Combating Human Trafficking in Asia Requires U.S. Leadership

Report China

Combating Human Trafficking in Asia Requires U.S. Leadership

February 26, 2015 27 min read Download Report

Authors: Lisa Curtis and Olivia Enos

Despite increased U.S. foreign policy attention over the past decade, human trafficking remains widespread and deeply entrenched in many Asian countries. The precise number of people being trafficked is difficult to estimate, but new studies suggest nearly 36 million victims worldwide. Of those 36 million, nearly two-thirds are from Asia.[1] Total profits from worldwide forced labor and sex trafficking could be as high as $150 billion annually.[2]

Human trafficking takes many forms, including sex trafficking, forced labor, peonage, trafficking of children, and countless other forms of abuse. Victims of trafficking are frequently underage and impoverished, and more often than not, they are unnoticed.

Over the past 10 years, the international community has taken note of this global scourge and implemented international protocols, encouraged the passage of laws targeting traffickers and protecting victims, and raised international awareness of the devastating social impact. Nonetheless, U.S. strategy is failing to make significant progress in reducing human trafficking.

The U.S. has a national security interest and vital role to play in shaping effective anti–human trafficking policy in Asia. U.S. interests in encouraging democracy, prosperity, and stability in the region require addressing the problem, which contributes to other criminal activities such as money laundering, drug and arms trafficking, organized crime, and terrorist activities.[3] In addition to helping to develop international laws and norms, the U.S. needs to encourage individual Asian countries to craft policies that solve the problems unique to their local cultures, economies, and political systems.

The U.S. should model positive anti-trafficking policies within its own borders and capitalize on its partnerships in Asia to reduce and eventually end human trafficking. Engaging more closely with Asian countries on human trafficking problems would strengthen U.S. economic and humanitarian involvement in the region and bolster democratic governance by promoting individual liberty and human rights.

International Framework

On the international level, the U.N. and Interpol are taking action against human trafficking.

The United Nations. The United Nations took the first major international action against human trafficking by introducing the Palermo Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children as part of a broader strategy to combat transnational crime. The Palermo Protocol was implemented in 2000 and has 117 signatories, including the United States.[4]

The U.N. defines trafficking in persons as:

the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.[5]

Forms of sexual abuse, forced labor, and organ trafficking fall within the U.N. definition of trafficking.

The Palermo Protocol has helped to raise global awareness of human trafficking and provide a definitional framework for the problem.[6] However, the protocol lacks a way to measure compliance with and conformity to its requirements on domestic human trafficking laws. Nor does it have an enforcement mechanism.

Interpol. The global nature of human trafficking requires a global dimension of information sharing to combat it. Interpol provides an online database to give local law enforcement access to cross-border data on international criminals. It also allows for increased collaboration if local law enforcement has information in one country about a criminal in another country. Interpol’s databases simplify the identification of criminals by streamlining data aggregation and improving access to information for local law enforcement. For example, Interpol’s “Notices and Diffusion” system allows for cooperation between member countries in tracking criminals and suspects and locating missing persons. Additionally, MIND/FIND databases grant local law enforcement access to reports of missing or stolen travel documents.[7] Denying access to travel and identification documents is one tactic that traffickers use to trap their victims, making this database particularly helpful in identifying trafficked individuals.

Since 2009, Interpol has conducted at least six successful anti-trafficking operations that led to the rescue of nearly 900 individuals.[8] Interpol’s operations have also led to the arrest of at least 171 individuals, but have resulted in less than 40 sentences.[9] Most of these operations were conducted in Africa, including the recent raid in Burkina Faso in April 2014.

U.S. Government Framework

The Department of State, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), and other U.S. government agencies are active in anti–human trafficking efforts.

State Department. The State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (TIP) originated from the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA). Until 2000, human trafficking received little attention within the U.S. government. The Clinton Administration was the first to acknowledge human trafficking as a significant global problem, and the trafficking issue was not substantively addressed until passage of the TVPA.[10] The Bush Administration continued to prioritize human trafficking as a matter of international concern.

The State Department defines trafficking in persons as “the act of recruiting, harboring, transporting, providing, or obtaining a person for compelled labor or commercial sex acts through the use of force, fraud, or coercion.”[11] The U.S. definition, unlike the U.N. definition, does not include organ trafficking, but identifies prostitution, pornography, sexual abuse, forced labor, indentured servitude, bonded labor, inadequate wages, and slave-like conditions as human trafficking.[12]

The State Department’s TIP office has played a key role in making anti-trafficking efforts an important part of U.S. international diplomacy. Each year, the TIP office releases its comprehensive Trafficking in Persons Report, which ranks countries according to their compliance with international human-trafficking standards, pursuant to the TVPA. Standards include signing the U.N.’s Palermo Protocol, passage of a comprehensive law dealing exclusively with human trafficking, and making efforts to comply with State Department standards.[13]

The TIP report ranks countries in four tiers. Countries that comply with anti–human-trafficking standards are placed on Tier 1, while countries that fail to meet the minimum standards, but are taking adequate steps to achieve compliance are placed on Tier 2. Countries that consistently fail to meet minimum standards, but make promises for future compliance are placed on the Tier 2 Watch List. Finally, countries that fail to meet minimum standards and demonstrate limited movement toward compliance are placed on Tier 3, where they can be sanctioned on non-trade and non-humanitarian aid.[14]

This ranking system provides an enforcement mechanism, but sanctions enforcement has been somewhat lax. Between 2003 and 2009, 45 countries were categorized as Tier 3, and 12 were subject to sanctions. Eight were already subject to U.S. sanctions, so the TVPA sanctions had little financial impact on the countries. Countries sanctioned in 2013 include North Korea, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Iran, Sudan, and Zimbabwe.[15] On the other hand, 19 nations including Russia and China took sufficient steps following their designations as Tier 3 to avoid sanctions. Sanctions were waived for the remaining 14 countries on the basis of U.S. national interests.[16]

USAID. The U.S. Agency for International Development works closely with the TIP office to ensure that aid is disseminated to countries that have the political will to address human trafficking and have demonstrated the greatest need for assistance.[17] Recognizing human trafficking as a growing threat, USAID invests several million dollars in programs to combat the practice throughout the world, especially in Asia. USAID has invested in more than 30 anti-trafficking programs in Asia and spent more than $4 million on programming in Asia in 2012 alone. These programs focus on USAID’s three goals of preventing trafficking, protecting and assisting victims of trafficking, and establishing laws and legal systems equipped to enforce the laws.[18]

One of USAID’s most successful and least expensive programs to counter trafficking in persons is MTV EXIT, which is a campaign using the MTV brand run in cooperation with Australian Aid and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The program’s primary purpose is to increase awareness about human trafficking in Southeast Asia. MTV EXIT has conducted 40 concerts, reaching 1.8 million people through live events and an additional 83 million through television, and has hosted 570 community outreach events.[19] The programs seek to raise awareness about human trafficking and provide opportunities for young people to become directly involved in combating the problem. In late 2014, USAID launched a similar public awareness program in Thailand.[20]

In 2012, USAID made a significant effort to renew attention toward human trafficking by launching and funding the Counter Trafficking in Persons policy (C-TIP), which established a universal set of goals and methodology regarding human trafficking.[21] An audit by the Office of the Inspector General of C-TIP procedures and implementation in late 2013 revealed some deficiencies in USAID programming against human trafficking, such as challenges with implementing programs, applying best practices, and coordinating staff.[22]

Millennium Challenge Corporation. MCC implements transformational aid programs that tie a country’s eligibility to receive aid directly to its willingness to promote economic freedom, protect political freedoms, and ensure social and environmental standards.[23] To qualify for MCC assistance, countries must meet predetermined benchmarks that measure the economic and political climate of the country. The MCC board determines a country’s eligibility using indicators such as free trade, corruption, political freedom, and public health data. Once deemed eligible, MCC countries receive a five-year compact. Since its inception in 2004, MCC has disseminated over $8.4 billion in aid.[24] This aid model, particularly its selection criteria, has been deemed highly effective in encouraging developing countries to achieve reasonable goals and observable reform.[25]

MCC measures the prevalence of human trafficking and how the government is addressing the problem as a component of compact eligibility.[26] MCC’s decision to include human trafficking as part of its selection criteria has given the U.S. additional leverage in encouraging countries to combat it. MCC’s pioneering efforts to create a solid criterion for aid eligibility based on human trafficking conditions in the country is contributing significantly to the fight against trafficking.

The threat of the Philippines jeopardizing its MCC Compact assistance due to human-trafficking concerns motivated the government of the Philippines to make serious policy changes.[27] Partially because of how seriously MCC takes human trafficking as an eligibility issue, the Philippines channeled significant additional resources toward its domestic anti-trafficking body, the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking. The Philippines has also experienced a change in government, with President Benigno Aquino coming to power. Under his leadership, the Philippines has more than tripled convictions of traffickers and almost quadrupled the number of victims rescued.[28]

MCC’s attention to human trafficking issues influences its aid allocation in two ways. First, it ensures that MCC aid is not rewarding countries that willfully traffic their own citizens. Second, it ensures that the aid workers and contractors administering MCC aid are not intentionally or unintentionally facilitating trafficking through their programs.[29]

Other U.S. Agencies. The Department of Labor, the Department of Justice, the Presidential Interagency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (PITF), and the Senior Policy Operation Group also play significant roles in U.S.-led anti-trafficking initiatives. For example, the Labor Department releases annual reports on forced labor.[30] The Justice Department prosecutes human-trafficking cases that involve international persons in the U.S. The PITF coordinates the myriad U.S. agencies involved in combating human trafficking and offers recommendations for future U.S. anti-trafficking policy.[31]

Regional Trends

Asia’s human-trafficking record is mixed. It is home to some of the worst perpetrators of human trafficking, including North Korea, Burma, and Thailand, but it also has success stories such as South Korea. The vast majority of Asian nations are still building the infrastructure for positive anti-trafficking policy, but U.S.-led TIP initiatives have undoubtedly contributed to the improvements.


China and Northeast Asia. In 2013, China was demoted to Tier 3, but promoted to Tier 2 Watch List in 2014 after passing legislation to eliminate re-education through labor camps.[32] An estimated 2.8 million to 3.1 million[33] Chinese citizens are subjected to forced labor through labor camps and other means, and many Chinese women and children are subjected to sex trafficking. China’s coercive one-child policy, which typically results in favoring boys over girls, has exacerbated trafficking problems, resulting in increased child trafficking for adoption, sex trafficking, and forced marriages.[34]

North Korea is one of the worst perpetrators of human trafficking in the world. Forced labor camps extrajudicially imprison an estimated 100,000–200,000 North Korean citizens.[35] North Korean defectors forcibly repatriated by China often become forced laborers after they return.[36] Defectors smuggled out of North Korea also are particularly vulnerable to trafficking. An estimated 70 percent of defectors from North Korea are women, and some estimate that between 70 percent and 90 percent of female defectors eventually become victims of trafficking.[37] North Korean women are often trafficked into China where they are forced to marry Chinese men and subjected to prostitution and forced labor.[38]

Japan, a Tier 2 country, has made great strides in combatting human trafficking since World War II. In recent years, however, it has underperformed. It has not acceded to the Palermo Protocol nor does it have a broad anti-trafficking law.[39] Japan bans prostitution and has laws against forced labor and child abuse, but does not have laws that explicitly address human trafficking.[40]

Human trafficking in Japan primarily affects women and children. Japanese shortcomings are, in part, attributable to cultural attitudes toward women. The Abe Administration has attempted to elevate the status of women in Japan through the introduction of “womenomics,” a policy that encourages greater participation of women in the workforce. Nonetheless, the general treatment of Japanese women as what many would consider second-class citizens has led policymakers to overlook domestic human-trafficking problems.

South Korea, a country that previously had a significant human-trafficking problem, is now fully compliant with minimum standards for eliminating trafficking in persons.[41] South Korea is not completely free of forced prostitution, forced labor, and other forms of trafficking abuse, but has implemented proper human trafficking laws, adequately prosecutes traffickers, and provides restitution for victims.

Southeast Asia. Thailand’s automatic downgrade to Tier 3 in 2014 is a result of alleged government complicity in human trafficking, severe sex trafficking, and wide-scale labor trafficking in the fishing, textile, and domestic labor industries. Displaced and stateless persons from Southeast Asia are particularly vulnerable to trafficking in Thailand. Thailand has been in the news recently for its severe labor trafficking, particularly in the seafood industry. Many trafficking victims in Thailand’s fishing industry come from neighboring Southeast Asian nations, such as Burma and Cambodia. Displaced Burmese Rohingya are particularly vulnerable.

Since its automatic downgrade to Tier 3 in 2014, the Thai government has sought to focus more attention on combating human trafficking, but only time will tell whether these efforts will produce results. Since the coup in early 2014, there is concern that Thailand is at increased risk for human trafficking.

Cambodia also continues to struggle with severe sex trafficking. Countless children, particularly young girls, are sold for their virginity by their parents.[42] Many Cambodians are trafficked into forced labor in neighboring Thailand, Burma, and Laos. Cambodia’s government has demonstrated its willingness to counter human trafficking by drafting guidelines for a national victim identification system, but enforcement and follow-through have been slow.[43]

The Philippines made great strides in tackling human trafficking under the Benigno Aquino administration. The government of the Philippines has undertaken serious legal and judicial reform, law enforcement training, and victim restitution. The Philippines created the regional Inter-Agency Councils Against Trafficking, a domestic human-trafficking task force, and has cooperated with human-trafficking nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to address localized trafficking problems. The Philippine task forces not only engaged in local law enforcement activities, but also provided assistance for victims. The task forces are engaged at the ports of entry, such as port cities and airports, to rescue victims at transit points. An estimated 2,000 victims were served in halfway houses and rehabilitation centers coordinated by the local task forces between 2005 and 2007.[44] Still, an estimated 200,000 Filipinos are victims of sex or labor trafficking.[45]

Indonesia has achieved similar success in the regions where it has anti-trafficking task forces. While Indonesia has a limited number of district-level task forces (in 88 of the 497 districts[46]), it has the Attorney General’s Task Force on Terrorism and Transnational Crime, a national task force, which facilitated creation of a national database of prosecutions and court cases dealing with human trafficking issues. The database tracked an estimated 102 cases that resulted in prosecution of traffickers in 2012.[47]

Burma was again identified by the State Department as one of a limited number of countries that used child soldiers in 2014.[48] While the Burmese government released at least 100 child soldiers earlier this year, an unknown number of children are still employed as child soldiers.[49] In addition to child soldiers, Burma is notorious for employing children in forced labor. According to the Department of Labor’s “List of Goods Produced by Child Labor and Forced Labor,” Burma produces a number of goods—including bricks, rice, rubber, and sugarcane—with forced labor and child labor.[50]

Burma’s trafficking can be attributed to corrupt government, local law enforcement, and military officials. The Tatmadaw, the Burmese military, is well known for its involvement in sexual abuse of women, particularly minority females. The Kachin, Shan, and Rohingya are particularly vulnerable to trafficking in Burma. An estimated 40,000 Rohingya were victims of trafficking in 2013, while nearly 200,000 Rohingya (of which 30,000 are registered with the U.N.) are refugees in Bangladesh and therefore vulnerable to trafficking.[51] The number of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh has increased substantially since June 2012, when violence broke out between the Muslim Rohingya and Buddhists in Burma’s Rakhine State. Credible reports show that the Burmese military and government have benefitted monetarily from trafficking of Rohingya.[52]

Although Singapore is not a party to the Palermo Protocol, it has one of the lowest rates of human trafficking in Southeast Asia.[53] Arguably, this could be attributed to the robust legal and law enforcement infrastructure in Singapore as well as its relatively robust economic health as compared with the rest of the region.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has a role to play in combatting trafficking in the region. ASEAN has already demonstrated leadership with MTV EXIT, its awareness-building initiative. However, ASEAN should play a more significant role in the region by encouraging regional intelligence and information sharing and holding joint law enforcement exercises that target organized criminal activities, including human trafficking, drug trafficking, and money laundering.

South Asia. Human trafficking in South Asia hinders socioeconomic development of the region and contributes to violence and corruption in society, harming both individuals and the state. An estimated 17 million people are trafficked in South Asia today.[54]

Globalization and demographic trends are leading to increased demand for cheap labor and migration of people within their own countries and across national borders.[55] The Global Slavery Index ranks India first, Pakistan third, and Bangladesh ninth on the list of countries with the highest number of enslaved people.[56] The U.S. State Department’s 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report ranks most of the South Asian nations as Tier 2 states, except for Pakistan and Sri Lanka, which are ranked as Tier Two Watch List.

The problem of child labor in South Asia received attention last year when the Nobel Peace Committee split its annual award between Kailash Satyarthi, a 60-year-old Indian man who has dedicated his life to ending child labor in his country, and Malala Yousafzai, a 17-year-old Pakistani girl shot by the Taliban for advocating for girls’ education. Satyarthi is not as well known as Yousafzai, but is an important human rights advocate in the region. Child labor is endemic in India, where an estimated 50 million children are employed, particularly in brick and carpet manufacturing. Child labor also is a major problem in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal.

The most common contributing factors to labor and sex trafficking in the region are economic insecurity and poverty.[57] Even though India has experienced relatively strong economic growth over the past decade, poverty remains widespread (nearly 30 percent of the population lives on less than $2 per day), and women in the rural areas, in particular, lack access to education and employment. Corrupt local law enforcement officials in India often facilitate the movement of trafficked victims or protect alleged traffickers, magnifying the problem. Indian NGOs report that local police often fail to act against brothels suspected of prostituting minors. India had been on the Tier Two Watch List from 2006 to 2010. In 2011, India was upgraded to Tier Two based on enactment of national legislation acknowledging that bonded labor is a form of human trafficking and its increased efforts to stem the problem at the state level.

Many South Asians are trafficked abroad as physical laborers or domestic servants. Many South Asian governments have little incentive to address human trafficking because they often rely on remittances for revenue. The Asian region, particularly South Asia, receives an estimated $206 billion in remittances annually. For example, remittances comprise 22 percent of Nepal’s gross domestic product (GDP) and 10 percent of Bangladesh’s GDP.[58] Reliance on remittances has created an unending cycle of abuse in which the government refuses to intervene in trafficking situations or provide the necessary information to would-be laborers going abroad.

Afghanistan is both a source and destination of forced labor and sex trafficking. Child labor is particularly prevalent in the brick and carpet-making industries. Afghanistan improved its TIP ranking from Tier 2 Watch List to Tier 2 in 2014. According to the 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report, Afghanistan is making significant efforts to comply with the minimum standards for eliminating human trafficking and has made modest improvements in preventing human trafficking, although official complicity in human trafficking remains a serious problem.

Bangladesh is primarily a source country for forced labor and sex trafficking. Bangladesh was ranked as Tier Two Watch List in 2009, but went back up to Tier Two after parliament passed the 2012 Prevention and Suppression of Human Trafficking Act. Bangladesh has prosecuted an increased number of human trafficking cases since it passed the anti-trafficking law in 2012, but conviction rates remain low.

A recent case involving the rescue of over 130 Bangladeshis who were trafficked to Thailand has highlighted the scourge of human trafficking, which is usually hidden from the public’s view and receives little attention. The traffickers lured the Bangladeshi men with promises of employment, but once in custody the men were drugged and taken to camps in Thailand, where they were regularly beaten, abused, and deprived of food. Local police and human rights groups say there has been a recent surge in human trafficking along Bangladesh’s southeastern coast as traffickers from Burma extend their reach.[59]

In Nepal, traffickers reportedly use bribes and their connections to politicians, businessmen, police, and customs officials to facilitate their trafficking.[60] Labor brokers in Nepal also engage in fraud and charge exorbitant fees for services, according to the 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report. The Nepali authorities recently created a new investigative body to pursue trafficking cases and indicted public officials and private individuals for fraudulent labor recruitment.

Pakistan and Sri Lanka remain on the Tier Two Watch List. Pakistan’s greatest human-trafficking problem is bonded labor, in which employers entrap laborers by exploiting their debt obligations, which often carry over several generations. Pakistan has an estimated 2 million to 4 million bonded laborers, mainly in the agriculture and brick-making industries. The Pakistani government has worked with international organizations to address human-trafficking challenges and has rescued an increased number of bonded laborers, but has failed to convict trafficking offenders. Sri Lanka also has failed to convict any traffickers in the past three years and provides minimal protective services for trafficking victims.

There has been some progress in combating human trafficking in South Asia in recent years, but prosecution and conviction rates of traffickers remain relatively low. For example, in India, despite an increase in the number of identified victims, the conviction rate for sex trafficking has declined. Bangladesh’s enactment of human trafficking legislation in 2012 helped in that, among other things, it called for establishing a tribunal for human trafficking offenses to speed up processing of cases. Over the past several years in India, members of the tourism industry in Goa have adopted a code of conduct against sex trafficking, and the state of Goa passed legislation stipulating that managers and owners of tourism establishments were responsible for the safety of children on their premises.[61] The South Asia Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Trafficking Convention that was passed in 2002 has been hailed as a landmark effort to combine regional countries’ efforts to eradicate trafficking.

NGOs and corporations play a significant role in anti-trafficking efforts in South Asia. For example, Google invested $11.5 million in grants for 10 NGOs combatting human trafficking in 2011.[62] Google’s investment went toward anti-trafficking initiatives led by International Justice Mission (IJM), Polaris Project, and Slavery Footprint—all reputable anti-trafficking NGOs. Google is leading the way by demonstrating that multinationals have a role to play in monitoring their supply chains and discouraging trafficking in areas where they conduct business.

Limited Enforcement of Laws

Despite the enactment of anti-trafficking laws, there has been very little enforcement of those laws and thus minimal progress in reducing the number of trafficking victims. According to former U.S. Ambassador-at-Large Mark Lagon, previous TIP director, “The TIP Report conclusively propels nations to enact comprehensive anti-trafficking laws…but enforcement of those laws often does not follow.”[63]

Low prosecution rates for traffickers and a distinct failure to identify significant numbers of trafficking victims are further evidence that anti-trafficking laws are not being enforced. According to the State Department’s 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report, only 44,758 victims of trafficking were identified worldwide, only 9,460 traffickers were prosecuted, and a mere 5,776 traffickers were convicted.[64] In other words, of an estimated 36 million victims of trafficking, fewer than 45,000 (0.1 percent) were identified and rescued worldwide in 2013.[65]

Crucial Role of NGOs

The key to implementing human-trafficking law is effective local law enforcement. Without trustworthy, trained, and non-corrupt local law enforcement, human-trafficking laws are virtually useless. Nongovernmental organizations have played a crucial role in breaking up human-trafficking networks and rescuing victims. The most effective international NGOs, such as IJM, have developed a model of intervention that involves working closely with local investigators, law enforcers, prosecutors, and judges. IJM has operations on at least six continents and conducts raids in a variety of countries.[66]

Project Lantern, a successful IJM project in Cebu, Philippines, provided training for local law enforcement to educate and prepare the agents to deal with the unique human-trafficking challenges in their region. In addition to specialized training, IJM’s model required that lawyers and case workers accompany local law enforcement on raids to ensure safety for victims rescued from trafficking.[67] This model helped to limit corruption in local law enforcement and ensure justice for the victims. An Anti-Trafficking Review article about IJM’s project in Cebu reported:

Within the first three years of the project, 225 trafficked girls and women were rescued and 87 suspected traffickers arrested. An independent prevalence survey at the end of three years revealed a 79 percent drop in the availability of minors for sex in commercial establishments. The success of the Cebu model contributed to a decision by the Philippines government to replicate the model with IJM in two other locations.[68]

IJM’s model also recognized the importance of victim rehabilitation. An estimated 2,000 victims were served in halfway houses and rehabilitation centers coordinated by the local task forces.[69] NGOs and civil society in general have a crucial role to play in the rehabilitation and restoration of victims of human trafficking, including counseling, mentoring, and aftercare services.

In response to IJM’s efforts in the region, the Philippines has continued to replicate IJM’s model by creating additional anti-trafficking units. In 2013, the Philippines had created fourteen anti-trafficking task forces.[70] These units built on IJM’s model by providing training and assistance for anti-trafficking law enforcement officials and maintained strict requirements on how quickly these specialized units were rotated in and out.[71]

IJM has achieved similar success in Cambodia.[72] When IJM began operating in Cambodia in 2000, a significant number of children under age 15 were working in Cambodia’s commercial sex industry, but a recent prevalence survey reported that number has dropped significantly.[73]

Role of Multinationals

Proactive business practices that prioritize eradicating forced labor are integral to fighting global human trafficking. Many multinational companies inadvertently have forced labor in their supply chains or accidentally facilitate trafficking domestically and abroad. Businesses involved with agriculture or textile producers are particularly vulnerable to forced labor, bonded labor, and peonage in their supply chain.

While many companies—such as Microsoft, Marriott, and Coca-Cola—have recognized the important role that they play in combatting trafficking, many other companies lag in implementing effective anti-trafficking policies.[74] Ambassador Lagon emphasizes that “although thousands of individuals have joined the movement to end human trafficking, corporate commitment has lagged behind.”[75]

Without proactive engagement from the business community, the anti-trafficking movement lacks direct access to many of the supply and demand chains in which forced labor, bonded labor, and peonage occur. If the private sector can be incentivized to combat human trafficking, they can direct local law enforcement to traffickers and coordinate with other businesses in their supply chain to reduce the opportunities for illegal transactions and abuses within the commercial space.[76]

Consumers play a direct role in helping to combat global human trafficking. One key motivator for companies to adopt anti-trafficking practices and policies has been bad public relations and media backlash.

The first step to fighting trafficking in the supply chain is for companies to write explicit anti-trafficking guidelines into company policy. For example, Ford, Apple, Patagonia, Armani Exchange, and other companies write their opposition to human trafficking into their best practices policies, and this has led to further action. Ford audits its supply chain to ensure compliance with human-trafficking law.[77] Armani Exchange states that it is committed to ensuring that no trafficking occurs in its direct or indirect supply chains and provides employees with risk mitigation training on human trafficking.[78]

Some organizations are creating tools to make it easier for companies to comply with human trafficking law. For example, Slavery Footprint created an algorithm to estimate the number of workers it takes to make a given product.[79] In collaboration with the State Department, Slavery Footprint is working to adapt the algorithm to estimate the number of forced laborers in a given company’s supply chain.

One of the largest coalitions fighting trafficking is the Global Business Coalition Against Human Trafficking (gBCAT), which includes Coca Cola, Microsoft, and LexisNexis. gBCAT provides training and education on trafficking to company employees and vendors, raises awareness about sex trafficking, encourages best practices in business, and encourages companies to identify trafficking in its supply chains.[80]

Through gBCAT, Microsoft instituted a successful program that used technology to fight trafficking. In 2006, Microsoft provided $1.45 million in money and software supplies to build awareness about human trafficking and provide training in computer skills to locals in areas susceptible to trafficking in Asia.[81] In partnership with local NGOs, Microsoft provided support to more than 25,000 people in less than two years.[82] These training opportunities helped participants to find employment and supplied opportunities to locals who otherwise may have been trafficked. Microsoft also provided grants for research on the relationship between technology and child sex trafficking, provided funding to notable trafficking NGOs such as Polaris Project and IJM, and instituted best practices for combatting trafficking in its own supply chain.[83]

Recognizing the vulnerability of the hospitality industry to both sex and labor trafficking, Marriott started the Youth Career Initiative, which provides training in hospitality, banking, and health care to young people, including former trafficking victims.[84]

What the U.S. Should Do

The U.S. needs to step up its efforts to raise global awareness of the human-trafficking epidemic. Tens of millions of individuals in Asia and around the world are trapped in the mire of human trafficking with little hope of escape. This under-acknowledged and under-studied phenomenon is in desperate need of increased international attention.

Just as the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief has brought realistic and tangible solutions to the global AIDS epidemic, the U.S. should lead the way in acknowledging human trafficking as a major human rights crisis of the 21st century and apply funding and strategy accordingly.

To address human trafficking in Asia better, the U.S. should:

  • Bolster the role of the State Department’s TIP office in leading and directing global anti-trafficking efforts. Continued leadership in anti-trafficking means filling the ambassador-at-large position quickly with a candidate who has specialized knowledge of and a strong commitment to combating international human trafficking.[85] To ensure that the TIP report remains the worldwide go-to resource for anti-trafficking best practices and analysis, the U.S. should increase funding and staffing of the TIP office.
  • Prioritize working with countries with significant human-trafficking challenges and a demonstrated willingness to cooperate and implement anti-trafficking best practices. The State Department should continue working with USAID and NGOs to ensure that aid is allocated effectively and to prioritize training and assistance for willing local law enforcement in source countries of human trafficking. The TIP office and USAID should consider applying MCC-type criteria to U.S. anti–human trafficking assistance. If MCC criteria were applied to the TIP offices’ grant allocation and aid programs, they could ensure that U.S. anti-trafficking funds are used in the most effective and efficient ways.[86] Adopting a more selective model for anti-trafficking aid dissemination ensures that aid is targeted at the countries that are in the most need and are the most willing to combat trafficking. Prioritizing fewer countries and publishing criteria for country eligibility ensures transparency and provides clarity on aid qualification and dissemination for human trafficking assistance. A compact model would also provide a method for tracking progress in anti-trafficking efforts. The MCC aid model, particularly MCC’s selection criteria, has been deemed highly effective in encouraging developing countries to achieve reasonable goals and observable reform. This could easily be applied to anti-trafficking efforts.[87]
  • Focus more aid resources on specialized law enforcement and judicial training programs that address human-trafficking concerns. Combating human trafficking will require greater effort to ensure that individuals in Asia have access to fair and honest legal and judicial protection. IJM President Gary Haugen and Victor Boutros, prosecutor of international human-trafficking cases at the U.S. Department of Justice—both renowned anti–human trafficking practitioners—emphasize that the key to stopping trafficking is effective law enforcement and a judicial system free from corruption. While passing appropriate legislation is important, enforcing the law is even more critical. Corruption within police ranks and inadequate legal institutions are the primary obstacles to breaking up human trafficking networks.[88]
  • Encourage Asian countries to create anti-trafficking task forces similar to those in the Philippines and Indonesia. Both countries have increased prosecutions, rescued more victims, and improved local law enforcement response to trafficking.[89] Specialized law enforcement units are better able to recognize the signs of human trafficking, intervene to rescue victims of trafficking, and apprehend and prosecute traffickers. Indonesia’s task force was partly funded by USAID and could likely be replicated in other Asian countries.
  • Encourage regional organizations to facilitate regional cooperation against transnational crime, including human trafficking. Ultimately, individual countries in Asia need to address human trafficking problems, but the fight against human trafficking requires regional cooperation. ASEAN, SAARC, and other regional organizations should take a more active role to ensure sharing of best practices, information, and intelligence and in organizing joint law enforcement exercises to improve capabilities for combatting organized criminal activities, including human trafficking, drug trafficking, and money laundering.
  • Prod multinational companies to play a more significant role in combatting forced labor in their supply chains. Google, Microsoft, and other large multinationals have recognized that they can play important roles in combatting human trafficking. Whether investing in professional development programs or improving oversight in their supply chain, multinationals are uniquely positioned to prevent trafficking and report on it to local law enforcement. Continued research and development is needed to improve supply chain management to ensure that forced labor, sexual abuse, and other forms of trafficking are not occurring in multinational companies’ supply chains.


The fight against human trafficking constitutes one of the major global human rights challenges of the 21st century. Halting human trafficking will require U.S. leadership and effective partnerships with Asian governments, NGOs, and multinational companies as well as a special focus on improving justice systems in countries where human trafficking is prevalent.

—Lisa Curtis is Senior Research Fellow for South Asia and Olivia Enos is a Research Assistant in the Asian Studies Center, of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, at The Heritage Foundation.

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[2] Belinda Luscombe, “Inside the Scarily Lucrative Business Model of Human Trafficking,” Time, May 20, 2014, (accessed December 31, 2014).

[3] U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, “Human Trafficking: Organized Crime and the Multibillion Dollar Sale of People,” July 19, 2012, (accessed December 31, 2014).

[4] Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, Supplementing the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, November 15, 2000, (accessed November 19, 2013).

[5] U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, “What Is Human Trafficking,” (accessed December 31, 2014).

[6] Lindsey King, “International Law and Human Trafficking,” Topical Research Digest (2007), (accessed December 31, 2014), and Laura L. Shoaps, “Room for Improvement: Palermo Protocol and the Trafficking Victims Protection Act,” Lewis & Clark Law Review, Vol. 17, No. 3 (2014), (accessed December 31, 2014).

[7] INTERPOL, “INTERPOL Tools,” (accessed December 31, 2014).

[8] INTERPOL, “Operations,” April 4, 2014, (accessed December 31, 2014).

[9] Ibid.

[10] MaryAnne McReynolds, “The Trafficking Victims Protection Act: Has the Legislation Fallen Short of Its Goals?” Policy Perspectives, No. 15 (Spring 2008), (accessed December 31, 2014).

[11] U.S. Department of State, Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, Trafficking in Persons Report, June 2013, p. 29, (accessed November 19, 2013).

[12] U.S. Department of State, Trafficking in Persons Report, June 2008, p. 6, (accessed November 19, 2013).

[13] U.S. Department of State, Trafficking in Persons Report, June 2013, pp. 41–44.

[14] Ibid., pp. 44 and 46–47.

[15] Yonhap News Agency, “Obama Renews Sanctions on N. Korea for Human Trafficking,” GlobalPost, September 17, 2013, (accessed December 31, 2014).

[16] Shoaps, “Room for Improvement.”

[17] U.S. Agency for International Development, Counter-Trafficking in Persons Field Guide, April 2013, (accessed December 31, 2014).

[18] U.S. Agency for International Development, “USAID Anti-Trafficking in Persons Programs in Asia: A Synthesis,” November 2009, pp. 11 and 16, (accessed January 26, 2015), and U.S. Agency for International Development, “C-TIP Programs in Asia,” August 9, 2013, (accessed December 31, 2014).

[19] MTV EXIT, website, (accessed December 31, 2014).

[20] News release, “USAID and IOM United on New Campaign to Combat Human Trafficking,” U.S. Agency for International Development, October 17, 2014, (accessed December 31, 2014).

[21] U.S. Agency for International Development, “Counter-Trafficking in Persons Policy,” February 2012, p. 1, (accessed November 18, 2014).

[22] U.S. Agency for International Development, Office of Inspector General, “Review of USAID’s New Counter-Trafficking in Persons Program,” November 27, 2013, (accessed December 31, 2014).

[23] Bradley C. Parks and Zachary J. Rice, “Measuring the Policy Influence of the Millennium Challenge Corporation: A Survey-Based Approach,” College of William and Mary, Institute for the Theory and Practice of International Relations, February 2013, p. 17, (accessed December 31, 2014).

[24] Millennium Challenge Corporation, “About MCC,” (accessed December 31, 2014).

[25] Parks and Rice, “Measuring the Policy Influence of the Millennium Challenge Corporation,” p. 17.

[26] Millennium Challenge Corporation, “Rule of Law Indicator,” (accessed December 31, 2014).

[27] Blair Burns, testimony before the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations, Committee on Foreign Affairs, U.S. House of Representatives, April 29, 2014, (accessed December 31, 2014).

[28] Republic of the Philippines, Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking, “Resources: Statistics,” December 4, 2014, (accessed December 31, 2014).

[29] U.S. Agency for International Development, Office of Inspector General, “Audit of the Millennium Challenge Corporation’s Monitoring of Trafficking in Persons in MCC-Funded Programs,” February 12, 2013, (accessed December 31, 2014).

[30] U.S. Department of Labor, “International Child and Forced Labor Reports,” (accessed December 31, 2014).

[31] U.S. Department of State, “President’s Interagency Task Force,” (accessed January 29, 2014).

[32] U.S. Department of State, Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, Trafficking in Persons Report, June 2014, (accessed December 31, 2014).

[33] Walk Free Foundation, Global Slavery Index 2014, pp. 102–103.

[34] Olivia Enos, “China’s Self-Created Demographic Disaster Is Coming,” The National Interest, September 25, 2014, (accessed December 31, 2014).

[35] Robert R. King, “U.S.–Korea Policy Coordination Toward North Korea,” speech at Sungkyungkwan University, Seoul, Korea, May 21, 2013, (accessed December 31, 2014).

[36] Robert Cohen, “Legal Grounds for Protection of North Korean Refugees,” The Brookings Institution, Fall 2010, (accessed December 31, 2014).

[37] Jane Kim, “Trafficked: Domestic Violence, Exploitation in Marriage, and the Foreign-Bride Industry,” Virginia Journal of International Law, Vol. 51, No. 2 (December 2010), p. 443, (accessed January 26, 2015), and Kyla Ryan, “The Women Who Escape from North Korea,” The Diplomat, November 24, 2014, (accessed December 31, 2014).

[38] U.S. Department of State, Trafficking in Persons Report, June 2014.

[39] Mark Lagon, “Human Trafficking: Focusing on Key Countries, Demand, and Victim Protection,” testimony before the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations, Committee on Foreign Affairs, U.S. House of Representatives, April 29, 2014, (accessed January 26, 2015).

[40] Shihoko Fujiwara, “Sex Trafficking in Japan,” World Justice Project, October 22, 2012, (accessed December 31, 2014).

[41] U.S. Department of State, Trafficking in Persons Report, June 2014.

[42] Tim Hume, Lisa Cohen, and Mira Sorvino, “The Women Who Sold Their Daughters into Sex Slavery,” CNN, (accessed December 31, 2014).

[43] U.S. Department of State, Trafficking in Persons Report, June 2014.

[44] U.S. Agency for International Development, “USAID Anti-Trafficking in Persons Programs in Asia.”

[45] U.S. Department of State, Trafficking in Persons Report, June 2014.

[46] IRIN, “Human Trafficking in Southeast Asia a Complex Issue,” Jakarta Globe, May 7, 2013, (accessed November 19, 2013).

[47] U.S. Department of State, Trafficking in Persons Report, June 2013, pp. 198–210.

[48] U.S. Department of State, “The Fact on Child Soldiers and CSPA,” November 26, 2014, (accessed December 31, 2014).

[49] Yahoo News, “Obama Maintains Child Soldier Sanctions Against Myanmar,” September 30, 2014, (accessed December 31, 2014).

[50] U.S. Department of Labor, “List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor,” December 1, 2014, (accessed December 31, 2014).

[51] Wakar Uddin, “The Rohingya of Burma: Victims of Persecution and Violence in Burma and a Commodity of Human Smuggling and Trafficking in Southeast Asia,” testimony before Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations, Committee on Foreign Affairs, U.S. House of Representatives, April 28, 2014, (accessed December 31, 2014), and “Myanmar to Start Taking Rohingya Refugees from Bangladesh in Two Months,”, August, 31, 2014, (accessed January 26, 2015).

[52] Todd Pitman and Esther Htusan, “Myanmar Profits off Rohingya Exodus,” Yahoo News, November 6, 2014, (accessed December 31, 2014).

[53] United Nations, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, “Human Rights Council—Universal Periodic Review: Singapore,” May 6, 2011, (accessed December 31, 2014), and Walk Free Foundation, Global Slavery Index 2014.

[54] Walk Free Foundation, Global Slavery Index 2014.

[55] M. Bashir Uddin, “Human Trafficking in South Asia: Issues of Corruption and Human Security,” International Journal of Social Work and Human Services Practice, Vol. 2, No. 1 (February 2014), (accessed December 31, 2014).

[56] Walk Free Foundation, Global Slavery Index 2014, pp. 13–28.

[57] Uddin, “Human Trafficking in South Asia.”

[58] Asia-Pacific RCM Thematic Working Group on International Migration Including Human Trafficking, “Situation Report on International Migration in South and South-West Asia,” 2012, (accessed December 31, 2014).

[59] Syed Zain Al-Mahmood, “Human Traffickers in Bay of Bengal Cast Sights on Bangladesh,” The Wall Street Journal, October 28, 2014, (accessed December 31, 2014).

[60] Ibid.

[61] U.S. Agency for International Development, “USAID Anti-Trafficking in Persons Programs in Asia.”

[62] David Molko and Lisa Cohen, “Google Joins Fight Against Slavery with $11.5 Million Grant,” CNN, December 14, 2011, (accessed December 31, 2014).

[63] Lagon, “Human Trafficking: Focusing on Key Countries, Demand, and Victim Protection.”

[64] U.S. Department of State, Trafficking in Persons Report, June 2014, p. 45, (accessed December 31, 2014).

[65] Walk Free Foundation, The Global Slavery Index 2014, pp. 13–28.

[66] International Justice Mission, “Where We Work,” (accessed December 31, 2014).

[67] Holly Burkhalter, “Sex Trafficking, Law Enforcement and Perpetrator Accountability,” Anti-Trafficking Review, No. 1 (June 2012), (accessed January 26, 2015).

[68] Ibid.

[69] U.S. Agency for International Development, “USAID Anti-Trafficking in Persons Programs in Asia.”

[70] U.S. Department of State, Trafficking in Persons Report, June 2013, pp. 198–210.

[71] Burkhalter, “Sex Trafficking, Law Enforcement and Perpetrator Accountability.”

[72] Private conversations with Holly Burkhalter.

[73] David Shaw, “Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in Cambodia: A Venue-Based Application of Time Space Sampling to Measure Prevalence in Phnom Penh, Siem Riep and Sihanoukville,” International Justice Mission, Cambodia.

[74] Stoyan Zaimov, “Wells Fargo Ranked Lowest on Corporate Responsibility in Human Slavery Report,” The Christian Post, October 8, 2013, (accessed December 31, 2014).

[75] Mark P. Lagon, “How to Stop Human Trafficking,” American Enterprise Institute, January 16, 2009, (accessed December 31, 2014).

[76] Erika R. George and Scarlet R. Smith, “In Good Responsibility: How Corporate Social Responsibility Can Protect Rights and Aid Efforts to End Child Sex Trafficking and Modern Slavery,” International Law and Politics, Vol. 46, No. 55 (Fall 2013), (accessed December 31, 2014).

[77] Ford Corporation, “Forced Labor and Human Trafficking in Supply Chains,” (accessed December 31, 2014).

[78] Armani Exchange, “Corporate Responsibility,” (accessed December 31, 2014).

[79] Made in a Free World, “About Us,” (accessed December 31, 2014).

[80] Global Business Coalition Against Human Trafficking, “Focus Areas,” (accessed December 31, 2014).

[81] University of Washington, Center for Information and Society, “Evaluation of the Microsoft Unlimited Potential Anti-Trafficking Program in Asia,” May 2008, (accessed December 31, 2014).

[82] Ibid.

[83] Microsoft, “Addressing Human Trafficking,” January 2013, (accessed January 26, 2015).

[84] Marriott International, “Our Commitment to Human Rights,” November 2012, (accessed December 31, 2014).

[85] Mark P. Lagon and Judith Kelley, “No One Is Steering the United States’ Fight Against Human Trafficking,” Foreign Policy, November 18, 2014, (accessed December 31, 2014).

[86] Private conversation with Holly Burkhalter, and Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking, “Recommendations for a Trafficking in Persons Focus Country Approach,” February 2014,,%202014).pdf (accessed December 31, 2014).

[87] Parks and Rice, “Measuring the Policy Influence of the Millennium Challenge Corporation: A Survey-Based Approach,” p. 17.

[88] Gary A. Haugen and Victor Boutros, The Locust Effect: Why the End of Poverty Requires the End of Violence (Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2014).

[89] U.S. Department of State, Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, Trafficking in Persons Report, June 2013, pp. 198–210, (accessed November 19, 2013), and U.S. Agency for International Development, “USAID Anti-Trafficking in Persons Programs in Asia: A Synthesis.”


Lisa Curtis
Lisa Curtis

Former Senior Research Fellow, Asian Studies Center

Olivia Enos
Olivia Enos

Former Senior Policy Analyst, Asian Studies Center