|Human trafficking: Asia's persistent
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.
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.
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.
comes in the wake of efforts to achieve regional
cooperation, particularly in trying to close legal
loopholes exploited by crime syndicates involved in
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
researchers on trafficking say that tackling demand will
not be easy, since it is a complex issue.
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?"
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
"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
(Inter Press Service)