We are all failing in the fight against human trafficking

opinion July 14, 2017 01:00

By Matt Friedman, Ralph Simpson
Special to The Nation

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The US State Department 2017 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report was released on June 27.

For 17 years, this report has offered an important summary of country-by-country responses to human trafficking. Since 2010, Thailand has been ranked in either the Tier Two Watch List or Tier Three – the lowest ranking. There are clearly human trafficking issues that exist within Thailand that need to be dealt with, but the same can be said of nearly every country in the world. The problem goes beyond the borders of any one country, with some, like Thailand, being nexuses for modern slavery. 

According to the latest TIP report, out of 21 million people trafficked globally, the number of victims assisted in 2016 was 66,520. This is down from 77,823 assisted the previous year. The report represents one of the most important sources of data for those working in the field and yet the data suggests that even with all of the government, NGO, UN and private sector efforts combined, the world assisted less than 0.5 per cent of the victims last year. This figure has remained largely unchanged for the past five years. 

More positively, convictions rose from 6,615 in 2015 to 9,071 in 2016 – and yet this still represents only about 0.8 per cent of the criminals estimated to be profiting from human trafficking, an industry worth US$150 billion (Bt5.1 trillion) per year. The bottom line is this: the world is failing to have an impact on addressing this global transnational crime against humanity. This is not about any one country not doing its part; it is the entire world that needs to accept responsibility for this situation. Clearly something needs to change.

The major reasons often cited for the low numbers of trafficking victims identified and assisted include a lack of general awareness, poor data, weak legal systems, limited legislation, insufficient resources, and limited collaboration among the counter-trafficking community as a whole. Having worked on this issue for over 28 years, we can confirm that all of these factors do exist. But the one issue that we feel is most lacking is a collective, united, cross-border front to address the problem. 

Human trafficking is one aspect of modern-day slavery. We have more slaves today than at any other time in history. For this issue to be addressed, every country has to do their part to solve this global epidemic. Take the positive steps that have been made in other development sectors like HIV/Aids, poverty alleviation and child survival – major breakthroughs occur when countries come together and there is a unified response. Yet, despite the vast numbers of human trafficking victims from across every country in the world, there is no master plan to address the problem. As a result, many agencies and NGO groups do not know how or where they fit into a collective response. 

Likewise, governments alone cannot solve this problem. Because of the cross-border nature of human trafficking, collaboration between and among countries is essential. In addition to the governments, NGOs and multinational bodies (UN), we need the private sector, faith-based groups, schools and the general public to step up and play a role. Having a master plan would help identify the role for each of these constituents. 

For instance, the Mekong Club works closely with corporations in Asia to help them to understand the business risks related to human trafficking. Working in partnership with a network of businesses, the Mekong Club has been able to develop tools and techniques to identify and address the problem as a community. It has learned from this experience that organisations are willing to step up and provide help if they are treated as partners, not adversaries. 

This same approach can be applied to working with governments around the world. Every government struggles with this problem. With so few victims being identified, we need to revisit the way we are presently doing things. There needs to be a joint effort that brings the international community together. Only by presenting a united front will we be able to address this issue at a global and a local level. The strengths and weaknesses of approaches to addressing the issue profiled in the report can be used to identify combined solutions. 

Human trafficking is a crime. It therefore requires a criminal justice response – prosecuting and punishing offenders. Every country has a responsibility to build the capacity of their criminal justice system to create effective deterrence. Every citizen must play their part by refusing to buy goods produced using slave labour or buying sex from trafficked victims. We must recognise that the global economy relies heavily on exploiting the poor to maintain growth, thereby entrenching vulnerability and contributing directly to trafficking, and lobby for change.

In Thailand, there are trusted, competent law enforcement officers working with non-government organisations and doing their best to investigate and prosecute offenders engaging in human trafficking and child exploitation. Investigations, prosecutions and convictions are on the rise. The PM’s Office is monitoring the situation closely and implementing improvements to legislation, policy and enforcement performance. It has a renewed vigour in tackling corruption. As the TIP report concedes, the Thai government is “making significant efforts” to meet the minimum standards. Thai citizens and business enterprises must now play their part.

However, Thailand’s biggest challenge is official corruption, which both facilitates trafficking and impedes efforts to bring offenders to justice. Thailand could here follow the example of the country of Georgia, now praised by the World Bank as a model in fighting corruption. When the new government took power in 2004, Georgia’s public service was rife with corruption and bankrupt, with criminals and government officials being indistinguishable.

Strong leadership, backed by comprehensive, rapid, bold and pragmatic reforms built early credibility. Swift prosecutions of high-level nepotistic officials were followed by sectoral reform commissions which cut red tape, radically overhauled the upper bureaucracy, and professionalised the police force. Thailand should redouble its reform efforts with high-level arrests to reinforce its credibility in addressing human trafficking.

Matt Friedman is an international human 

trafficking expert with more than 30 years of experience as an activist, programme designer, evaluator and manager. He is the CEO for the Mekong Club.

Ralph Simpson is country director for Nvader, an NGO working with Thai authorities to 

investigate and prosecute human traffickers and child sex offenders. He has 30 years’ experience as a commercial litigation lawyer.