The trafficking in people across Asia is on the rise, according to the recent annual report from the U.S. State Department, with as many as 300,000 needy woman and children lured and trapped each year by criminal gangs. Asian nations are responding to the problem with increased cooperation and law enforcement. And Australia has just announced a $5 million program to help Southeast Asia tackle the scourge.
In suburban Sydney, police swoop down on a flat after three Indonesian women escape to tell how they are being held as sex slaves lured to Australia with promises of work and security. Police arrested an Asian man and woman.
In Bangkok, Thai police raid an apartment as part of an investigation into a passport counterfeiting and human trafficking racket. The suspect they seized was wanted in France on charges of bringing women from Thailand and China into Europe's sex trade.
International law enforcement is one way the global community is responding to the growing business of human trafficking. But according to a recent U.S. State Department report, the problem is growing in Asia.
The annual report estimates that some 900,000 people are trafficked across international borders each year - many forced into prostitution or other forced labor. The United Nations, while acknowledging that good statistics on trafficking are hard to find, puts out even higher numbers. It estimates as many as 1.2 million children are trafficked each year, with up to one-third, or 400,000 in Asia.
Muireann O'Briain is a former executive director for ECPAT, a private organization created to curb child trafficking and sexual exploitation. She agrees that Asia, like Africa, is a "problem" region. "I think there are less persons arriving in European destinations in a trafficking context. So the numbers seem to be coming down," she says. "I wouldn't say that's the case in Asia or Africa yet because the law enforcement simply isn't there in enough quality and quantity."
In Southeast Asia, the trade is mainly in women and children. One hot spot is the Greater Mekong River region, where the web of human trafficking has grown out of poverty, lawlessness due to war, and hopes of new economic opportunities.
In Cambodia, Burma, Vietnam and the Philippines, children are generally brought from rural areas to work in the urban sex trade. In China, women and girls are trafficked for forced marriage as well as prostitution.
U.N. spokeswoman Emily Brooker in Bangkok says organized criminal syndicates find big money in the trade of people. "Children are increasingly being treated as a commodity by these large organized crime networks and the profits are significant."
Thailand, however, is seeing some progress and has passed legislation to strengthen child protection.
Tim Scherer, an American diplomat in Bangkok, says the government has done a lot but still is weak on enforcing these new laws. "The implementation of existing laws against those who benefit from trafficking is where Thailand needs to work some more, basically," he says. "And in this area, Thailand is judged [as] not meeting the minimum standards contained in the U.S. trafficking laws."
Muireann O'Briain of ECPAT says despite current efforts, more children are being trafficked.
"There [are] more groups, more people working to combat commercial sexual exploitation of children; more activities, more expertise, more things going on to protect and to prevent child abuse and also to help children recover from abuse," says Ms. O'Briain. "And yet everybody I've spoken to feels the situation is just getting worse and worse."
Solutions are proving elusive. Better laws and enforcement are helping, which prompted Australia to announce Thursday that it had created a new, $5 million program to help Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Burma develop cross-country prevention and prosecution mechanisms.
Other countries in the region have set down action plans and cross-border agreements, such as one implemented recently between Thailand and Cambodia.
But many aid workers say it will take a concerted, global effort to halt the trade in people. They say that in the long-term, only a release from poverty and hopelessness can help vulnerable populations in Asia and throughout the world.