Special Commentary

South Asia: Anti-Trafficking, Flesh Trade and Human Rights

12 Sep, 2013    ·   4116

Roomana Hukil reviws the US Department of State report, ‘Trafficking in Persons 2013’ (TIP), with special reference to South Asia 

Roomana Hukil
Roomana Hukil
Research Officer
The release of the US State Department’s report, ‘Trafficking in Persons 2013’ (TIP), showcases a premier document that underlines the status of human trafficking in the international community.  The report is a country-wise assessment that sets in motion the misconstrued definitions and methodologies associated with victim identification, sex trafficking, child sex trafficking, forced labour and so on.  The report has been providing global law enforcement data i.e. a statistical break-down, since 2005, on the number of prosecutions, convictions, victims identified and new or amended legislations. It provides an account of some of the major trafficking cases that were registered and/or are under trial across the world. It focuses on victim identification, which is seen as the top most priority, throws light on the training techniques that make identification efforts successful and highlights new innovations and partnerships within and beyond the capacity of various governments. Finally, it provides an account on the analyses of the report’s data to develop an overall response to trafficking.

This report analyses the various components with regard to the issue of trafficking in persons. What are the major compulsions that coerce the vulnerable populace, especially women and children, to fall prey to trafficking? What are the fault lines in our legislative systems that have failed to implement a standing order as regards trafficking of persons? What is the role of civil society and non-governmental organisations in curbing this menace?

South Asia’s Position on ‘Modern Slavery’
As identified in the report, only a fraction of the people in South Asia, who are estimated to be suffering ‘modern slavery’, have been recognised by governmental institutions as ‘trafficked’ and are being provided with rehabilitation support. The traffickers operate with impunity and are inaccessible by the reach of law. Modern anti-trafficking laws and structures in South Asia are redundant and are merely theoretical instruments that in most scenarios remain either biased or undue.

Apart from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, which fall under the key watch list, countries in the rest of South Asia have been qualified as making significant efforts to meet the minimum standards of the TVPA which they currently fail to fully comply with. The report states that most of South Asian states are source, transit and destination regions for persons subjected to forced labour and sex trafficking. This does not take into account Bangladesh, Bhutan and Sri Lanka that are source, destination and source countries respectively. All these countries have an inadequate understanding of the definitions of human trafficking and migrant smuggling and often impose punitive actions on trafficked victims. This placement of the burden of the proof on the victim, thereby, holds the victim guilty.

For instance, India has narrow laws for the types of crimes that are considered trafficking. The Immoral Traffic Prevention Act (ITPA) criminalises sex trafficking victims more than it prosecutes traffickers. A lack of effective victim-witness protection services continues to be a major impediment to prosecution processes in South Asia. In Bhutan, the 2011 penal code indicts human trafficking crimes on the basis of ‘any illegal purpose’ rather than ‘exploitation’. This definition employs vagueness and departs from the 2000 UN TIP Protocol because it focuses on aspects of legal jurisprudence rather than on factors of exploitation. Compounding the confusion in Afghanistan, in Dari, ‘human trafficking’ and ‘human smuggling’ are terms used interchangeably. Nepal’s constitution criminalises forced prostitution but it does not consider the prostitution of children as a form of human trafficking. As a result, these social fetters continue to exacerbate trafficking issues in South Asia due to poverty, weak economies, deteriorating security systems and the rule of law.

A more pertinent question is whether South Asia is the emerging destination/source region for trafficking, and, if so, why? The answer to this question lies in the evolving economic status of the region and provides an insight into the nature of the existing laws and policies. Vulnerable communities such as women, adolescents and children fall prey to traffickers due to their poverty stricken conditions. In addition, one of the main reasons is the fragile and cumbersome administrative policies in these countries as regards anti-trafficking. Unless anti-trafficking is dealt with zero tolerance, the future of South Asia continues to remain blurry and static in extending justice, protection support and rehabilitation towards the victims.

Law Enforcement
Internationally, human trafficking is considered a crime, therefore law enforcement agencies lead most of the trafficking interventions. Through the support of high ranking officers, proactive detection methods, protocols and targeted training units, efforts to identify victims have been enhanced. Specialised anti-trafficking agencies have been identified as effective because of the provision for investigators to receive and practically apply their learning from training programmes.

Sadly, in addition to the woes of the trafficked victims, some governments in South Asia impose punitive measures against the trafficked. Multiple cases have emerged in South Asia where government officials have failed to recognise the characteristics of the crime despite having heard the victim’s plea. Most of the officials also fail to recognise male victims of forced labour and associate trafficking crimes with women only. They fail to recognise that men can also be victimised even when the latter describe the severe exploitation that they have endured. Officials also fail to recognise the indicators of human trafficking or simply do not view trafficking as under their authority or jurisdiction.

South Asia is the epicentre of such issues, and to combat the evils of trafficking in humankind, it faces several challenges from the process of victim identification to rehabilitation. To prevent lacunae in the system; government efforts must not cease but must go beyond laws guaranteeing such mechanisms, rights or status. Governments need to foster their efforts by implementing proactive strategies through which victims have been or might be found. Anti-trafficking training is a mandate to ensure that law enforcement regulations, prosecutions, the judiciary, responders, and other government officials develop a common understanding of trafficking crimes. Protocols and training curricula must align with this shared comprehension. Such training endeavours must bank on policies and procedures that provide the trainees and activists a clear understanding of action-oriented measures. What is also crucial is collaboration among agencies (social service agencies, non-governmental organisations, international organisations etc) that have overlapping areas of responsibility to extend support to the trafficked persons. Access to comprehensive services must be a part of the policies for victim identification. In the context of South Asia, the major drawback that governments and policy-makers are facing is that they fail to go beyond awareness-raising. Clear guidelines on how to identify a case of trafficking, approach a possible victim, improve the effectiveness of victim identification systems etc are some of the aspects that require intensive study. Achieving measurable results is a dimension that has not yet been fully facilitated in South Asia. This means not only developing anti-trafficking mechanisms but also meeting the expectations whilst providing positive results. 

Civil Society, NGOs and IOs
Governments and legal institutions bear the ultimate responsibility to identify victims, protect their rights and provide rehabilitation support and services to survivors. On the other hand, Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and International Organisations (IOs) are skilled in victim protection and provide comprehensive trafficking victim assistance services. Thus, cooperation between the former and the latter leads to more effective delivery.

Many groups and organisations besides the government have developed and implemented training and awareness campaigns in South Asia that is essential for effective government proceedings. National hotlines, commonly in partnership with government agencies, are functional - they send and receive information about trafficking cases; this data is then forwarded to law enforcement agencies. NGOs and IOs often offer a safe haven for victims to initiate the recovery process, such as providing critical services and listing available options. Such facilitation assists the victims in having their needs and concerns heard if not immediately addressed. This initiation also helps them in later opening up with the police and prosecutors – which is another critical juncture in the process.

In South Asia, several NGOs and IOs have adopted anti-trafficking mechanisms to ensure that the survivors give their inputs to increase effectiveness. Through such organisations, many trafficked female survivors have become activists and advocates in the field. It is due to their role and steadfastness that trafficked victims feel more confident about opening up. Civil society institutions have not been able to garner as much momentum as they ought to due to the ineffectiveness and failure of governmental bodies. NGOs and IOs can, at a maximum, raise awareness and provide protection to the trafficked victims, however, failure to identify victims, procedural delays and incorrect judgements often undermine the performance of such institutions.

As discussed, these institutions in South Asia that are in their early stages of development continue to be impeded by governmental inefficiencies. South Asia is the emerging destination for trafficked persons, and the numerous transit points for trafficking also allow the maximum number of people to be trafficked to other countries.

The 2013 TIP Report reflects several South Asian narratives on prosecution, prevention, protection and recommendations for these countries. Yet, it fails to specify the nature of sources on which the ranking is based. While the report points out the lacunae in governmental, private sector and civil society institutions in dealing with the issue of trafficking in South Asia, it also fails to specify recommendations, drawbacks or the role of the international community and regional organisations in combating all forms of trafficking. International cooperation measures regarding extradition, legal assistance, asset confiscation, raising awareness etc are vital aspects that must be provided for in all of South Asia’s government units. For the most part, South Asian countries do not have strong international cooperation mechanisms to expedite mutual legal assistance or extraditions. As a result, current efforts by international organisations and criminal justice machinery across borders to address human trafficking remain crucial.

Summing up figures within the report, 150,000 (approx.) persons were trafficked in the year 2012. The report could have included an objective review of the reasons for the rise in human trafficking but no significant evaluation was provided. A fact that holds true for South Asia is that the low numbers of convictions of human traffickers and migrant smugglers contrast sharply with the high numbers of trafficking survivors or victims, suggesting that efforts undertaken so far have been limited. In the assortment of propositions in the report, one noteworthy suggestion is encouraging the South Asian states to be party to the 2000 UN TIP Protocol. Save India, no other South Asia country is party to the protocol. Further discussion must also be had on the Protocol’s preparedness towards preventing trafficking and providing justice to victims of trafficking, especially women and children, to supplement the UN’s Convention against Transnational Organised Crime for South Asia. Such interventions, if seriously considered a policy priority, will help alleviate the status of modern slavery in South Asia.