Trafficking survivors in East Asia need greater representation -

Trafficking survivors in East Asia need greater representation

  • Published on
    February 16, 2023
  • Written by:
    Miriam Karmali
  • Category:
    Survivor Stories
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The majority of people who experience modern slavery are in the Asia Pacific region, nearly 60% of the estimated 50 million according to the latest Global Estimates on Modern Slavery. 

However, it is rare that trafficking survivors in this area are able to feed into the development of anti-trafficking  programmatic work and government policies.

Barriers to meaningful inclusion

Taboos around human trafficking and modern slavery make it difficult for survivors to speak about their experiences in the first instance, much less to access consultation processes to inform policy and legislation.

Furthermore, anti-trafficking organizations may limit a person to being a recipient of services rather than an active participant in the movement that is required to make systemic changes to meaningfully address trafficking.

Restrictions on civil society

In China, anti-trafficking activism and programmatic work operates in a strict environment. Due to their political sensitivity, the terms ‘human trafficking’ and ‘child labor’ are rarely used in public discourse. Writing in openDemocracy, Ling Li says:

“Civil society organisations working on modern slavery there say that, no matter how closely aligned they are with governmental agendas and policies, they must choose their words carefully and remain low-key if they want to continue to operate.”

But it’s not just China. In Thailand and Cambodia, involving people with lived experience into the policy making process is mostly unheard of. In some cases, survivors’ input is limited to a merely tokenistic extent and their feedback is used to ‘rubber stamp’ an organization’s policies or programmes. The CEO of the Mekong Club, an anti-trafficking NGO working with the private sector, explained: 

“It’s disrespectful to the survivor, for her or him to be in that situation, because [the NGO] is just kind of using them. [It’s] not really listening to what they’re saying.’”

Furthermore, organizations may be unwilling to invest the time and resources necessary to ensure people with lived experience are able to engage in decision-making processes and be treated as professionals.

 “It is very easy if you want to tick the box,” a UN officer said. “You offer a nice lunch, and you invite people. […] Two or three will comment, and most of the time those [are people] who speak English or already know their rights. […] [But] then you [can show] a list of 100 people who participated to the event. [In such cases,] is the input that you’re getting the right one?”

The anti-trafficking sector must do better

The anti-modern slavery movement must create the space for leadership from lived experience, helping identify lasting solutions. Through our My Story, My Dignity campaign, Freedom United is urging the anti-trafficking sector to ensure accurate and respectful representations, so that we are all better informed on the realities of modern slavery and better equipped to end it.

Share the My Story, My Dignity pledge with an organization today and ask them to sign!

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David Feingold
David Feingold
3 months ago

I headed the trafficking program for the Mekong region for UNESCO for 15 years. I found that many survivors could not relate to the term “Modern Slavery” (or its equivalent in their languages). Moreover, law enforcement, when infected by this concept, often treat as criminals anyone not held in chains, or whatever their idea of what a “Slave” is supposed to look like. There is great reluctance to give survivors what they say they need, rather what the “Modern Slavery Industry” wants to provide.

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