19 October 2012
Exaggeration or nightmare--what is happening with human trafficking in East Asia?
After decades of high economic growth combined with rapidly escalating population growth and compounded by massive wealth disparity, East Asia is a ticking time-bomb. Low wage rates and a severe lack of government regulation have already seen an influx of foreign wealth desperate to take advantage of the region, causing colossal social upheaval. As a result, an increasingly materialistic society seeking more and more has thrown caution to the winds to strive for higher salaries and a better standard of living, putting them at risk of being exploited.
Migration in Asia has always been a complex and politically sensitive issue, but it has recently shot to unprecedented levels. Interestingly, reports estimate that 30 to 40 percent of this is unregulated traffic. It is unclear how much of this migration flow is human trafficking, but it is clear that, at the very least, a significant portion of it is.
Traditionally, migration in East Asia, whether illegal or legal, represented the shift of unskilled male workers. In the 1990s, we began to see a shift towards a higher proportion of female workers, particularly seeking employment in the domestic sector. An amplification in the demand for domestic servants in developed countries combined with high levels of unemployment of women in developing countries has spurred the growth of organized crime gangs devoted to fulfilling this need.
This is a highly distressing development since the proceeds of criminal enterprise in human trafficking is quickly used to fund the entire gamut of organized criminal operations, including illegal arms purchases, drugs, and perhaps even terrorism. In addition to this, the human capital exploited in trafficking is used as cheap labour, whether in sweatshops, factories, or even brothels. In fact, according to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC), sexual exploitation is the “most commonly-identified form of human trafficking.”
This was part of a landmark report released by UNODC, which had several important findings, but two areas of concern that deserves attention. Firstly, UNODC discovered that “most trafficking is national or regional and is carried out by people whose nationality is the same as that of the victims.” This shows that local criminal organizations are as much to blame as international ones.
Another of UNODC’s conclusions was that despite increasing convictions, the number of criminals escaping the law, particularly amongst the top echelon, remains disproportionately high. This is worrying, because the majority of those arrested are so-called ‘foot-soldiers’, lowly-paid thugs who, though performing the majority of the basic tasks of the trafficking ring, are easily replaced. It is their bosses, those with international contacts and multiple transport operations, that need to be targeted. Until it can be shown that there are significant risks currently not apparent to those on the top of these criminal trafficking organizations, international efforts to combat this menace will remain ineffective. As academic Jun JH Lee acidly remarks, “The routes, destinations, and modes of trafficking are fairly well known and stories of corruption among public officials and local authorities are common.”
It is widespread knowledge that excessive demand is driving trafficking. Consider the root of the problem; the necessity for human beings. Often, institutions or institutional regulations are the cause. Further, contemplate the one-child policy in China that has led to a skewed gender ratio. Because of this, brides are ‘sold’ for a premium across China. This situation presents issues for law enforcement agencies. The difficulties of separating trafficking from other forms of migration are highly problematic, particularly since bride ‘selling’ is a traditional practice, and participants can range from the willing to the coerced.
Is the media and research attention devoted to the ‘demand’ side of trafficking (particularly in South Korea and Japan) deserved? Considering that both the aforementioned countries have laws that do not allow unskilled foreigners to stay for even a short period of time, despite the critical shortage of labour, the attention is certainly merited. New legislation that works to address this severe dearth of labour within a legal framework needs to be implemented. C. McGill suggests in Human Traffic: Sex, Slaves and Immigration that instead of responding to real economic needs, “governments react to social fears by passing politically advantageous but unnecessary and inhumane immigration laws.”
Additionally, it has been acknowledged in a U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing that links exist between serving U.S. soldiers and ‘pimps’ and bar owners around U.S. bases in East Asia who exploit trafficked women. A reporter documented that U.S. military police routinely patrol and collect protection from bars and brothels around U.S. bases, particularly in the Philippines, South Korea, and Japan. This is yet another example of official collusion with criminal groups.
Most countries in East Asia have a visa category for ‘entertainers’ which is often abused to traffic women for sexual exploitation. Worryingly, legislation in Japan and South Korea (the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law and the Departure and Arrival Control Act, respectively) impose heavy penalties on migrants overstaying ‘entertainment’ visas, even if they have been coerced into doing so.
In response, the South Korean National Assembly passed the Prostitution Victims Prevention Act in March 2004, which heavily criminalizes the acts of intermediaries in the sex industry. Hopefully, this will go some way towards helping the victims.
The relative invisibility of illegal migrants unfortunately limits the legal avenues to retribution; governments need to make it a priority to identify and contain these immigrants. The key to addressing this detestable violation of human rights? Political support. Indeed, governments have launched programs and issued laws, but the truth is that much of these measures remain mere lip service. The dual problems at the crux of this issue that need to be addressed are the invisibility of illegal migrants and the involvement of organized crime. Human trafficking helps to fund and support other criminal activities. Trafficking plays a cyclical role with organized crime, and we must strike at both to render the world safe.
Rahul Bhide is a first-year student of Political Science and Economics at the University of Chicago. His academic interests include Asian political and economic expansionism.