A common refrain in anti-trafficking circles is that there is a need to strengthen legal frameworks, which might make it sound to people outside the field as though there aren’t enough laws to protect or prosecute those involved in trafficking. It might make people wonder what has been happening in the decades since recognizing that trafficking people is a problem if we can’t still get laws on the books. However, for the most part, laws against trafficking, labor abuses, and child sexual exploitation exist. While it’s true they can be strengthened – especially to adapt to technological advancements and the other ways in which the nature of trafficking changes – a large part of the problem has less to do with the existence or lack of laws and more to do with a breakdown in implementing them.
On Moving From Implementing Laws to Action
As a recent exploratory study in Asia explains, “despite some noteworthy successes, commitments that have been made to victims of child trafficking in both international and regional mandates and guidelines within the ASEAN, as well as decades of other treaties, laws, resolutions, and statements, do not always translate into concrete action on the ground. The majority of victims of child trafficking are not formally identified, do not receive the psychosocial services outlined in international and regional guidelines, and safe and sustainable reintegration efforts often insufficiently address issues related to social inclusion, economic empowerment, and access to viable job opportunities to enable successful long-term adjustment.”
From what we’ve observed in our participation in regional conferences and webinars, and in conversations with others working in anti-trafficking, there are a lot of hurdles in moving from laws to concrete action – and it’s not from a lack of willpower either. Here are some of the ways that the implementation of laws can break down.
The first has to do with…
Successful anti-trafficking efforts often require a high level of collaboration between a variety of actors: different government agencies, law enforcement and social services, the victims themselves, and, in the case of cross-border trafficking, counterparts in other countries. This collaboration works most effectively when there is a common language, an alignment of values, or an existing relationship of trust. It gets challenging to the extent that there is a disconnect along any of these dimensions. For example, there is a call for greater collaboration between social services or nonprofits providing social services in Asia with counterparts in Europe so that when victims from Asia are discovered in Europe, they can collaborate on a smoother journey back home, ensuring that there is someone to receive the victim back home and help facilitate reintegration. There are a lot of moving parts, and even with everyone operating with the best intentions, it can still be challenging to know who to reach out to in a different region or different country.
Training Is Also A Constant Need
When laws are adopted, it isn’t necessarily true that law enforcement and prosecutors are uniformly aware and trained in these developments. Currently, in South East Asia, there are frequent webinars and training sessions to help facilitate training and awareness-raising for practitioners in the field to update their knowledge regarding trafficking, forced labor, illegal or undocumented migration, labor abuses and exploitation, and all the different ways scenarios might be categorized. Trafficking and related offenses are incredibly complex to investigate and prosecute. The charges that might be brought against an offender can be influenced by available evidence, standards of proof, the jurisdiction of the case, or even where prosecutors are most likely to get a successful result – for example, sometimes it might be more successful to pursue a case against an international business for the exploitation in their supply chain than the traffickers/abusers directly.
Capacity Building Is Also a Struggle
Trafficking is such a huge problem that despite the billions of dollars invested in counter-trafficking efforts, practitioners in the field are still overworked and overwhelmed by caseloads. That’s been compounded by COVID causing significant delays in case processing. The constant feeling of struggling to get out from under a deluge of cases has led many in the field to begin to talk more about the need for prevention, arguing that “we can’t prosecute our way out of this.” There is a growing sense – which we naturally support! – that we need to think more holistically about how and why trafficking happens and what we can do to prevent it from happening in the first place.
And Then There’s Sentencing
Even when you get all the way from victim identification to case processing to trial and to conviction, there’s still a chance for things to break down. While many nations have worked to strengthen sentencing and make the penalties for trafficking harsh enough to deter it, efforts can still be hampered by weak sentencing. In these cases, even if traffickers are convicted, their sentences might be suspended or commuted. Because of things like this, some in the field believe that prosecution remains an under-utilized tool even though it’s one of the dominant tools in our toolbox.
These are just a few examples of how complicated it can be to implement the laws and regulations already in place. The key takeaway is that we still need more resources to further build knowledge and capacity, and to support those working to help survivors of trafficking and bring perpetrators to justice.