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Southeast Asia Has a Plan to Tackle Human Trafficking, but There's an Elephant in the Room

The word corruption does not appear even once in the new 10-year plan to tackle human trafficking recently signed by six Asian nations — even though it is the grease which keeps the engine running.
May 18, 2015, 4:00pm
Photo by Sumeth Panpetch/AP

Late last month, six Asian nations came together to renew a decade-long joint commitment to battle human trafficking. But it was a show of unity with a critical flaw — corruption went entirely unmentioned.

First established in 2004, the Coordinated Mekong Ministerial Initiative against Trafficking (COMMIT) has seen Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam establish a series of Sub-regional Plans of Action, the fourth of which was signed in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh on April 29.

But neither in the closing speeches of the six ministerial representatives at the event, nor in the joint declaration they signed, did the word "corruption" appear. It doesn't even feature in the latest plan — a 28-page document mapping multilateral anti-trafficking efforts over the next four years.

It is a pretty troubling omission given that the importance of corruption in facilitating human trafficking cannot be overstated.

"It's the oil that enables the trafficking machine to work," said Rukshana Nanayakkara, outreach manager at Transparency International's Asia Pacific Department. "Corruption is present at every stage of the process."

That means greasing officials' palms in origin, transit, and destination countries so they overlook necessary documentation, guarantee safe transit, or ignore the exploitation victims are subjected to, Nanayakkara told VICE News.

"Finally, [there are the] pay-offs to police, judges and prosecutors enable traffickers to avoid arrest and prosecution," he said.

The Greater Mekong Sub-region is a major hub of human trafficking, with more than 26,000 people trafficked annually, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). It is also one of the regions where human smuggling and human trafficking most clearly intersect.

Human smuggling involves irregular cross-border migration for illegal work, overseen by networks of smugglers who guarantee passage and often employment upon arrival. Many don't even make it, as highlighted by the discovery of clandestine graves in Thailand in recent weeks, which authorities have blamed on human smugglers.

Related: Authorities Investigate Mass Graves of Suspected Migrants Found in Thailand

Thousands of people from Myanmar and Bangladesh try to migrate to Thailand every year, but many have ended up imprisoned in brutal jungle camps as smugglers attempt to extort more money from their relatives. Thailand has launched a crackdown, which has resulted in thousands of migrants being left stranded on boats in the Bay of Bengal. The foreign ministers of Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia are due to meet to discuss the crisis on Wednesday.

When smuggled people end up in oppressive or slave-like conditions, they become trafficking victims, most commonly exploited for labor or service in the sex trade.

In 2013, the UNODC estimated labor and sex trafficking within the sub-region was worth $214 million per year. While the patterns of human trafficking are complex, China and Thailand generally serve as destinations for people from impoverished neighboring countries.

But as well as being a trafficking hub, the sub-region is also beset by graft.

In Transparency International's 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index, Thailand is the only one of the six to appear in the top half of the table, sitting at 85th place out of 174 nations. Meanwhile Laos languishes in 145th place, while Cambodia and Myanmar share joint 156th place with Zimbabwe.

Yet when asked at last month's COMMIT event whether a crackdown on corruption would be at the heart of implementing the new anti-trafficking plan, Dr. Ing Kantha Phavi, Cambodia's minister of Women's Affairs and vice-chair of the National Committee on Counter Trafficking in Persons, rejected the idea.

"I don't agree with you saying corruption is the priority to tackle [human trafficking]," she said. "Yes of course it is a priority, but human trafficking is a lucrative business, there is a demand and there is a supply."

Related: Migrants Face Kidnappings, Torture, and Forced Labor on Hellish Journey to Southeast Asia

But according to Taina Bien-Aimé, executive director at NGO Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, the money involved only underlines why graft is such a critical enabler of a trade she says would be "halved overnight" if corruption ended.

For Bien-Aimé, one explanation for the lack of emphasis given to corruption when addressing human trafficking is the depth to which it permeates society, and the resulting lack of political will to confront it.

"In many Southeast Asian countries, or even Asian countries, just getting your license from governmental agencies requires bribes, getting your kids into a school requires bribes," she told VICE News.

Meanwhile, Paul Buckley, the United Nations Development Program's regional technical specialist, highlights possible damage to prestige as another hurdle.

"The influence of those involved and the fear of reputational damage to a country in openly tackling the problem [of corruption] are obstacles," he said.

However, Buckley is keen to point out that, despite not mentioning graft, the latest plan does foresee all six nations implementing legislation meeting international standards to address it.

"Further, effective criminal justice responses, as the [plan] seeks, would also target and prosecute cases involving corruption," he told VICE News. Buckley also underscored the greater willingness of both China and Thailand to openly speak about corruption in recent months.

Meanwhile, through regional bodies such as the Asian Development Bank and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), all six countries will be forced to confront corruption on some level.

But for now, at least within COMMIT, corruption remains the burning issue that nobody seems to want to touch; a fact Bien-Aimé warns suggests a dangerous misunderstanding of the problem that threatens to undermine the group's efforts.

"If you don't focus on understanding human trafficking you will not be able to combat it effectively and intelligently and with political will."

_Follow Charles Parkinson on Twitter: _@charlesparkinsn