Safe Migration for Women to Reduce Human Trafficking Risks

By Sonomi Tanaka

Radhika Coomaraswamy, a human rights lawyer and former UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, once said: “Traffickers fish in the stream of migration." What does this mean? It means that trafficking is more likely to occur within a series of migration, when men and women are on the move in search of new opportunities, better incomes and better lives in unfamiliar and strange surroundings.

Contrary to popular myths, derived often from sensational media stories of women locked in container trucks being transported across borders, or of young girls who come from poor rural villages sold by their parents to unscrupulous traffickers, or of those tricked by the promise of big city lights and high incomes, most people are trafficked while already “on the move”. Sure, there are plenty of cases of people forced, sold and tricked into working in brothels, fishing vessels, as beggars or jockeys in “slave like” conditions. The reality, however, is that most trafficking occur in the “stream of migration”. That is, people made conscious choices to migrate with high hopes of a better life but, along the journey their hopes are dashed. In most instances, victims are trapped after they have voluntarily left their communities.

Since early 2000, I have had the opportunity to work on human trafficking prevention programs. It was in early 2000 when the issue received attention resulting in global and regional conventions and anti-trafficking frameworks such as those of the UN Convention, South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation and the Greater Mekong Subregion. 

A lot has changed over a decade. Public awareness of human trafficking as modern day slavery has been significantly raised through media. Most countries now have policy, laws, and procedures in place to protect and prevent trafficking and programs for rescue and reintegration of trafficked persons. More judges, law enforcement staff, and border customs officers are trained.

But the question remains: is the world getting safer for women vis-à-vis trafficking risks, particularly migrant women who are “fished by traffickers”?

Unfortunately, there is little evidence of improvement. The 2013 Trafficking in Persons Report by the US State Department highlights that only a small portion of victims are identified and an even smaller number of perpetrators are brought to justice. Identification of victims and those “at high risk” of being trafficking remains a major challenge. Targeting vulnerable women migrants, particularly those who use “informal” channels of migration are moving targets. 

What can we do to combat trafficking and minimize the risks of women and girls ending up entrapped and working in slave-like conditions in brothels, factories and even homes?

Simple answer - make migration safer for women and girls.

First, we obviously need to improve law enforcement. We also need to build the capacity of development workers to identify trafficked victims and those at high risks. Despite challenges, some promising approaches exist. For example, local language hotlines for migrants in Thailand provided important information on trafficking routes and individuals at risk. The “confidentiality” principle of hotlines make it easier for irregular and illegal migrants, who are most at risk of being trafficked to come out.

Intensive training of field workers, police, transport service providers and customs officials to identify and detect victims and perpetrators. The Philippine Ports Authority’s collaboration with ferry companies and an NGO to intercept potential trafficking victims before entry into Manila is a good initiative. Maiti Nepal’s border surveillance, albeit a controversial approach, is an admirable effort. Use of ICT such as smart phones and translation software have already proved useful for border officials in asking basic but important questions. 

Second, we are learning that awareness is important but not enough to change people’s behaviors to reduce trafficking risks. Most prevention programs to date focus on “trafficking awareness-raising” but the emphasis needs to shift to changing vulnerable people’s behaviors so they make “safer” choices, such as choosing accredited recruitment agencies for migration rather than freelance individual recruiters, or relatives.

The joint ADB-UNIAP-RCG publication Rethinking Trafficking Prevention provides various methods to identify the key needs and incentives to deliver behavior change. The tool is useful for designing trafficking prevention programs, including at cross-border points and along economic corridors.

Third, better collaboration and coordination between source and destination countries are needed. Most importantly, we need agreements between these countries to formally recognize migrant workers including their access to essential services such as health and education.

Fourth, more concerted efforts are needed to build decent work environment for migrant workers. It is good to see more multinational companies voluntarily inspecting and publicly reporting on their supply chain labor standards. But such companies are still few and far between. More expansive labor inspections targeted at sectors likely to employ informal migrants would be useful. Regional economic organizations such as ASEAN and the Greater Mekong Subregion Working Group on Human Resources Development must also explore basic social protection for irregular or illegal migrants who wish to remain “invisible”.

Finally, let us always collect data and use it to improve our anti-trafficking operations. There is no longer any excuse for not collecting data and evidence of effectiveness of anti-trafficking programs. Sentinel surveillances at border points to survey the profiles of trafficked victims (and those at risk), source-destination identification and the use of GIS mapping tools, and methodological improvements of victim data collection can be crucial in the fight against trafficking of women and girls. See ADB’s regional technical assistance project on Integrating Human Trafficking and Safe Migration Concerns.