This week’s blog is guest authored by Mi Ki Kyaw Myint of The Asia Foundation.
In June, the U.S. State Department Trafficking in Persons Report moved Myanmar up to Tier 2 on its watch list, acknowledging “significant efforts” to combat human trafficking and forced labor in the country. For a country undergoing rapid reform and still grappling with a transition to democracy, the news was welcome, but caught some by surprise.
Every year, hundreds of people in Myanmar still fall victim to human trafficking, both within the country and abroad. As Myanmar opens up and the humanitarian crisis in Rakhine continues, the risk of trafficking could rise. Most trafficking is never reported, for many reasons including the vulnerable populations involved and because of the illicit nature of the crime. While the real numbers are likely much, much higher, in 2017, Myanmar reported 225 human trafficking cases involving 360 victims, representing a 71 percent increase from 2016, according to the government’s official Anti-Trafficking in Persons Division. Of the 242 women trafficked, over half were recorded as victims of forced marriages to foreign men. In other instances, women were victims of forced labor in countries such as Thailand and Malaysia.
Anti-trafficking organizations have reported a rising trend in internal trafficking, whereby many children are led into forced labor as street hawkers, beggars, or to work in small-scale industries. Women are often trafficked into sexual and domestic servitude and men are subjected to forced labor within the construction, forestry, and agricultural sectors. In addition to trafficking, many Myanmar citizens are forced to migrate every year due to poverty, human rights violations, and ethnic armed conflicts.
Myanmar’s government has undertaken a number of initiatives to combat human trafficking. In 2004, Myanmar signed the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons (Palermo Protocol), and in 2005, enacted the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Law, which criminalizes all forms of sex/labor trafficking. Myanmar has signed bilateral agreements condemning human trafficking with neighboring countries, Thailand and China, and is a member of the Coordinated Mekong Ministerial Initiatives against Trafficking (COMMIT) and the Asia Regional Trafficking in Persons (ARTIP) Project. In 2017, the government also increased the number of personnel working in anti-trafficking law enforcement units and task forces. This year, the government is expected to amend the 2005 anti-trafficking law to strengthen investigations of trafficking cases by authorizing anti-trafficking police to follow-up and take more stringent actions against traffickers.
Lack of data and awareness
One obstacle to Myanmar’s efforts to combat trafficking is the lack of reliable and systematically collected data. Several factors contribute to this, not least the illegal and often invisible nature of trafficking, further compounded by bureaucratic inefficiencies and an absence of on-the-ground agencies to collect and report data to government departments. At both the national and subnational levels, limited budgets and human resources constrain the design and implementation of anti-trafficking programs, while lack of coordination between the government and law enforcement agencies results in inadequate responses. There are also very few civil society organizations in Myanmar that specifically focus on this complex issue.
As with most developing countries, Myanmar is also challenged by a lack of public awareness on the dangers of trafficking. To this end, educating young people and community-level organizations that work closely with citizens is essential. The local community is a vital means of disseminating information, as well as a key provider of support and shelter to victims.
Raising public awareness through libraries
Since 2016, The Asia Foundation in partnership with the Myanmar Library Association (MLA) has implemented a pilot project leveraging the country’s libraries to raise awareness about human trafficking. The main goal is to empower at-risk, vulnerable young people with a comprehensive package of knowledge and skills to decrease their risk of being trafficked and enable youth to make informed decisions about labor migration.
Myanmar’s libraries have historically served as both community centers and information hubs. Their importance was heightened after Myanmar began its democratic transition after five decades of authoritarian military rule. Libraries across the country were revived, which has as a result significantly increased citizens’ access to information. Libraries are also frequently used in ways that extend far beyond accessing books and educational materials, which makes them an ideal entry point and platform for educational and empowerment activities. MLA’s country-wide network provides the rare opportunity to reach out to vulnerable populations in remote parts of the country that are specifically prone to trafficking and “risky migration.”
Since the program began, we have provided training to 39 librarians in 10 townships across Myanmar, including educational units on both “Human Trafficking and Risky Migration” and “Personal Development,” a comprehensive curriculum that builds life skills and self-confidence to help reduce vulnerability to trafficking, violence, and exploitation.
The librarians then extend this training to at-risk, vulnerable youth through the Information and Public Relations Department under the Ministry of Information and community libraries. By the end of 2017, over 500 youth had attended trainings on personal development, human trafficking, and safe migration.
Looking back on the project’s first year, it has become increasingly clear that more awareness programs are needed for vulnerable groups living across Myanmar. Most youth are unaware of the realities of trafficking and do not believe that trafficking could happen in their communities. Though participants knew about forced marriage, they saw little connection to labor exploitation or the growing problem of trafficking linked to internal migration.
Working with libraries presents one of the best opportunities to utilize available networks and resources as libraries exist in every state and region and hold a trusted position within communities. Much more can be done to support and collaborate with libraries and the communities they serve across the country. In this way, we can begin to more effectively address the trafficking problem in Myanmar.
Mi Ki Kyaw Myint is The Asia Foundation’s senior program and operations officer in Myanmar. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.
Photo by Wendy Rocket.