Prevention, Protection and Prosecution: Current Challenges in Human Trafficking

On the 16th of February the Heinrich Böll Foundation Cambodia hosted a workshop on the challenges in human trafficking at the Metahouse in Phnom Penh. Human trafficking is a worldwide phenomenon that is especially prevalent in Southeast Asia. According to the ILO (2012), around 11.7 million forced laborers are in the Asia-Pacific region, many of whom have been trafficked. Men, women and children migrating in search of employment abroad are especially vulnerable to ending up in situations of forced labor and exploitation. There is, however, no single narrative to describe their experiences, as deceit and exploitation can occur before, during or after the process of migration. Due to complex definitional issues and the underground nature of the crime, no universally accepted estimates of the number of trafficked persons exist. 

Because of the interconnected and oftentimes cross-border nature of the issue, trafficking requires international cooperation. Sending states cannot prosecute offenders and aid their nationals, when the receiving state refuses to cooperate. Global as well as regional efforts must therefore supplement national and local efforts to prevent trafficking. The workshop was therefore split into two panels: the first focused on the challenges in combatting trafficking in Cambodia, the second looked at international efforts to counter trafficking. Ms. Barbara Lochbihler, Member of the European Parliament chaired the session. In her opening remarks she emphasized the gravity of treating people as commodities on the market.

The first panelist was Saneath Meas from CARAM. He highlighted the many challenges in assisting victims of trafficking during and after the repatriation process. One of the main issues is that victims don’t have enough information to make a court case. They are usually unaware of the identities of the broker and trafficker, and mostly even of the name of the boat or establishment where they were held. This is especially the case in cross-border trafficking cases where the victims do not speak and read the language of the receiving country. When cases are substantial enough to be taken to court, proceedings in Cambodia take around 2-3 years, sometimes even 10 years. The victims do not only need to wait a long time to receive justice, but in some cases influential people bribe the judges or lobby the victims to withdraw their complaint. Furthermore, victims carry the costs of testifying and getting to the court themselves. This is a major detterant to testifying as victims are often too poor to cover the costs of travel. Mr. Meas thus concluded that advocacy to improve the court system in Cambodia is strongly needed.

The other major challenge Saneath Meas identified during his speech was that it is very hard to get cooperation from the destination side. He gave the examples of women trafficked to China for marriage, and domestic workers in Malaysia. When Cambodian women wanted to be repatriated from China, it was extremely hard to find NGOs in China who were willing to help with the repatriation process. In Malaysia, thousands of Cambodian domestic workers sought repatriation at the Cambodian embassy. However, the embassy there had too few staff to handle all the cases. Thus, it is paramount that cooperation between governments, key NGOs and other stakeholders increases, and that Cambodia stocks up its staff in major receiving countries to deal with repatriation cases.

The second speaker on the first panel was Ly Vichuta from Legal Support for Children and Women (LSCW). She began her presentation by describing a common recruitment process: The individual is promised around 150$ a month with a bonus between 300 and 4000 dollars every three months. Recruiters hand out contracts and papers to create the illusion that the process is legal. Once at the destination, the victim must work 16-18 hours per day, with limited food, no bonus and little to no payment.

Ly Vichuta continued by saying that the cross-border nature of many trafficking cases and the sensitivity of the topic are two of the greatest challenges in fighting trafficking. Most exploitation occurs at the destination, and limited cooperation, the lack of investigation mechanisms, language barriers and limited capacities to identify trafficking victims make it incredibly hard for sending states to protect their citizens. Once repatriated, minimal amounts of resources hinder the successful prosecution of perpetrators, and a lack of a code of ethics for interviewing victims of trafficking leads to false statements during testimony. Moreover, the lack of a friendly courtroom and predominantly male legal professionals causes many victims to abandon their cases. For example, many victims must confront their perpetrators in court, thus placing them at risk of re-traumatization. Due to the low number of cases where perpetrators have succesfully been prosecuted, many victims have lost trust in the judicial system of Cambodia and do not bring their cases to court.

Ms. Chan Sokunthea from the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC) was the last speaker on the first panel. She explained how social  and economic factors such as low levels of education and the lack of jobs constitute major risk factors for being trafficked. Individuals with low levels of education are highly vulnerable to the tricks of brokers and other agencies. A lack of employment opportunities forces workers to migrate abroad, often through illegal channels which render them highly vulnerable in the destination country. In rurual areas, landlessness due to the government grabbing and abusing land, as well as debt due to the poor market for agricultural produce force individuals to migrate to ensure their livelihood is secured.

Ms. Sokunthea also raised the issue of broker systems, for example in China and Cambodia. Cambodian victims and their families are often persuaded and deceived into working in China. Brokers operate in a very organized manner to recruit brides for Chinese men. Local authorities work together with the brokers and issue official letters in which victims’ names and ages are usually altered. Although the rate for a Cambodian bride is between 10,000 and 20,000$, the victim’s family tends to only receive about 1000$. In most cases the embassies and consulates process the wedding certificate without questioning the bride’s willingness to engage in the marriage. Although restrictions have been put in place for Cambodian brides to request entry visas for China, brokers have found ways to circumvent the system.

The first panel ended with a short question and answer session during which Ms. Lochbihler reminded the audience that Cambodia receives millions of dollars in remittances, and therefore has a strong reason to support its migrants, as well as those who have been repatriated. The use of the term ‘broker’ was also discussed, as there are almost as many types of brokers as there are trafficking narratives. Some brokers are members of the government, others of the victim’s family, and definitely not all brokers belong to organized mafia-like rings. As the Cambodian government’s trafficking law defines trafficking like smuggling, recent cases have led to the prosecution of tuctuc drivers as brokers, although they had nothing to do with the trafficking of victims or their exploitation. Clarity of terms is of utmost importance when discussing trafficking.

The second panel began with a presentation by Kate Sheill from the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW). GAATW is an international network of anti-trafficking NGOs. During an internal survey, most of the members found some of the biggest obstacles in anti-trafficking work to be a lack of clarity of the concept and its definition, as well as the lack of exact data and numbers. The lack of understanding of what trafficking actually is makes the concept vulnerable to being inflated with other concepts such as slavery, smuggling or migration. None of these words are interchangeable. Blurring the definitions allows for a rise in anti-migrant discourse all over the world. Migrant women are stigmatized and persistently framed negatively in the media, thus making them highly vulnerable. Furthermore, governments tend to criminalize sex work while claiming to combat trafficking. This means that oftentimes sex workers who have not been trafficked are targeted by anti-trafficking intitiatives, whilst trafficked migrants in other industries receive very little attention. The lack of data and numbers adds to the difficult nature of the phenomenon. Ms. Sheill also argued that although millions of dollars are spent in the name of anti-trafficking annually, most money will never reach trafficked persons.

The second panelist in the second half of the workshop was Mr. Sebastian Boll from the UNACT headquarters in Bangkok. Mr. Boll introduced the work of UNACT and the COMMIT Process in the ASEAN region. The COMMIT Process is an intergovernmental process targetted at countering trafficking in ASEAN through regional cooperation, with UNACT functioning as the secretariat. He continued by explaining why COMMIT is relevant, stating that under COMMIT anti-trafficking initiatives are becoming more transparent, inclusive and participatory. UNACT emphasizes the importance of bringing civil society organizations to the table and involved them in the process of drafting the Subregional Plan of Action which will be adopted in April. Moreover, COMMIT is ASEAN plus China, the added value of including China being that all different stakeholders in the region are included. ASEAN has been working on trafficking for years, but little progress has been made as ASEAN does not have a tradition of binding agreements. Eight years ago a convention on trafficking was drafted which has still not been adopted. Mr. Boll is confident that the COMMIT process has, and will continue to foster regional cooperation in preventing trafficking. 

The last presentation of the workshop was given by Benu Maya Gurung and Jnawali Bimala from the Alliance Against Trafficking in Women and Children in Nepal (AATWIN). They shared their experiences from working on anti-trafficking in Nepal since 1997. They started by mentioning some positive developments to counter trafficking in Nepal, such as the creation of a new anti-trafficking law in 2007 as well as  a National Plan of Action from 2011 that established a national minimum standard for caring for the survivors of trafficking. However, trafficking victims in government run homes may only stay for six months and get very limited support that barely covers their basic needs. Similar to many other countries, many anti-trafficking campaigns in Nepal are phrased as anti-migration campaigns. Recently, the Nepalese government issued a ban on women under thirty going abroad as migrant domestic workers in the Gulf countries. Rather than protecting women from abuse, such policies contribute to making migrant women more vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation as they are forced to migrate illegally. Moreover, they cannot report any abuse experienced as they illegally left the country, and returning to Nepal would mean jail time.

All in all, the workshop was very fruitful as each panelist came from a slightly different background and brought new angles and examples to the discussion. In the first panel it became clear that deficiencies in the Cambodian court system, and a lack of protection and support for victims during trials is the major barrier to prosecuting traffickers. It also became evident that the cross-border nature of the issue, and limited cooperation between countries hinders victim protection. The second panel took a more regional perspective to find that conceptual issues such as conflations with the term migration may cause anti-trafficking programs to actually harm, rather than help the individuals they are trying to protect. Overall, however, it seems as if regional cooperation has increased in the past years due to the COMMIT process, and with the ASEAN declaration on trafficking being presented this year, one can only hope that it continues to do so.