- By Siti Hajar binti Abdul Halim

Human trafficking is a trade that involves the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring, or receipt of a human being by force, fraud, and deception to exploit them for profit or coercion to acquire labour and commercial sex (Teixeira, 2013). Victims can be a variety of age, race, gender, or nationality which occurs in every region of the world. It is a crime against an individual, as the individual's right to movement is violated by forced and commercial exploitation. Moreover, human trafficking is not just a criminal against human rights and dignity, its security implications can be said is a huge concern as well. Human trafficking can effects by raising the revenue and expanding the power and military capabilities of certain armed and extremist groups. For instance, child soldiery where it involves the unlawful recruitment or use of children as combatants, for labour, or for sexual exploitation by armed forces. Many children are being trafficked and forcibly abducted to be used as combatants, porters, cooks, guards, servants, messengers, or spies. Besides that, human trafficking can also drive displacement and destabilize communities, thereby exacerbating conflict and undermining development.

Human trafficking has especially getting more serious in Southeast Asia in which more than 85% of the victims were smuggled in, from, and within the region. As a result of globalisation, countries in Southeast Asia are undergoing fast changes in economic, political, demographic, labour trends, and increasing the need for inexpensive labour. Therefore, Southeast Asia can be said to be a ‘perfect’ hub for human trafficking. Southeast Asia region is a source and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labour and the sex trade. It is also a transit point for traffickers from other parts of the world. Women and children from rural and disadvantaged villages are particularly those who often got involved. The frightening surge in internet child pornography, including live broadcasting of child sexual assault, can be said to be related to the growth of child trafficking in the regions.
In the efforts in combating human trafficking in Southeast Asia, ASEAN Declaration on Transnational Crime, which was adopted in December 1997, was the first unified expression of collaboration in the fight against interconnected issues that human trafficking was included as one of the main issue in this broader fight against transnational crime. The ASEAN Plan of Action to Combat Transnational Crime was endorsed in 1999, which contains particular anti-human-trafficking action lines. It focuses on information exchange, legal coordination, law enforcement, training, institutional capacity-building, and extra-regional cooperation to combat it. The initiative intends to strengthen legal cooperation by requiring all members to prohibit human trafficking, unify national laws, and establish bilateral and multilateral agreements.
Secondly, the ASEAN Convention Against Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (ACTIP) that was introduced and entered into force on 8 March 2017. As the only regional instrument associated with the human trafficking problems, the ACTIP paves the way and provides guidelines for all ASEAN member states in combating the problem. Since its adoption, seven out of the ten member states now have domestic legislations targeted at the investigation and prosecution of human trafficking problems.
Besides that, as human trafficking networks originate in Southeast Asia have expanded beyond the Asia Pacific to the rest of the world, the regional nations have been forced to engage with nations outside their local borders. This interaction has been institutionalised in the activities of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), which covers both East Asia and the South Pacific. The ARF has addressed concerns linked to human trafficking at the transnational level. The 7th ARF Ministerial Meeting in July 2000 resolved to hold an Experts' Group Meeting on Transnational Crime (TNC). They urged regional governments to join the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Human Trafficking, Especially of Women and Children, as well as the Protocol against Migrant Smuggling by Land, Air, and Sea.

In short, ASEAN can be said has made numerous efforts to end human trafficking through the efforts of establishment of regional counter-human trafficking laws and enhancement of their own national laws and security. Nevertheless, human trafficking problem in Southeast Asia still persist and eventually rising in which the victims involved within the regions have encompassed the biggest concentration of human trafficking in the world. Particularly, after the effects of COVID-19 pandemic, livelihoods and the economy in all countries around the world have been impacted negatively. We have seen a rise in unemployment and reduction of income, especially for those people in the bottom classes and it is believed that more trafficking victims will be detected after this due to the need for lower production costs.

In order to maximise the efforts in combating human trafficking in Southeast Asia, governments have to focus more in the factors and efforts in their own countries. Besides that, ASEAN also plays an important role by persisting its engagement with civil organisations and enforcement agencies in countering this transnational crime. Efforts in combating human trafficking must be in long-term, either through legislation and international treaties, preventive actions through education and socio-economic development, or rescue of trafficked victims through various mechanisms. Human trafficking can only be curbed through concentrated efforts and transnational communication, not only within certain regions but the cooperation from all organisations and countries can be said are compulsory.

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