On the frontline – working with our ASEAN partners to combat human trafficking

Jane Duke  By Jane Duke, Australia’s Ambassador to ASEAN

In 2015, thousands of fishermen from Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos were found on islands in Maluku province in Indonesia. These men had been trafficked into servitude, worked in inhumane conditions on fishing boats, and were then left stranded, without the means to care for themselves or return home. The case made international headlines and shone a spotlight on the challenge of human trafficking in our region.

Trafficking involves the recruitment and harbouring of a person for exploitation through coercion, threat or deception. Economic growth and increased labour mobility are providing countries in the Association of South-East Asian Nations, or ASEAN, with great opportunities. At the same time, the risk of exploitation is also heightened. The International Labour Organisation estimates as many as 20.9 million people worldwide are subject to forced labour, with 11.7 million (more than half) in the Asia Pacific. Human trafficking and labour exploitation undermines the rule of law and threaten stability in our region.

In the case of the trafficked fishermen in Maluku, investigators and prosecutors from Indonesia, Myanmar and Thailand reached out to Australia to help coordinate these high-profile cases. Australia has been working with ASEAN countries to combat human trafficking for nearly 15 years and is seen as a trusted partner. We convened meetings with the countries involved to help establish protocols on sharing evidence and intelligence and coordinate support for victims.

I recently visited Yangon and met with some of the Myanmar police officers involved in the Maluku cases. A Lieutenant Colonel told me that working with Australia’s aid program had ensured the victims received the support they needed, his officers developed their investigative skills and forged new relationships with counterparts in Thailand, opening the door for future collaboration on trafficking cases.

Australia’s Ambassador to ASEAN, Jane Duke, meets members of Myanmar’s police force in Yangon to discuss collaboration on combatting human trafficking

Trafficking is a human rights challenge that crosses borders. Australia partners with national criminal justice agencies and ASEAN groups to get outcomes like the Maluku convictions. Last year we worked with nearly 4,000 ASEAN counterparts to improve investigations, prosecutions and the adjudication of trafficking cases. Achievements include the establishment of a new human trafficking division within the Thai judiciary, Filipino investigators able to better identify labour trafficking and women police taking leadership roles on trafficking cases in Cambodia.

The ASEAN Convention Against Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children became operational in March. It is an important milestone for regional cooperation and Australia stands ready to assist ASEAN countries to implement the Convention’s obligations. ASEAN countries are also members of the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime. Co-chaired by Australia and Indonesia, this 48-member regional forum provides another mechanism to combat human trafficking and related exploitation.

Australia has a clear interest in a prosperous, stable and peaceful region; cooperating with our ASEAN partners to combat human trafficking is an important part of this mutual goal.

Jane Duke is Australia’s Ambassador to ASEAN. Ms Duke is a senior career officer with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. She previously served overseas as Deputy High Commissioner, Malaysia and as Counsellor (Immigration) at Australia’s Permanent Mission to the UN in Geneva. In Canberra, she was most recently Assistant Secretary, South-East Asia Regional Branch.

Australia’s ASEAN and Mekong program works with countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to combat human trafficking and the exploitation of migrant workers, as well as promote inclusive regional economic growth. Since 2003, Australia has invested more than $80 million on programs that aim to combat human trafficking in the region.

Our current investment countering trafficking in ASEAN, the Australia-Asia Program to Combat Trafficking in Persons (AAPTIP), ends in 2018. Australia is in the early stages of designing a new phase of assistance to combat trafficking in ASEAN. This design will look at how Australia can broaden and deepen our assistance, respond to ASEAN Member States’ efforts to achieve obligations in the ASEAN Convention Against Trafficking in Persons, as well as address relevant modern slavery challenges. The design of the new investment demonstrates Australia’s ongoing commitment to addressing the human trafficking challenge in the region.

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