Thursday, June 17, 2010

Human Trafficking: Exposing ASEAN’s underbelly

By Marwaan Macan-Markar - IPS

Republished permission Inter Press Service (IPS )copyright Inter Press Service (IPS) and

Human Trafficking Exposes ASEAN’s Underbelly

BANGKOK, June 17, 2010 (IPS) - In the wake of a new U.S. government report on human trafficking, human rights and migrant rights activists are calling on a South-east Asian regional bloc to review its polices toward this scourge to protect the group’s most vulnerable citizens – its women and children.

Such an appeal to the 10 members of the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) stems from the way human trafficking is viewed by this bloc, currently racing ahead to create a rules-based community that would closely resemble the European Union.

ASEAN’s narrow definition of what constitutes human trafficking and how it should be combated was revealed last year. It came after all members of the 43-year-old bloc endorsed its new charter to be a "more rules-based, effective and people-centred organisation" to become an ASEAN Community by 2015.

ASEAN’s members include Brunei, Burma (or Myanmar), Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

To achieve this quest of regional unity, leaders of the 10 countries endorsed the creation of three pillars to build on: a political security community, an economic community and a social and cultural community.

In doing so, ASEAN placed human trafficking as a security challenge and labour migration as a social and cultural challenge.

"The separation of migration and trafficking into different areas reveals a lack of understanding about the problem," says Phil Robertson, deputy director at the Asia division for Human Rights Watch, a New York-based global rights lobby. "If ASEAN wants to get its act together on trafficking, it needs to deal with migration and trafficking together."

ASEAN is fortunate that the U.S. State Department’s annual trafficking in persons report, released on Jun. 14, does not rank regional blocs, Robertson remarks. "If they grade ASEAN as a region, they would have to give it a Tier 3 rating."

The U.S. government’s report, published for the past 10 years, has become a benchmark to assess the scourge of human trafficking and what governments across the world are doing to protect the victims, prosecute the abusers and prevent the spread of the traffickers’ network. The worst ranked countries earn a ‘Tier 3’ rating, while those with a success rate are listed as ‘Tier 1’ countries.

Washington’s ‘Trafficking in Persons Report 2010’ has been far from flattering for ASEAN, which is trying to reinvent itself from its original mission – as a bulwark against the spread of communism in the region – and appear more meaningful to its over 550 million citizens, some four million of whom have been forced to seek jobs in neighbouring countries. Nine ASEAN countries joined a global list of notoriety, where human trafficking is rampant. Military-ruled Burma was ranked among the worst offenders by this 10th annual report, a position shared with other countries like North Korea and Saudi Arabia, where little has been done to protect children, women and men from human trafficking networks.

Cambodian children forced to sell sweets and flowers on the streets of Thai cities, and Burmese women forced into prostitution in Malaysia are among the disturbing cases singled out in the report.

Singapore and Thailand, two of the strongest U.S. allies in the region, were placed on the ‘Tier 2 Watch List’, suggesting that they had regressed from last year. Other countries in the region ranked likewise for clear evidence of human trafficking were Laos, Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia, which had been in the worst tier last year.

Indonesia, the region’s giant, and Cambodia, one of the region’s poorest, were placed among the ‘Tier 2’ countries. "Indonesia is a major source country, and to lesser extent a destination and transit country for women, children and men who are subjected to trafficking in persons, specifically forced prostitution and forced labour," the report reveals.

Burma was described likewise. "Many men, women, and children who migrate abroad for work in Thailand, Malaysia, China, Bangladesh, India and South Korea are trafficked into conditions of forced or bonded labour or commercial sexual exploitation," the report notes.

The affluent city-state of Singapore, on the other hand, is a "destination country for women and girls subjected to trafficking in persons, specifically forced prostitution, and for some migrant workers in conditions that may be indicative of forced labour," the report adds.

Thailand and Cambodia share similar trends as a source, transit and destination country for victims of human trafficking. "The government of Thailand does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking," the report states while acknowledging that Bangkok was "making significant steps to do so."

The Singapore and Thai governments have fired back at Washington. "(The report) is rather puzzling because the U.S. has not satisfactorily explained how it arrived at its conclusions," the island’s foreign ministry spokesman said in a statement released to the media. "Let me say that the (report) is more a political ritual than an objective study."

Bangkok echoed similar sentiments. "Thailand doubts the credibility of the U.S. report because this came out despite our efforts to provide further updates," a Thai foreign ministry spokesman was quoted as saying in the local media on Thursday.

Such reactions confirm the wide gulf between how the U.S. government views human trafficking and how ASEAN countries do. "The U.S. government has a broad definition of what trafficking means, including sex trafficking, labour trafficking and forced labour," says Sinapan Samydorai, convenor of the Task Force on ASEAN Migrant Workers, a coalition of non-government organisations.

"ASEAN countries like Singapore see trafficking as only sex trafficking. Left out is the whole area of labour trafficking," he said during a telephone interview from the city-state. "ASEAN countries also place a greater burden on victims of intra-regional trafficking to prove they have been trafficked or face deportation. This is unfair on the victims."