I have just returned from the Regional Parliamentarians’ Conference on Combating Human Trafficking - a two-day conference of parliamentarians from across the whole of Asia, which took place in Bangkok on 20 and 21 March.

In addition to giving parliamentarians an overview of current work, trends and thinking in the area of combating human trafficking, including the use of technology and the role of statistics, the conference provided interesting comparisons between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, popularly known as ASEAN, and The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). SAARC has had its own anti-trafficking convention since 2002. ASEAN adopted its anti-trafficking convention in 2015 and it will come into force this month, after 6 ASEAN Member States ratified it. Admittedly, the ASEAN convention is more modern and compliant with the international standards on human trafficking, but it remains to be seen how it will be implemented and how that implementation will result in reduction in human trafficking and in better protection of victims. I wish the forum provided more space for a discussion on what lessons ASEAN and its member states can learn from the experience of SAARC in implementing their trafficking convention. That would be a good theme for a future conference or a round-table discussion.

I learned that the Global Plan of Action to Combat Trafficking in Persons, adopted at the 64th session of the United Nations General Assembly in July 2010, is being reviewed and that Regional and National level consultations are underway to prepare for the UN General Assembly High-Level Meeting in October 2017. A new plan is being considered. If you have an opportunity to get involved - do get involved and let us know.

Disappointingly, the forum presentations were inundated with the cliched images of ‘victims of trafficking’ that are now on the ‘don’t do’ list of every decent behaviour change communication specialist. Handcuffed people, hands tied in chains, women with barcodes on their foreheads - you name it! Cliches were also in the rhetoric of many speakers and a bit of a divide was notable between the speakers from South and Southeast Asia on this.

What was barely mentioned, only in a couple of presentations (but was luckily the focus of the presentation of the ILO representative), was the rooting of the issue of trafficking and exploitation in the context of migration. Trafficking and exploitation are not (only) the work of vicious, hideous, greedy criminals as many of the discussants would have us believe. They happen to a great extent because of the way governments and whole regions choose to look down on low-skilled migrant workers, they happen because of the obstacles governments create in front of the basic aspiration, and need, of such workers to make a living by working in another country. We need to talk more about this if we are serious about ending human trafficking. But we need to help decision-makers be brave and act in accordance with principles which go beyond the perceived short-term interests of a country, based on the ‘sending’ or ‘receiving’ label attached to it. Watch this space - TdH Netherlands in launching a brand new report on the ASEAN Economic Community and its potential impact on child trafficking and migration in May.

Last, but not least, the conference concluded with a Statement of Commitments of the ministers and parliamentarians from the 21 countries attending the conference. One of them, notably, is a commitment to work towards ending the immigration detention of children, which happens to migrant children in general and to child victims of trafficking in particular. And it is never right. That fact was admitted in the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants in September 2016. And now we have a commitment from parliamentarians across Asia to make sure children affected by migration are not detained in their countries. That’s a good first step. One of many. And we shall work to help parliamentarians in their endeavours to make this happen. Starting, if necessary, with reminding them that they have made this commitment. While this may be very good progress from an advocacy perspective, I do look forward to the day when I can report that a similar commitment has been made at ministerial meetings in ASEAN and the other sub-regions of Asia.

by Stefan Stoyanov
Technical Expert Trafficking & Migration in Asia
Terre des Hommes Netherlands
Asia Regional Office

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