Asian nations may have agreed to forge a network to curb human trafficking but the problem is still not being given adequate attention by countries placed on a special watch list by the U.S. State Department, officials and experts say.
About 40 countries in the region decided to establish a regional cooperation framework dealing with people smuggling after extensive talks at a ministerial conference in Indonesia's Bali island last week, according to officials.
This is the first time the region is taking a coordinated approach against human trafficking, which according to the United Nations is mostly linked to sexual exploitation of girls and women.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, who jointly chaired the talks with his Australian counterpart Kevin Rudd, said the regional framework marked a "significant step forward" though it is nonbinding on member countries.
It will help resolve issues, such as illegal immigration, in a "systematic and contextual way," he said.
“This is a milestone in the development of a coordinated approach by nations in and around the Asia-Pacific to address the challenge of people smuggling,” Rudd said.
The framework would deal with bilateral arrangements to cripple people smuggling syndicates through coordinated border security arrangements and strengthened information and intelligence sharing, according to a statement at the end the Bali Process Ministerial Conference.
Sex and labor trafficking
The prevalence of forced labor and sexual servitude is highest in Asia, with almost three in every 1,000 inhabitants falling victim, according to the International Labor Organization.
Also, data from the International Organization for Migration and World Bank show that the majority of the over 200 million transnational migrants in the world are from Asia.
Within the growing pool of Asian migrants—reflecting greater labor mobility in the region and in the world—is a huge population of people who are victims of sex and labor trafficking, they said.
While Asian nations have agreed to use the Bali Process to seek solutions to people smuggling problems, an assessment released by the State Department this week showed that countries are not making adequate efforts to tackle the trafficking problem in the region.
The department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons sent to Congress on Tuesday the "interim assessment" of progress made by countries placed on an annual special watch list.
Among East Asian nations, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, and Singapore made only "limited progress," Laos and Thailand made "some progress," China and Taiwan made "progress," while the Philippines and Fiji made "significant progress," according to the assessment report.
Many Asian governments lack adequate laws, and more have failed to produce significant convictions of trafficking offenders, it said.
In the East Asia region, Burma, North Korea, and Papua New Guinea remained at the bottom level of countries that did not even meet the minimum standards on battling human trafficking.
"While some countries in Asia have passed legislation to prohibit trafficking, governments as a whole have not yet shown the political will to hold the traffickers to the fullest account, in the form of sentencing reflective of the severity of the crimes they commit," said Luis CdeBaca, the State Department's envoy on the human trafficking issue.
"Some countries only focus on sex trafficking—and not from a compassionate place, but by locking up the women as illegal immigrant prostitutes or criminals, rather than recognizing them as victims," he said at a symposium in February.
According to the latest State Department assessment, China did not revise its laws to criminalize trafficking in persons although the government has drafted amendments to its criminal code to raise the sentence for forced labor.
"China made progress in protecting victims of trafficking, but overall problems remain," it said.
In Laos, the government did not report any efforts to combat trafficking-related complicity by government officials and did not create "formal victim identification procedures" or train police and border officials to identify trafficking victims, the report said.
In Malaysia, the government has yet to properly address labor trafficking or to significantly improve its care and treatment of all trafficking victims, it said.
It also has not yet developed formal procedures to identify labor trafficking victims among vulnerable groups, such as migrant workers, in order to refer them to available protection services.
The Philippines demonstrated "significant progress" in combating human trafficking, but the government has yet to obtain a labor trafficking conviction since introducing an anti-trafficking law in 2003, the report said.
In Singapore, the government reported investigating 21 potential trafficking cases between January and October 2010, though it did not cite any new sex or labor trafficking prosecutions or convictions, the report said.
"According to the Singapore government, cases investigated for trafficking may be charged under a range of statutes, including fraud, but did not report any such cases since June."
In Vietnam, the report said, the government has not developed formal procedures for the identification of labor trafficking victims.
The government did not publish data about individual cases where it identified or assisted Vietnamese migrant workers subject to forced labor.
Although workers have the right in principle to sue labor export companies, in effect the cost of pursuing legal action in civil cases remains prohibitively expensive, and there has been no indication of workers receiving legal redress in Vietnamese courts, the report said.
In Thailand, it said, the government has not demonstrated progress in providing legal alternatives to the removal of trafficking victims to countries in which they would face retribution or hardship.
Officials who attended the Bali meeting said countries in the Asian region were studying plans to formulate a blueprint of "good practices" as part of information-sharing and capacity-building collaboration in efforts to stem human trafficking,
Southeast Asia—where countries of origin, transit, and destination co-exist—have already launched a handbook on international cooperation in anti-trafficking efforts to help investigators, law enforcement and criminal justice agencies.
"It acts as an operational manual to strengthen the regional network of collaboration and mutual legal assistance,” said Surin Pitsuwan, secretary-general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Still, the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR wants more comprehensive international and domestic legal frameworks to protect victims and check trafficking for sexual exploitation.
In addition, government officials "must receive more extensive training with respect to the requirements for the identification and protection of victims of trafficking, specifically those officials most likely to obtain first contact with victims," said Tyler Marie Christensen, from UNHCR's policy development and evaluation service.