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Asian Economy

Human trafficking: Asia's persistent tragedy
By Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK - A seminar this week on the scourge of human trafficking in East Asia has underscored the tragedies, but workable solutions are elusive. Many factors are at the root of the problem: poverty, ruthless and efficient criminal syndicates, lethargic and "gender-blind" governments, and widespread demand for cheap labor and sex.

Ai, a Thai woman in her early 30s, considers herself among the lucky ones. She was rescued by a Catholic nun after 10 years of virtual sexual slavery in Japan.

"It was like hell," Ai said of her ordeal as a sex worker that began soon after she was trafficked from Thailand at the age of 15. "I was dead from the first day. After one year, I started to take drugs."

Not only was she threatened with abuse at the hands of Japan's notorious yakuza crime syndicate if she disobeyed commands to sleep with clients, but she was denied her promised salary on grounds that a substantial slice of it was needed to pay for the cost of her journey from Thailand.

"We were told that once our debts are paid off, we would be sold to someone else," she said during a meeting with journalists here on the sidelines of a conference on human trafficking convened by the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) with the support of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia-Pacific.

Not so fortunate as to escape such agony are thousands of women and children from Southeast Asian countries who have been trafficked across national borders by crime syndicates. According to estimates by UNIFEM, the numbers of women and children trafficked in Southeast Asia could be about 225,000 out of a global figure of more than 700,000 annually.

The most common countries of origin of trafficked persons in Southeast Asia are the poorer ones like Cambodia, Yunnan province in China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. Japan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand, China and Cambodia are the most popular destinations.

The three-day seminar that began on Monday, involving 10 Asian countries and member nations of the European Union, was trying to conceive more effective ways of helping the victims of trafficking and combating the transnational crime syndicates.

The seminar comes in the wake of efforts to achieve regional cooperation, particularly in trying to close legal loopholes exploited by crime syndicates involved in human trafficking.

UNIFEM, for instance, is stressing a "gender- and rights-based initiative" to make headway against this violation of women's and children's rights. "While countries see trafficking as a rights violation, that is not translated into policies across the board," said Jean D'Cunha, senior program specialist at UNIFEM.

"Often, in developing interventions to trafficking, issues of national security and national sovereignty are given importance and the issues relating to trafficked women are marginalized," she said, adding that this leaves little room for efforts to address the social, economic and gender roots of the issue beyond approaching it as a political or consular matter.

D'Cunha stated that government actions against trafficking are often "gender-blind", undermining the very people that governments are trying to help. "They [governments] reproduce discriminatory stereotypes against women and disempower them," she said.

"A case in point are the economic initiatives to prevent trafficking. They are largely micro-projects that reproduce stereotypes of women in domestic roles, or as unskilled and unproductive," she explained, instead of giving women more options to undercut trafficking.

Equal stress is being placed on addressing the "demand side of trafficking" at the seminar, said Gun-Britt Andersson, Sweden's state secretary. Sweden took the lead in October 2000 to combat the trafficking of persons as part of its commitment to the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM), a dialogue process between East Asian and European governments.

There is a line of thinking that demand is driving trafficking, making it "a lucrative business", she told the media. "This is a new thing, to look at demand in a comprehensive manner."

According to available records, Japan has the largest sex industry for Asian women, with well over 100,000 female sex workers, many of them Thais and Filipinos.

For its part, New Zealand is being used by traffickers of Thai women as a "departure point for Japan, Australia and Cyprus", stated the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women for Asia-Pacific, a non-governmental organization.

In Australia, the coalition added, international crime syndicates are into trafficking both drugs and women. "Particularly in Canberra, Victoria and Queensland, Asian women are to be found in prostitution," it said in a report.

But researchers on trafficking say that tackling demand will not be easy, since it is a complex issue.

"You cannot analytically separate demand and supply," said Julia O'Connell Davidson, a British academic who co-authored a study distributed at the seminar, titled "Trafficking - A Demand-Led Problem?"

"The debate on demand has begun but we need more clarity before shaping policy," she pointed out. For instance, her study says that "there is no reason to assume that individuals who wish to exploit others are only or specifically interested in trafficked individuals".

It adds that though one may be able to identify employers and others who take advantage of cheap and vulnerable labor, "it does not follow that there is some absolute level of demand for exploitable labor in any given sector that could, in itself, stimulate or drive trafficking".

"Some campaigners say it is about demand and you should penalize the buyer," O'Connell Davidson added. "But the research shows it is more complicated than that."

Meanwhile, survivors of trafficking like Ai hope that governments in the region would welcome moves to improve their predicament. "We didn't want to sell ourselves. It was something forced on us."

(Inter Press Service)
 
Oct 10, 2002


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(Aug 23, '01)

 

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