Modern day slavery in Southeast Asia: an uncomfortable reality

By Nicola Pocock, on February 12th, 2012
Daniel Lo 300x200 Modern day slavery in Southeast Asia: an uncomfortable reality picture

Daniel offering his insight to LKY students on working with and for migrant workers

Last week we had an inspiring visit from Daniel Lo, the Country Manager for the Malaysian arm of the Coalition to Abolish Modern Day Slavery in Asia (CAMSA). CAMSA is a relatively young organization, formed in February 2008 through the joint efforts of BPSOS (formerly known as Boat People SOS), and the International Society for Human Rights (ISHR) in Frankfurt Germany. CAMSA international members now consist of BPSOS, ISHR, the Vietnamese Canadian Federation and Tenaganita in Malaysia. CAMSA’s mission is to rescue and protect trafficking victims, punish traffickers through economic and legal measures, and engage in advocacy with the governments of source and destination countries to enact and enforce anti-trafficking laws and policies. They now count four bases in Southeast Asia and Taiwan, focusing on labor trafficking elimination and refugee protection. Daniel is a partner at his law firm and he also takes care of the operations and management of CAMSA – the only anti-trafficking coalition working in Malaysia.

Human trafficking is a troubling subject in this region. Daniel offered up some grim estimates from the UN office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC): with an estimated $15.5 billion industry in industrialized countries alone, few punitive financial measures for traffickers, lack of a standardized legal definition of trafficking, as well as weak regulatory environments and poor enforcement, you can imagine what the net result is: a vicious circle, between lack of data on trafficked victims and capacity (not to mention political will) to tackle the problem.

We highlighted in last month’s bulletin some of the issues faced combatting human trafficking. Subject expert Siddarth Kara estimates that at the end of 2010 there were 30 – 36 million slaves worldwide, some trafficked within and across borders; when the definition of slavery includes:

“those who enter into the condition due to absence of a reasonable alternative (i.e. out of economic desperation)… this involves the exploitive interlinking of credit and labor agreements that devolve into slave-like exploitation due to severe power imbalances between the lender and the borrower.  The system persists due to poverty, absence of alternative credit sources, a lack of justice and rule of law”. 

His efforts to quantify human trafficking are complicated by the fact that no global definition of the term exists, leaving brokers, agents and employers that practice debt bondage with migrant workers the prospect of “immense profit at little to no real risk”. Without a legal definition of human trafficking, debt bondage as the most common form of migrant exploitation will likely persist in the medium term in the region.

Daniel noted Malaysia’s erratic response to human trafficking; with oscillations between the US Trafficking in Persons report tiers in recent years. Currently, no government in Southeast Asian fully complies with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s (TVPA) minimum standards, otherwise known as tier 1. Most countries do not comply with the TVPA’s minimum standards, but are making significant efforts to do so (tier 2 – beige), but worryingly half of ASEAN (Brunei, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam) are on the tier 2 watch list (purple), where the absolute number of victims may be increasing or there is a failure to provide evidence of efforts to counter human trafficking. Burma does not comply with the minimum standards as it not making significant efforts to do so (tier 3 – dark purple) according to the report.

HTPR 300x184 Modern day slavery in Southeast Asia: an uncomfortable reality picture
Human trafficking in Southeast Asia

An average of 2 victims of human trafficking are rescued by law enforcement agencies every day, with over 2000 rescued to date in Malaysia according to Daniel. He stressed the importance of documentation, when it comes to mounting a case against those who exploit foreign workers. One challenge CAMSA faces is a lack of human resource capacity, with interpreters a core concern of Daniel at the moment, particularly for the growing numbers of Cambodian trafficked or debt bondage victims in the country. For example, he estimates that over 30,000 Cambodian domestic workers are working over 12 hour days with no day off for rest. They have their passports withheld by their employers and are denied any the means to communicate with family members or friends. NGOs have reported at least 8 deaths of Cambodian domestic workers in the last two years.

Could you help out CAMSA? Check out the get involved page here ( Daniel is looking for volunteers / interns and can be contacted by email at

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