Human Trafficking Thrives Where Rule of Law Ends

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Of the nearly 21 million victims of human trafficking worldwide, an estimated two-thirds are from Asia. Many factors contribute to the severity of the problem in Asia, but one stands out among the rest: the lack of rule of law.

Poorly trained local law enforcement, inadequate legal protections, and corrupt judicial systems are at the root of human trafficking across Asia. Burmese Rohingya – an ethnic Muslim minority group – face extreme persecution from the Burmese government and military. The government does not recognize Rohingya as citizens of Burma. Because of their stateless status, Rohingya are excluded from the protections of the law, making them particularly vulnerable to trafficking. In 2013 alone, an estimated 40,000 Rohingya were victims of trafficking.

North Korean defectors face a similar predicament. An estimated 70 percent of all defectors fleeing North Korea are women. Some studies suggest that between 70 to 90 percent of these women will end up as victims of trafficking. Many become forced brides for Chinese men – a direct result of a shortage of women associated with the one-child policy in China. Other defectors end up trafficked into brothels in China, Southeast Asia, and other surrounding nations.

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Like the Burmese Rohingya, North Korean defectors exist outside the protections of the law. The Chinese do not consider them to be refugees or asylum-seekers. Defectors discovered by Chinese authorities are deported back to North Korea, where they may face yet another form of trafficking: forced labor. An estimated 100,000 to 200,000 North Korean citizens are imprisoned in brutal forced labor camps, and defectors repatriated from China are commonly sent to camps or other prison facilities when repatriated.

Burma and North Korea, designated as Tier 2 Watch List and Tier 3 countries respectively in the State Department’s 2014 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, are not the only Asian nations where access to legal protections is limited. In fact, the phenomenon is fairly widespread. It is particularly concentrated in South Asia; Pakistan and India are estimated to have the highest prevalence of human trafficking in all of Asia.

In the State Department’s assessment, only 44,758 victims of trafficking were identified in 2014. A meager 9,460 traffickers were apprehended and fewer than 6,000 were prosecuted. Estimating percentages based on available figures, fewer than 1 to 2 percent of victims were identified and rescued in 2014.

Human trafficking is undoubtedly a significant problem, and the U.S. and Asia have an interest in combatting it. Meaningful solutions to human trafficking require active U.S. leadership, demonstrated political will on the part of individual Asian nations, and a vibrant civil society.

Of course, Asian nations will apply human trafficking solutions that are tailored to the cultural, economic, and specialized needs of their locale. When they need help, the U.S. should stand ready to assist in areas such as local law enforcement capacity-building and legal or judicial training.

The U.S. should concentrate its assistance on countries that demonstrate the greatest need and the political will to address human trafficking. This type of aid model has already been applied at the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), but could be equally successful if countries were required to meet and maintain certain benchmarks to qualify for anti-trafficking assistance from USAID or the State Department.

The MCC model worked particularly well in the Philippines. There, the threat of losing its MCC Compact assistance due to human-trafficking concerns motivated the government to make serious policy changes. For example, the Aquino administration channeled significant additional resources toward its domestic anti-trafficking body, the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking, more than tripled convictions of traffickers, and almost quadrupled the number of victims rescued.

The U.S. should focus more aid resources on specialized law enforcement and judicial training program that address human trafficking concerns. International Justice Mission, a renowned anti-human trafficking NGO, applies a unique law enforcement model that enabled officials in Cebu, Philippines to rescue 225 girls and arrest 87 suspected traffickers in a three-year time period. The initiative reduced the availability of minors for sex trafficking by 79 percent in Cebu, and IJM has experienced similar successes in Cambodia.

Investing intelligently in programs that provide properly trained law enforcement and non-corrupt legal solutions to human trafficking will support the work of successful NGOs like IJM and ensure that U.S. efforts meaningfully reduce human trafficking abroad.

Human trafficking in Asia is one of the most serious human rights problems of the 21st century. It can be reduced and – eventually – ended by giving potential victims access to proper legal and judicial protection. But that will require more focused attention from the U.S., individual Asian nations, and NGOs.

Olivia Enos is a researcher in The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center.

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