The Trouble with Trafficking

By Joe Lowry

The trouble with human trafficking is that with all the resources and thought that has been poured into the phenomenon over the years, no one really understands what’s going on. Not governments, not NGOs, not the police, not think tanks… no one apart from the people traffickers, who change their modus operandi  like the wind, in order to stay one step ahead.

That’s the tenet of a wide-ranging article which quotes IOM's Denis Nihill, on the  hanging nature of human trafficking.

"There's been a lot of work done on the Greater Mekong Region for many years on trafficking, but it's become more complex, as it's now inextricably woven with labour migration, which is a much more difficult nut to crack because it is less easy to detect than trafficking linked to the sex industry."

Nihill, who runs IOM's operations in Indonesia pointed to the difficulties of tackling internal trafficking, which IOM's 2011 counter trafficking report highlighted as particularly problematic in Indonesia.

"For cross border trafficking, people must pass through the hands of several government agencies, but internally trafficked people need not come to the attention of any officials, so in many ways it's a more alarming situation," he said.

UN OCHA’s humanitarian news service quotes several organizations, including IOM, in a wide-ranging piece.

IRIN’s article tells the harrowing story of Evi (not her real name) who in 2011, aged 16, left her remote village in Indonesia's Banten Province in the hope of making more money to help her family.

"My auntie introduced me to a broker who forged my travel documents so I could work," she said. "The broker then took me to a recruitment agency in Jakarta. I just wanted to earn more money. I thought God would protect me."

The agency arranged for Evi's travel to Jordan and placement as a domestic worker in Amman, but she soon found she was being exploited by her employer.

"I was allowed to sleep for about two hours a day, sometimes less," said Evi. "I had to take care of four children and clean the house. The mother and auntie of the children often beat me with sandals or punched me for no reason, and sometimes my nose bled."

In 2012, having endured physical abuse for over a year, her employer began to withhold her pay, and Evi attempted suicide by drinking a glass of kerosene.

"My employer found me unconscious and allowed me to rest, but the next day, they made me work again," she said.

Later, Evi ran away from her employer and roamed the streets of Amman looking for work until a local shopkeeper took her to a police station. Jordanian police then took her to the Indonesian Embassy, which arranged for her repatriation to a shelter for trafficked children in Jakarta, where she is recovering.

Cooperation between the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to tackle human trafficking has resulted in high-level initiatives and memorandums of understanding (MoUs), according to IRIN.

Martin Reeve, a UNODC regional adviser on trafficking in Bangkok, said law enforcement agencies across the region were still developing.

"Securing a human trafficking conviction is at the best of times a difficult process," he said. "Intelligence-led policing is immature or non-existent, so the offenders arrested are less likely to be those organizing the trafficking, and police-to-police cooperation remains weak."

All ASEAN governments are part of the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime, a non-binding, voluntary forum co-chaired by the governments of Indonesia and Australia, which began in 2002.

Febrian Ruddyard, director of international security and disarmament at the Indonesian Foreign Ministry, said the Process had only recently begun to address trafficking in persons because not all countries had strong national legislation in place.

To date, all ASEAN governments have passed anti-trafficking legislation with the exception of Laos and Singapore.

Indonesia and Australia have faced challenges in encouraging members of the Bali Process to take practical action to address human trafficking, Ruddyard said.

"Many member countries are interested in the Process but attracting funding from them [for projects] is difficult, not only because the issue is still a low priority in some countries but also because the Process is non-binding," he said.

Ruddyard cited last year's creation of a regional support office in Bangkok (facilitated by IOM) to implement practical arrangements to combat trafficking, and a plan to use the Jakarta Centre for Law Enforcement Cooperation in Indonesia to train law enforcers across the region to better deal with human trafficking cases, as achievements of the Process. (The training will be provided by IOM.)

Ahmed Sofian, national coordinator of ECPAT Indonesia, an NGO based in Jakarta working to end the commercial sexual exploitation of children, was interviewed by IRIN for its article. He said there was little effort made by local law enforcement officials in Indonesia to deal with trafficking.

"There are economic benefits for those living close to the brothels that children are trafficked to," said Sofian. "Locals will gravitate to the area to sell food or provide security, and local police officers – often on low salaries – will ask for protection money from the owners of the brothels."

"This is why it's so difficult to eliminate trafficking," Sofian went on. "There's a local economy that grows up around it, and if the local government attempts to close these brothels, the police will become angry."

Read also IRIN Asia's: Analysis: Southeast Asia’s human trafficking conundrum

Joe Lowry is the Senior Media and Communication for IOM