East Asians trafficked far and wide, says UN report

East Asia is a major source of human trafficking, with victims dispersed in more than 20 countries, sometimes as far away as South Africa, a UN report has found.

And while East Asian and other governments are mobilising against human trafficking, much more needs to be done, states the 2009 Global Report on Trafficking in Persons by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). 

"Victims from this region, when compared with victims from other regions, tend to be shipped very, very far away," said the UNODC representative for East Asia and the Pacific, Gary Lewis, at the report's Asia-Pacific launch on 13 February.

"In more than 20 countries on other parts of the planet, we found a reasonably significant number of victims from this region. That did not characterise the export of victims from any other part of the world to the same degree," he said.

The report is the first global assessment of the world's response to human trafficking. It was written with criminal justice and victim assistance data from 155 countries and territories from 2003 to 2007, and compiled in 2007-2008.

The report states that East Asian trafficking victims were found in Europe, the Americas, the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa.

Their wide distribution "was a surprise but at the same time, we know … that Asia is a significant contributor to the global trafficking problem for a number of reasons which we are still only now trying to understand and unravel", Lewis told IRIN.

According to the report, the primary victims from East Asia are women and girls, who are trafficked to other continents as well as within the region for sexual exploitation.

"Trafficking in minors was a significant issue in Southeast Asia, perhaps to a greater degree than [elsewhere]. We were not able to determine for what reason," Lewis added.


Since 2003, when the UN Protocol Against Trafficking in Persons came into force, 80 percent of the countries surveyed now have legislation. The report, however, notes the poor rate of enforcement, with two out of every five countries not having recorded a single trafficking conviction.

In East Asia and the Pacific, 23 of 27 countries have adopted specific laws on trafficking. Trends also indicate an increase in the number of trafficking cases brought to court in Cambodia, Indonesia, Mongolia, Timor-Leste, Thailand and Vietnam, Lewis said.

Despite this, he underlined the challenges in combating trafficking in East Asia.

"The ability of the law enforcement and prosecutorial arms of state to act on that is limited by a number of factors … the knowledge, the capacity, the wealth - all of these are at uneven levels in the region," he said.

According to the report, sexual exploitation is the most common form of human trafficking globally, comprising 79 percent of cases reported. Forced labour, at 18 percent, is the next most common purpose for trafficking. However, the report notes that this and other forms such as domestic servitude and child exploitation are under-reported.

Information gaps

Limited data in the report also showed that women were disproportionately involved in trafficking - not only as victims but as perpetrators - compared with other crimes where the majority of offenders are male.

In addition, the report highlighted crucial gaps in data and information that UNODC said was hampering the fight against trafficking.

Basic questions about the numbers of victims, the traffickers themselves and the extent of the problem are still largely unanswered, said UNODC Executive Director, Antonio Maria Costa, in the report's introduction.

"The crisis we face of fragmented knowledge and disjointed responses intensifies a crime that shames us all," said Costa.