Dr Rebbeca Miller of UNODC addresses the Trafficking in Persons Regional Forum in Suva. Picture: Kalinga Seneviratne/IDN/Wansolwara
By KALINGA SENEVIRATNE
Since the opening of borders after the COVID-19 pandemic, Australia and New Zealand have been aggressively sourcing for Pacific Islander workers to help fill a serious labour shortage in their countries. In the meantime, with investments from Asia, especially China and Korea, increasing in the region, Asian workers have been slowly filtering into the island nations, especially Fiji.
This month (April 18-20), the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) held a forum attended by government immigration and law enforcement officials and civil society organisations from the South Pacific region, to discuss measures to produce enhance data and information on trafficking of persons and smuggling of migrants in the region for work. One may ask why UNODC organized the forum, not the International Labour Organisation (ILO) the agency entrusted with addressing workers rights?
“We know human trafficking and smuggling of people cannot happen in the large scale it is happening in the Asia-Pacific region without collusion of corrupt officials and the smugglers. They are essentially criminal networks,” Dr Rebecca Miller, Regional Coordinator, Human Trafficking and Migrant Smuggling, Southeast Asia and the Pacific of UNODC told IDN/Wansolwara.
She added that to tackle this issue, corruption within relevant government agencies have to be addressed, because that has been the driving force in Southeast Asia.
“We need to start somewhere (and) we have found that governments in this region want to proactively address this.”
UNODC plan to develop a concept note after this dialogue on trafficking in persons (TIP) data in the region. The UN agency entrusted with addressing drug and corruption issues around the globe, believes that the role of corruption in TIP and smuggling of migrants (SOM) has been particularly overlooked and undocumented in the region.
In 2021 UNODC has conducted a training course for national officers in the Pacific on TIP and SOM, and its regional office has done a report on Fiji and Palau with the assistance of national bodies such as Fiji Bureau of Statistics (FBS). Preliminary results and findings were presented at the Forum – the report shed light on the ways that corruption facilitates such crimes, the actors involved, and the context in which such corruption occurs.
A closed-door session was held on the final day with government officials such as from immigration department and the police to discuss the issues. It was also attended, by an Australian immigration intelligence officer. This process of sharing recent knowledge on TIP and SOM and applying lessons learned to encourage regional action, UNODC argues, addresses Sustainable Development Goals 16 (SDG 16) which is Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions.
FBS chief executive Maria Musudroka speaking on the opening day of the Forum said that despite the extent of these crimes, both TIP and SOM remains under-researched in the region. Referring to the problem of domestic trafficking in Fiji, she explained that researchers had to be trained to do it in a conversational manner to let the victims tell their story.
Marie Fatiaki, Research Officer with UNODC’s Crime Research Section, who co-ordinated the five-year research project between 2017-2021 in Fiji, told IDN that during this period through community based research they detected about 5200 hidden victims of trafficking. She said most were domestic trafficking into forced labour, agriculture, forestry, construction industy, service and retail industries.
“We also found foreign workers from Bangladesh, Philippines and China who have come here with contracts,” Fatiaki explained.
“But, once they come here they found that the work was not what they expected.”
She also added that in recent years Fijian workers have travelled across borders and the incidents of them “being in exploitative situations” has increased.
“That is why now we are talking about (trafficking of) migrant workers,” she noted.
“What is needed in Fiji is training of border officials and also a need for a questionnaire (to be prepared) where people leaving and coming in have to fill, so that we can detect potential cases of trafficking.”
Pacific Island of Palau has had Filipino workers flying into work there for some years and according to one of the delegates there were 5000 Filipinos working there at the onslaught of the pandemic but the numbers have come down to 2500 now.
“Palau is only 2 hours flight from Manila,” he said. Fiji also had Filipino and Chinese migrants working in the sex industry before the pandemic.
UNODC choose Palau and Fiji for the study in TIP perhaps for the reason that both these countries have faced these issues earlier.
“Human trafficking is not reported as much as domestic violence (in the media),” said Ronald Ledgerwood of the Micronesian Legal Service Corporation, in Palau.
“This has got much to do with loosing their jobs,” he added, explaining that exploitation of migrant workers in Palau occur not in the sex industry. He pointed out that a difficult issue to tackle is coercion that has happened before their arrival including hefty agent fees, false job promises and family connections(to trafficker).
“(When they arrive) domestic workers are exploited such as multiple jobs among families and violation of other labour laws,” Ledgerwood told the Forum.
“Now the government is raising awareness in the community about the exploitation of foreign workers. There are now laws against human trafficking with mandatory jail terms, which could deter people from trafficking and exploiting foreign workers.”
As a lawyer, he also agrees that there is a need to build relations with people to speak up.
During discussions at the Forum participants from Fiji, Tonga and other Pacific Island countries pointed out that most of them have no laws against trafficking and any cases detected have to be charged as an assault case under local laws.
Many of the foreign workers in the Pacific Islands tend to come from China, the Philippines and Bangladesh, while in Fiji there have been cases of people from other Pacific islands such as Vanuatu and Solomon Islands been exploited at work places. But, they are on student visas usually studying here. With Australia and New Zealand opening up their borders for workers from the Pacific, there are many agents here who are demanding heavy fees to get visas for locals to go there to work.
Recently the Fiji Government has begun investigating the migration of some 400 members of a Christian cult from South Korea who have come on investment visas. The church in question have set up farms, restaurants, spas, salons and manufacturing plants employing hundreds of locals, but some of the Koreans working in these businesses are suspected to be cases of TIP. It is under investigation as a corruption case where the church may have bribed certain members of the previous government to get the visas.
The US Government has just announced a $10 million grant through USAID over five years, for a project called ‘Pacific Rise’ to counter TIP in the region.
US Ambassador to Fiji, Marie Damour addressing the opening session said what we see around the world is “modern day slavery”.
She said the US government is committed to fight this menace “because its wrong and it has to stop”.
“We now need to go into tangible action like improve prosecution, intelligence and coordination. We need to build on that,” Fatiaki told IDN, when asked what would be the follow up action.
“Now we have research (data) and established a baseline that shows the type of action we have to take.”
Dr. Kalinga Seneviratne is a Sri Lanka born journalist, radio broadcaster, television documentary maker and an international communications lecturer. He is currently a consulting lecturer in print and online journalism as well as radio journalism at The University of the South Pacific.