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Special Report
Last Updated: 09/13/2008
Human Trafficking: Chains of Fraud
Nansiri Iamsuk

Nansiri Iamsuk discusses the complex challenge posed to human rights and peace by the multi-billion dollar human trafficking industry. Focusing on Southeast Asia, Iamsuk shows how victims are deceived and exploited by international criminals, and then ignored or mistreated by governments and/or NGOs that are supposed to help them.

Key words: un, human trafficking, sex trade, slavery, human rights

Human trafficking is a multi-billion dollar business, made at the expense of millions of victims all over the world. People of all ages and both sexes are involved, and they are affected by different types of violence, including forced labour and sexual exploitation. Far from being a relic of human history, banished along with the slave trade, the forced movement of people -- human trafficking -- is now the world’s second largest illegal trade, after drugs.

According to the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children, which supplements the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime in 2000, trafficking in persons is defined 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. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.[1]

The children in this context are any persons under eighteen years old.[2]


To date, there are around 800,000 people falling into the international trafficking chain each year, but this figure does not include the millions of people who are exploited domestically in similar ways.[3]  According to the International Labour Organization, there are more than 2.4 million people in forced labour at any given time.  Of this number, the Asia and Pacific region accounts for 1.4 million, most of whom are trafficked within Asia; although a significant number of the trafficked Asians, about 25,000 – 35,000, enter North America each year.[4] Apart from Asia and the Pacific, there are approximately 250,000 affected people in Latin America and the Caribbean, 230,000 in the Middle East and Northern Africa, and 130,000 in sub-Saharan countries.[5]

How are people trafficked?

The common trend of trafficking in persons is that people from poor economic backgrounds and poor education are allured by false promises of job opportunities. The hope of having a better quality of life drives them to take the risk of leaving their family and going abroad.  In many cases the traffickers are relatives or close friends of the victims, and the victims hardly think that they would be deceived by people whom they have known for years.  The traffickers normally arrange the transportation for the victims from their country of origin to the destination of exploitation. Once the victims arrive at the destination, they realize that they have been deceived.

They are forced to follow the trafficker’s demands, which they are not willing to do. Their freedom is limited. They cannot escape since they are told that they are in debt of their travel arrangement so they have to work for paying that debt. If they don’t obey, they are usually beaten.  In cases where the traffickers know the family, exploited workers are told that their families will be murdered or enslaved because of their disobedience. Threatened with personal injury and the death of loved ones, the victims yield, and do as the traffickers force them to. 

Moreover, when the victims are not wanted anymore at one place, they are sold to another trafficker at other place. In this way, a single victim can be trafficked repeatedly. 

One woman’s story:

Neary grew up in rural village in Cambodia.  At 17 years old, her sister arranged for her to be married to a man who later sold her for 300 US dollars to a brothel.  For five years, Neary was used up by working as a prostitute until she contracted HIV and was discarded because she became too sick to make money for the brothel.  Neary died of AIDS when she was only 23 years old.[6] 

The story of Neary is only one example among countless human trafficking cases occurring in the world, however, as the wide range of exploitations include forced labour, forced marriage, domestic slavery, organ removal, and underage military service.

Human Trafficking VS People Smuggling

Many people confuse human trafficking with people smuggling, since these two terms are often used synonymously. But in fact they are distinct. Smuggling is the process to arrange for helping an individual to entry into a foreign country illegally, in which the individual pays for that arrangement.[7]  However the smuggled people are at risk of becoming victims of trafficking since, as they have entered into another country without proper document, they can be easily lured, threatened, and forced to work as slaves. In this case, their illegal status is a primary cause of vulnerability, and they are afraid of being imprisoned or deported.

Trafficking in persons and human rights in Southeast Asia

A recent publication of the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC) shows that Southeast Asia is often reported to be an origin region for trafficking into other countries in the world.[8] Though several countries in the region have acknowledged the human trafficking situation, they have not yet considered this problem to be an imminent crisis, distinct from the smuggling of migrant workers across their borders. Trafficking in persons is very sensitive issue and a multi-dimensional problem which has been compounded by a social, economic, and developmental challenges. In Asia, as elsewhere, it is linked to other issues such as gender, health, migration, and many others.  

In order to fight this crime, the UN adopted the Convention prohibiting human trafficking in 2000. This UN Trafficking Protocol, initially debated by UN bodies concerned with transnational crime rather than social or economic issues, or human rights, focuses on encouraging states to adopt and enforce laws against trafficking.[9] It specifies a series of anti-trafficking measures they can take. These measures fall  into three broad categories which are: law enforcement, in order to detect, prosecute, and punish traffickers; prevention, in order to reduce the potential of trafficking to happen and the third measure is protection; assistance, such as safe shelter and medication, once a victim of trafficking is rescued.[10]

Additionally, in 2002, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) issued the Recommended Principles and Guidelines on Human Rights and Human Trafficking, which mainly focus on the human rights of the trafficked persons, in an effort to ensure that all attempts to combat human trafficking will not harm the victim’s human rights.[11] The UN High Commissioner, Mary Robinson, emphasized to governments that anti-trafficking measures should not “adversely affect” human rights, and that “the human rights of trafficked persons shall be at the centre of all efforts to prevent and combat trafficking and to protect, assist and provide redress to victims”.[12]

So there are two main objectives to combat trafficking in persons: enforcing the law and upholding human rights. With no doubt, many authorities working in the field have accepted these purposes, and they assume that they are doing both equally. But in practice, the law is often compromised, and human rights continue to be violated on a large scale, especially in Southeast Asia.

As all countries in the region are developing countries, the governments tend to lose their focus on moral problems such as human trafficking every time there is economic and political turmoil in their countries. To this effect, Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women (GAATW) reports that the priority for governments around the world in their efforts to stop human trafficking has been to arrest, prosecute and punish traffickers, rather than to protect the human rights of people who have been trafficked.[13]

In Southeast Asia, the trafficked person’s human rights are likely violated explicitly, but people take it quietly. Many governments have been exploiting the issue of trafficking to strengthen their own political images, at the expense of the interests of the trafficking victims.[14] Consequently, the anti-trafficking efforts and protection measures designed by the government has had a negative impact on those who are supposed to benefit from the policies.

Confined to shelters

For the assistance of victims of trafficking, some government agencies claim they are rescuing and helping trafficked persons, but in fact they take no notice of the victims’ wishes and many times forcibly repatriate the victims to their origin countries. In Thailand, for example, after victims of trafficking have been rescued, they are quickly transferred to state-run shelters for trafficking victims, regardless of the rescued peoples’ wishes.

Although these shelters offer many beneficial programs, including psycho-social services, educational opportunities, vocational training, legal assistance, and preparation for repatriation, many of victims always would prefer to be released from shelters and be allowed to make their own choices. Some want to return to their home countries immediately and reunite with their families. Other people wish to be released so that they can seek work.

Statistics provided by the Thailand Department of Social Development and Welfare (DSDW) on 460 trafficking victims present in DSDW shelters between August 2005 and August 2006 indicate that many victims from Cambodia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, and Myanmar remained in a DSDW shelter between six and ten months and that the median stay in a shelter was 4.6 months because of legal proceedings in Thailand.[15]

During their stay in the shelters, the rights and freedoms of those victims are suspended. Any opportunities they may have to earn income and stay with their loved ones are wasted. For these reasons, many people prefer to be labelled as illegal immigrants and expelled from Thailand rather than be identified as a victim of trafficking and face the possibility of a lengthy stay in a government or NGO shelter. This strengthens the notion that a stay in a shelter is a quasi-criminal detention rather than a package of services provided for the benefit of the trafficked victims.[16]

Thailand government and related organizations must improve this situation by offering treatment and care in a way that recognizes and respects the individuality of people who have gone through the trauma of being trafficked and exploited. Throughout the assistance process, staff should strive to provide the most appropriate protection, assistance, and support to the needs and circumstances of each individual person that has been rescued..

Policies of protection regarding victims of human trafficking in Southeast Asia should be based on the UNHCHR Recommended Principles and Guidelines on Human Rights and Human Trafficking that anti-trafficking measures shall not adversely affect the human rights and dignity of persons, in particular the rights of those who have been trafficked, and of migrants, internally displaced persons, refugees and asylum-seekers. The goal of such policies should always be to assist people who need help, not re-exploit them.

Gender discrimination

Another source of human rights violations faced by victims of trafficking is the gender discrimination inherent in most government responses to the issue. Based on the annual report on trafficking in persons from the U.S. State Department, 80% of victims of trafficking are women. However, there are a lot of male victims of trafficking who are facing extreme and violent exploitation, especially in the agriculture and fishery businesses, although few of them are identified as victims of trafficking. As a result, male victims of trafficking find it much more difficult to access government or NGO assistance than women and children victims do.

More often, male victims are arrested as illegal migrants and placed in a detention centres.[17] Among ten countries in the region, only Cambodia[18], Myanmar[19] and Thailand[20] have entitled male trafficking victims to their national laws providing assistance -- the other countries are not interested enough to address it. Even when male victims of trafficking are included in the law, however, very few males have received assistances in practice.

Many people still hold the stereotype that women and children are vulnerable to forced exploitation while men are not, but actually they are. Most of the time the authorities overlook the possibility that men could be trafficked, and consequently exclude them from the services and protection that all victims require.[21] All related agencies should work more on raising awareness and promoting knowledge that human trafficking can happen to anyone, regardless of age or gender.

Starting with education

Since this problem has only recently been addressed in a serious way by most states, and given the fact that each case is very sensitive and individual, governments and related organizations need to do a lot more research in order to battle with this crisis effectively. Though at the present there is still a serious lack of specialists and funds to work with, we can start by trying to raise awareness about the realities of human trafficking, and provide people with accurate information about migration and human rights. At least these can prevent people from falling into the trap of the trafficking chain.

[1]Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, United Nations, 2000 (UN Trafficking Protocol)

[2] UN Trafficking  Protocol

[3] United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking (UN.GIFT),Human Trafficking Overview, 2007,p.6

[4] UN.GIFT, Human Trafficking Overview, 2007, p.12

[5] International Labour Organization, A Global Alliance against Forced Labour, 2005.

[6] R.Miller, John, Harvard International Review, Underground Market, Vol.27(4) Winter 2006, Slave Trade: Combat Human Trafficking,

[7] Distinguishing between Human Trafficking and People Smuggling Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air, UN Office on Drugs and Crime,2003

[8] United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking (UN.GIFT): Human Trafficking Overview, 2007, p.9

[9] Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women (GAATW), Collateral Damaged, 2007, p.5

[10] GAATW, Collateral Damaged, 2007, p.5

[11] Universal Declaration of Human Rights,

[12] GAATW, Collateral Damaged, 2007, p.1

[13] GAATW, Collateral Damaged, 2007,p.7

[14] GAATW, Collateral Damaged, 2007, p.16

[15] International Organization for Migration (IOM), The Long Road Home: Analysis of Regional and National Process for the Return and Reintegration of Victims of Trafficking in the Great Mekong Sub-region,2007, p.32

[16] IOM, Delays to the Repatriation of Victims of Human Trafficking Caused by Legal Proceedings in Thailand, p.4

[17] United Nations Inter Agency Project on Human Trafficking in the Great Mekong Sub-region (UNIAP) Correspondence, First Quarter 2003

[19] Myanmar, The 2005 Anti-Trafficking in Persons Law

[20]Thailand, The 2008 Prevention and Suppression of Trafficking in Persons Act

[21] GAATW, Collateral Damaged, 2007, p.17

Nansiri Iamsuk is currently a student in the MA in International Peace Studies, Dual Campus Program. This special report is crystallized from her two-year-experience of working for counter trafficking field at an international non-governmental organization in Thailand.