By Leanne McCallum, Human Trafficking Index Project Manager
In November of 2015, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) made an historic move by creating the ASEAN Convention and Plan of Action Against Trafficking in Persons Especially in Women and Children (ACTIP). This action plan has the potential to instigate lasting improvements in Southeast Asia’s notoriously deplorable human trafficking situation. The symbolic significance of this action plan’s creation is worth noting; however, its functional capability is currently dead in the water. The action plan is still waiting on three more ASEAN members to ratify it, so it currently lies dormant and waiting for implementation. After nearly a year of delay, the question lingers: when will the ACTIP officially be enacted, and what are the repercussions for Southeast Asia if it isn’t enacted soon?
The ACTIP was formulated in the wake of the grave humanitarian crisis surrounding migration in Southeast Asia. International outcry began in 2014 amid the horror stories of thousands of Burmese Rohingya refugees and Bangladeshi migrants crossing the Andaman Sea and Straits of Malacca. These groups’ inherent vulnerability led to trafficking on a massive scale. Particularly, reports of mass graves of Rohingya along the Thai-Malaysia border in 2015 were a catalyst for ACTIP’s creation. Due to the international nature and the immense scope of the crisis, countries have been unable to address this crisis on an individual or internal level. While ASEAN had previously created the “Declaration Against Human Trafficking, Especially in Women and Children” in 2004, this declaration is nonbinding and unenforceable – leaving ASEAN members without operable mechanisms to facilitate cooperation on anti-trafficking efforts.
Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand in particular have had to bear the brunt of the trafficking problems surrounding the displaced Burmese and Bangladeshi people. Southeast Asia currently lacks governance channels for regulating regional transnational trafficking. The region’s strict adherence to sovereignty and national autonomy have also rendered external intervention into countries like Burma impossible. These conditions have allowed countries of origin of trafficking victims to ignore the human rights atrocities driving people to flee, and subsequently fall into conditions of trafficking, without repercussion. Even worse, due to their statelessness Rohingya trafficking victims are often stranded in detention centers indefinitely after being rescued. As of October 2015, Thailand alone had to provide shelter and services to more than 600 rescued Rohingya who were barred from returning to Burma.
The ACTIP was adopted during Malaysia’s ASEAN chairmanship, and was officially approved at the 27th ASEAN Summit in November 2015. It aims to “effectively address these challenges so as to progressively prevent, suppress and punish all forms of trafficking in persons including the protection and assistance to victims of trafficking in the region and work towards an enhanced comprehensive and coordinated regional approach to achieve this objective”. Its three main goals are to strengthen the rule of law and border control, prosecute more traffickers, and strengthen regional cooperation. The format of ACTIP closely follows the structure of the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children (known as the Palermo Protocol). It is a legally binding action plan that would be enacted 30 days after its ratification by six ASEAN member countries.
Currently, only three countries have ratified ACTIP: Singapore, Cambodia, and Thailand. The low number of ratifications may be due to the action plan’s progressive capacity building, resource allocation, and education requirements. While it is predictable that certain countries like Burma or Bangladesh, origin countries with egregious human rights records, would avoid ratifying the ACTIP, it is unclear why other countries like the Philippines, a country at the forefront of best practices anti-trafficking work, are also dragging their feet. Even more concerning is that as the monsoon season comes to an end in October-November, migration will accelerate once again and create a new wave of transnational trafficking that the region will have to address.
It is crucial that the remaining holdout ASEAN members ratify the ACTIP. The three countries that have already ratified it, along with the anti-trafficking community, need to call directly on the holdout members to take action immediately. Should enough ASEAN members choose to follow through, it will demonstrate the region’s commitment to combating human trafficking, and will provide a platform for the ASEAN region to address grave regional trafficking issues like that of the Rohingya. Given a chance, the ACTIP could become a viable pathway to progress, action, and accountability in the region. But until then, this progressive action plan has been rendered meaningless. It remains unclear whether ASEAN will be able to enact the ACTIP before the one year anniversary of its adoption.
*The views and opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the position of the HTC
Photo Credit: ASEAN
The Human Trafficking Center, housed in the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, is the only two-year, graduate-level, professional-training degree in human trafficking in the United States. One way graduate students contribute to the study of human trafficking is by publishing research-based blogs. The HTC was founded in 2002 to apply sound research and reliable methodology to the field of human trafficking research and advocacy.
Founded in 1964, the Josef Korbel School of International Studies is one of the world’s leading schools for the study of international relations. The School offers degree programs in international affairs and is named in honor of its founder and first dean, Josef Korbel.
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