emerging issues, and supporting new small- scale pilot counter human trafficking initiatives.

• UNI AP Phase II (2003-2006): 

In this phase UNIAP facilitated the development of the COMMIT MOU – a regional Memorandum of Understanding to combat human trafficking between the six governments of the Mekong Region. The COMMIT process provides an overall multi-sectoral framework for counter trafficking work at the regional level. (COMMIT is described in detail in the section that follows.)

• UNI AP Phase III

(2007-2013): UNIAP’s current phase focuses on increasing its technical service provider role to the counter-trafficking sector, as well as facilitating the overall transition from policy development to anti-trafficking action on the ground. Key functions of UNIAP in Phase III can be summarized as:

○ Inter-agency strategic and operational coordination, at the regional and national levels;
○ Information sharing and analysis on trafficking patterns, trends, and programs;
○ High-quality training and technical assistance in various anti-trafficking interventions – to government agencies, United Nations (UN) partners, non-governmental organization (NGO) and community-based organization (CBO) partners; and
○ Support to the development and piloting of innovative responses to new and emerging issues.

UNIAP’s overall goal is to make a tangible and sustained impact on human trafficking in the Greater Mekong Sub-region through continued advancement of a more cohesive, strategic and incisive response. UNIAP’s modus operandi is to be service-oriented and responsive to identified gaps, needs, and development opportunities within the human trafficking sector. The four main objectives of UNIAP’s Phase III are oriented towards key constituencies:

  • Objective 1: Services to governments: To support governments in the institutionalization of effective multi-sectoral approaches to combat trafficking, primarily through support to the COMMIT Process in the role of Secretariat;
  • Objective 2: Services to UN partners: To maximize the UN’s contribution to the overall counter-trafficking response, including the COMMIT Process;
  • Objective 3: Services to the broader counter-trafficking sector, including donors: To facilitate optimal allocation and targeting of counter-trafficking resources, particularly through information and data collection, analysis, and dissemination; and
  • Objective 4: Services to the broader counter-trafficking sector, including donors: To play a catalytic role in the counter-trafficking response by identifying and supporting special projects to address new and emerging issues in human trafficking.

To achieve these objectives, UNIAP has six key initiatives that are managed in service to the anti-trafficking community in the Mekong Region. 

  1. Coordinated Mekong Ministerial Initiative Against Trafficking (COMMIT) Process: As Secretariat to the COMMIT Process, UNIAP provides on-going technical and financial assistance to this inter-governmental alliance. UNIAP also supports the monitoring and implementation of programs and activities under the COMMIT Sub-regional Plans of Action (COMMIT SPAs), working closely with UN and civil society partners to align additional technical and financial resources.
  2. Strategic Information Response Network (SIREN): The aim of SIREN is to produce high-quality, reliable research and case analyses to the anti-trafficking sector, through various formats, including events and special reporting (in all six Mekong languages plus English). UNIAP’s strategic surveillance and data collection systems are designed to inform, monitor, and increase the effectiveness and responsiveness of anti-trafficking interventions region-wide.
  3. Support to Under-served Victim Populations: Working closely with grassroots organizations through the provision of financial and technical support as well as cross-border networking, UNIAP mobilizes rapid and effective assistance for under-served victims of cross-border trafficking, for example, Cambodian men and boys trafficked onto Thai fishing boats.
  4. Worst Offenders Project: UNIAP and its partners (primarily police and select NGOs) identify and track some of the worst human trafficking offenders, exploiters, employers and brokers in the Mekong Region, to assist law enforcement with investigating trafficking cases, developing cases for successful prosecution in the courts, and securing compensation for victims. Support to government law enforcement links with COMMIT as well.
  5. Shelter Self-Improvement Project: With a host of government and non-government partners, UNIAP is providing targeted technical, financial, and networking assistance to build the capacity of shelter managers, counselors, and other personnel -- helping them strengthen service referral networks and improve the conditions of shelters and transit centers for victims of trafficking. Support to government social welfare ministries links with COMMIT as well.
  6. Ethics and Human Rights in Counter-Trafficking: In September 2008, UNIAP launched a Guide to Ethics and Human Rights in Counter-Trafficking and associated training package. Since then, ethics trainings have been provided to police, journalists, victims service providers, researchers, and programmers to help them integrate ethical practices into their day-to-day human trafficking research and programming.

The first three programs listed above – COMMIT, SIREN, and Support to Under-served Victim Populations, are UNIAP’s three main programs and constitute over 80% of UNIAP’s total program efforts. They support and feed into each other.
As an inter-agency project, UNI AP works with governments, UN, and civil society partners at all levels – regional, national and community. UNIAP has over two hundred fifty local and international partners across seven countries, including well-known international partners ILO, IOM, OHCHR, UNDP, UNESCAP, UNESCO, UNFPA, UNHCR, UNICEF, UNIFEM, and UNODC within the UN; and ARTIP, ECPAT, Oxfam International, Save the Children, SEARCH, and World Vision from the NGO sector. 

Collaboration in Action

For anti-human trafficking efforts to be truly effective, there has to be good communication and coordination among the partners. This ensures that the roles and responsibilities of government, UN and civil society partners are harmonized in a way that complements each other. As an example, over the past four years, there have been numerous cases of Cambodians jumping off of fishing boats that had slave-like conditions and ending up in Malaysia. The conditions on these boats as described by the victims have often been brutal, with extreme working and living conditions. Victims were forced to work up to nineteen hours a day, seven days a week. They ate nothing but fish and rice twice a day for years. If the victim got sick, injured or if he complained, reports have indicated that captains would sometimes throw the worker off the boat into the ocean. He was beaten if he did not work hard enough, or even if he did. Days went by with only a few hours of sleep. To keep the person working, drugs were often provided with strong stimulants that destroyed the victims' health.
When cases like this were reported, the counter-trafficking community in the Mekong Region regularly stepped into action. Cases would often be reported by a local Cambodian NGO, such as the Legal Support for Children and Women (LSCW), the Cambodian League for Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO) or the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC), who had received the request for assistance from family members, themselves having received a desperate plea for assistance from the victim who had got hold of a phone while stranded in Indonesia or Malaysia. Once there, the victims might have hidden away from the boat or still be in the harm environment. The NGO meanwhile would alert UNIAP and other partners such as IOM about the cases. They would then be working together, and with government partners, such as the Cambodian embassies in the destination countries, as well as victim service providers at the destination. The victims would be located and interviewed to determine their status as victims. Immediate support would be provided and the process of securing safe, voluntary repatriation home would be initiated by IOM and other civil society partners. IOM, UNIAP and civil society partners would work together to ensure that the person was able to return home with some resources and security. The NGO community then would help to provide job training, job referrals and/or micro loans to help these people get back on their feet.
When partnerships like this come together in unison, the outcome is that real people receive the support they need to move on with their lives. Further collaboration is conducted with law enforcement in the respective countries to follow up on the brokering networks and exploiters in the case, to determine what action can be undertaken with the evidence provided by the victim towards criminal justice.

Concluding Note

Collaboration is not a simple thing. It is not something that just happens by bringing people together. True collaboration is built upon a foundation of trust and a united sense of purpose. If one can develop feelings of accomplishment within a collaborative process, joint ownership of a problem often follows. With this ownership, we tend to take care of the process and remain committed to it. For this to happen, early and substantial involvement that is positive, supportive and encourages initiative makes all the difference. The process also needs to take place at all levels: between governments, UN and bilateral partners, NGOs and CBOs to develop a comprehensive, sustained response that caters to the needs of the entire sector. When true collaboration is in place 1+1=11, not 2. 

Mr. Matthew Friedman is the Regional Project Manager of the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP).

For further information, please contact: Matthew Friedman, UNIAP Regional Management Office, United Nations Building 12th Floor, Rajdamnern Nok Ave., Bangkok 10200; ph (662) 304 9100; fax (662) 280-0268; e-mail: matt.friedman@one.un.org; www.no-trafficking.org.


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