The RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies' Blog

Human Trafficking – Reflections on a Recent Conference

Posted in Internal Conflicts and Human Security by NTSblog on October 10, 2010

At a recent conference on human trafficking in Singapore, the trends of current human trafficking discourses and anti-trafficking measures were highlighted, with a focus on the emerging patterns within Southeast Asia. Migration remains rampant in Southeast Asia. Undoubtedly, the universal difficulty in identifying demarcations between the various groups of migrants adds to the complexity for anti-trafficking measures. Some of the salient factors raised are discussed.

Too Much Focus on Sex Trafficking

It was pointed out by many speakers that statistics on human trafficking were out-dated. The failure to update these leads to skewed focal points for policy interventions to curb trafficking tendencies. Although the sex industry and gendered perceptions of trafficking remain as concerns, it is necessary to broaden into other areas such as trafficking for labour in general, for example, in domestic work and fishing industries. These areas were highlighted as understudied; hosting higher numbers of persons trafficked, exposed to precarious working conditions and experiencing limited agency. Whilst there are regular news items on the threats to human security faced by domestic workers, the discourse needs to transcend gendered perspectives. It was revealed that 80 percent of global fishermen were from East Asia. A significant number of children are trafficked into bonded or forced labour, with conditions worsened by a lack of data on this issue, lack of monitoring at sea and the failure of current labour regulations to address the work conditions on fishing fleets.

Misdirected Enforcements Regulate Supply Motivations

Whilst presenting their field research, anthropologists at the conference raised evidence which showed that much of the action undertaken by enforcement agencies did not understand the motivations behind the supply feeding trafficking syndicates. Some of the factors raised included; structural vulnerabilities such as access to civil-political rights within their country of origin, which determines legal status to access social services. The lack of citizenship rights was a common characteristic amongst many of the communities found ‘victimised’ by trafficking syndicates; hill tribes in Thailand and Myanmar. Another important factor was social and cultural support. Persons who migrate for economic opportunities and are exploited but persist in the cycle are strongly influenced by expectations to earn and improve conditions back home, and if they fail, they experience negative stigma from communities in places of origin.  As a result, returning home is a difficult option. These realities of reintegration need mainstreaming in policy actions.

Politics of Access

A recurrent theme raised at the conference was that persons accessing trafficking or smuggling syndicates considered these agents, rather than government authorities, as a source of economical and social support. Indonesia remains a transit country used by many persons who wish to travel further, such as to Australia or New Zealand. For these persons whether illegally in Indonesia or housed in ‘shelters’, syndicates are whom they seek. This relationship between traffickers/smugglers and their subjects, make anti-trafficking enforcement efforts more complex.

Shortcomings on the part of officials; their failures to study and respond to the issues above, reinforces the dependencies of persons on trafficking/smuggling syndicates and exploitative employment conditions.  It is suggested that analysis, research and policy recommendations should increasingly prioritise ‘human security’ perspectives into anti-trafficking measures, rather than the current dominant criminal justice frameworks.


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