A Look at How the UN is Working to Eradicate Sex Trafficking in Southeast Asia, Specifically Thailand

Greer Brodie-Hall, Staff Writer

15 November, 2018

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Sex trafficking is a significant human rights violation that affects a grave number of women around the world. Statistics show that 71 percent of human trafficking victims are women and girls, with 96 percent of that group being sex trafficking victims. The reasons these women are susceptible to such violence and exploitation is due to inequality of opportunity, education, awareness, and justice. Knowing these precarious conditions leads one to question how the UN is coming to the aid of these vulnerable people around the world.

Many institutions and NGOs work towards the elimination of trafficking, but to focus specifically on one plan of action, UN Women, along with United Nations Population Fund and United Nations Development Programme, formed the Spotlight Initiative in 2017. This worldwide campaign to end a plurality of violence against women was created with the European Union. One goal was to directly address policy, institutional, and legal obstacles endured by migrant workers. Human trafficking was just one of many issues they planned to tackle under this umbrella initiative.

The Spotlight Initiative has made a great amount of headway, but an array of progress still needs to be accomplished. The UN Women executive director, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka highlighted that even in 2017, better policies and practices were needed to improve access to information and unified services. Trafficking is among the most lucrative transnational crimes, with nearly $32 billion being profited from 21 million victims. However, there is very limited information in some of the most heavily trafficked areas.

Since its introduction, Spotlight has led to an established governance structure, which oversees implementation in five regions of the world with five different problems. These include femicide in Latin America, sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) and harmful practices in Africa, domestic violence in the Pacific, family violence in the Caribbean, and trafficking in Asia. Therefore, the main region that Spotlight began to focus on in terms of direct action and support is Asia.

One of the primary problems is the widespread lack of knowledge. Many women and girls are deceived into trafficking due to lack of sufficient income, opportunity and sustainable work. Most of the time, these victims are financially unstable and in need  for a way out to make some money. Traffickers tend to prey on women who appear to be in need of help. For example, an Uzbek woman was trafficked to Thailand after being deceived by a fellow Uzbek woman. The sad truth tends to be that current and former trafficking victims become the first point of coercion for other potential prey. Traffickers capitalize on the familiarity of other women to entrap vulnerable targets. This woman’s trafficker had promised her profitable work in Thailand, which she desperately needed. Once she arrived, her passport was destroyed, and she was forced into prostitution.

To understand the gravity of the brutality, a victim named Karla Jacinto was a prisoner of sex trafficking in Mexico for four years. Karla spoke with CNN explaining that, “these minors are being abducted, lured, and yanked away from their families. Don't just listen to me. You need to learn about what happened to me and take the blindfold off your eyes." She was abused by countless men, seven days a week from the ages of 12 to 16. She, too, was lured in by someone that promised her love, respect, and safekeeping. At just 15, she gave birth to a child while imprisoned there, which was taken from her for almost an entire year. Even though she was able to escape the horrors of this world, Karla insists that this is a growing problem.

This is just one example of thousands every single year. However, many people do not know the full extent of sex trafficking. The UN is looking to further global recognition of trafficking signals. For example, Sheila Fedrick, a flight attendant on Alaska Airlines helped to save a girl from trafficking by noticing the signs and assisting in her escape. Training cabin crew or hotel management would be a preliminary way of creating more recognition and proactive response on the ground level.

Correspondingly, social media is at the forefront of concerns for anti-trafficking missions. Social media has become an open field for traffickers to approach and convince their victims to join their ‘businesses’. It has become easier for predators to draw people into believing that they will receive help. Advertisements and fake accounts are difficult to spot. Traffickers tend to message people looking to join a community on regular sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram and then convince them to chat with them on less observed and regulated websites. Victims can be deceived and groomed through many forms of social media.

To look specifically at Asia, where the Spotlight Initiative has begun providing aid, the drawbacks and accomplishments of this widespread plan are plentiful. On November 17th, 2017 the ‘Safe and Fair: Realizing women migrant workers’ rights and opportunities in the ASEAN region’ was implemented. With 25 million euros, UN Women and the International Labour Organization began their work with ten origin and destination countries, including Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. The headquarters of the operation began in Bangkok, Thailand on January 1st, 2018 and has a five-year plan.

In East Asia women account for 51% of trafficking victims, with 61% of the victims being sexually exploited. From 2012-2014 7,800 victims were identified, with a significant amount of data still lacking from many of the countries listed. In South Asia, adults were listed as 60% of  the victims. In both regions, convictions were sparse for the number of victims found. Between 2012-2014 there were no convictions in Maldives and Sri Lanka, and only 10 to 15 in Bangladesh and other information was not readily available from other countries.

Thailand specifically, is a country of origin, destination, and transport. It was labeled Tier 2 on the United States Department of State watch-list in 2017. Thailand is a key trafficking destination for irregular migrants and uniformed tourists. There are numerous organized networks within the country that evade legal punishment due to incessant corruption within the government.

However, an incidence of serious progress was when 62 people were convicted of human trafficking on July 19th, 2017, in Thailand’s largest trafficking trial to date. Among those convicted was a former army general, which is an extremely rare conviction for Thailand. South China Morning Post reported that Thailand is taking anti-trafficking action seriously. The government has partnered with airlines and charities to broadcast video warnings and advocacy. There has subsequently been training with hotel and airline staff to improve recognition.

Overall, the Spotlight Initiative is helping to improve the awareness of the issue to governments and citizens in Asia, but more is needed to be done. Countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) region are to increase rights-based and gender responsive movement towards labour migration governance, address the vulnerabilities of female migrants, and deliver better services to abuse victims. This, according to Spotlight, will begin to require more government service to women that experience abuse and are defenseless to traffickers. Beyond this, an international awareness campaign, more stringent commitment and cooperation between all levels of government and law enforcement, and extensive data research could help to eradicate this issue.

Lastly, UN Women produced an extensive strategic plan for 2018-2021. In accordance with the Sustainable Development Goal to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls by 2030, this plan sets out the ways they propose to continue ending all violence against women. Overall, they assert that all actions will be taken with a ‘working together’ mindset. The UN has made impactful progress, but is looking to continue with their awareness, investigation, and implementation. With Thailand being labeled as a “land of opportunity” for traffickers, the need to help these vulnerable people is at an all time high level of concern.