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South East Asia Court of Women on HIV, Human Trafficking and Migration: From Vulnerability to Free, Just and Safe Movement

It is said that Southeast Asia contributes to one third of the total global figures for human trafficking. This region it is noted serves as source, transit and destination area for itself and other parts of the globe. According to recent reports on HIV and AIDS, Southeast Asia has the potential to become another epicenter of the AIDS epidemic.

However while it is a fact that vulnerability to HIV increases in the context of trafficking, it is crucial to embed our understanding of these issue in that of mobility and migration, an age old human activity that in contemporary times is creating newer avenues for trafficking and the attendant violence it generates, particularly for women and children. Apart from the informed choice being exercised by the few to immigrate for better prospects and futures what is pushing the larger numbers of people to migrate for new sources of livelihood, survival and better life options are also the new insecurities being generated by specific forms of wars, poverty, development, unemployment, inequities and environmental destruction. Each creating its own forms of displacement and degradation.

When mobility and movement of individuals is restricted by rigid nation state borders imposed by the logic of national security and when insecurity of livelihoods is fragmenting large rural and indigenous communities being displaced by the logic of the development state, the twin vulnerabilities of trafficking and HIV thrive.

Little wonder then the escalating migratory flow of people from all walks of life is being marked by increasing vulnerability, abuse and labour exploitation.

In its responses, governments have largely looked at the issue purely as a law and order problem without looking at the larger context for these vulnerabilities which result in revictimising the victim rather that promoting free, just and safe movement.

It has been eight years since the UN adopted the Convention on Transnational Organized Crime and its two supplementary protocols-the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Person, especially women and children and the Protocol on Migrant Smuggling. Many state parties in destination countries have responded to the Trafficking Protocol by establishing legal frameworks aimed at restricting immigration and enforcing tighter border controls and which often times result in restricting the movement of women who wish to migrate for work or in profiling certain types of women. This immigration policy has driven many women who have dreams of migrating for work to seek the assistance of unsafe unscrupulous agent and traffickers.  

Another area of concern with migration policy is the practice of mandatory testing for HIV which has become a requirement for certain states of destination countries for migrant workers as a pre-condition of employment. This discriminatory practice could drive away the migrants from the opportunity to access voluntary testing service and be assured that they have the opportunity to receive counseling and treatment depending on the result.

Anti-trafficking Government Organizations and NGO practitioners need also to look into the public health impact of anti-trafficking measure such as the wide net raids and rescue approach which affect all those who are in sex work settings – whether they are trafficked persons, whether they entered to work in sex industry by their own free will, or due to low economic and social position in society, violent family situation, or other inequitable structures and experiences. This approach disempowers those who are maybe in a better position to negotiate safe sex practices with their clients by further driving them underground to continue their work and in the process, losing their capacity not only to negotiate safe sex but also lose access to critical information, HIV prevention services and assistance.

Therefore unless we craft policy measures that are built around the critical link between HIV, human trafficking and migration, we will end up with measures that drive women towards greater conditions of vulnerability and exploitation. 

Through the voices and visions of the women and men who will speak in the Court offering their personal testimonies of pain, survival, resistance and celebration; and their analyses and wisdom as expert witnesses and members of the Jury, the South East Asia Court of Women seeks to make visible these organic linkages between migration, trafficking and HIV. The Court seeks to bring to the centre of our collective conscience and political responses the non negotiable right of women to safe mobility and free movement on the one hand and on the other the equally non negotiable rights of all communities to health, well being with secure and sustainable livelihood.

There were four sessions presented in this Court:

SESSION ONE: The roots of a violence without borders

This session through the expert witness analyses and personal testimonies seeks to unravel the causes of the vulnerabilities of women in the South East Asia region that result in unsafe migration, trafficking and HIV infection. It would attempt to draw out in particular the impact of the development policies that are invisibilising poverty and creating new form of vulnerabilities for women who already are victims of gender based violence and who choose mobility or are forced to migrate in search of better livelihood work in informal sector like domestic work, entertainment and tourism that are totally unregulated and unprotected.

SESSION TWO: Ensuring right of migrants, domestic workers, refugees, sex workers, PLHIV and other vulnerable communities

Vulnerability to trafficking is increasing when there is abuse or labour exploitation of migrant workers by their employers. Women and girls, as well as men and boy, are trafficked annually for various purposes such as marriage, sweatshop labour, factory work, domestic and construction work, sexual exploitation and other purposes. Women’s multi-layered vulnerability is exploited by traffickers. Sexually exploited trafficked persons-women, transgender and children-are coerced into work situations with the likelihood of unsafe sexual practices. Unless there is a recognition of the basic rights of vulnerable communities including migrants, domestic workers, refugees, sex workers and PLHIV the slavery and slavery like work conditions of trafficked women will only increase their vulnerability to HIV infection.   

SESSION THREE: Evaluating laws that criminalize movement, mobility and survival strategies

There is an urgent need to evaluate the human right and public health impact of anti-trafficking legislation and laws that restrict women’s movement through looking at issue of citizenship, deportation, labour conditions, right to health and treatment for PLHIV etc. there is a need to evaluate the impact of anti trafficking legislation which has been abused in some countries to infringe upon the rights of non trafficked sex workers in the name of rescue efforts, to revictimise trafficked victims, to criminalize HIV workers, entertainment and sex workers and restrict instead of ensure women’s safe mobility. It is urgent to view the organic linkages between migration, trafficking and HIV not through the prism of control and criminalization but trough that of dignity, access to justice, the health and human security of individuals and communities.

SESSION FOUR: Celebrating Resistance

To being to shift the discourse from control and criminalization to justice, we need first to recognize and affirm the coping resistance strategies of women affected by customary practices and disempowering norms and values that put them at the risk of trafficking and HIV infection. We need to celebrate and build upon the strengths, achievements and success stories of trafficking survivors and migrant workers living with HIV who have overcome tremendous difficulties and been empowered to lead a positive life with dignity.

Source: South East Asia Court of Women on HIV, Human Trafficking and Migration: From Vulnerability to Free, Just and Safe Movement. Nusa Dua, Bali, August 6, 2009> Report by Laily Hanifah