A group of irregular maritime arrivals at a regional processing center in Manus Island, Papua New Guinea. Photo by: The Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship / CC BY

Australia has co-chaired this week’s ministerial conference to snuff out human trafficking in Asia-Pacific. But should it be a model for its neighbors?

The 5th Ministerial Conference of the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime has brought together over 40 countries and international agencies from April 2-3 to discuss how to curb human trafficking, people smuggling and other transnational crimes in the region.

The meeting closed on Wednesday with a vow from Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr to make human trafficking “more thoroughly criminalized” across Asia-Pacific.

But the question remains: Is Australia ready to move forward on this when it is still a top destination for people smuggling?

Australia has long been a desired destination for human trafficking and smuggling victims from East Asia and Southeast Asia, particularly Indonesia, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Iran, among others. And in recent years, the numbers have risen.

An Australian expert panel on asylum seekers has tallied that a total of 7,120 arrived in the first seven months of 2012, up from 4,733 for the whole year in 2011 and 6,850 in 2010.

All of these are potential victims of human trafficking and people smuggling.

Australia released last year the Migration Legislation Amendment (Regional Processing and Other Measures) Act 2012, which orders the transfer of persons seeking asylum in Australia to processing centers for refugee claims in Papua New Guinea and Nauru.

Despite some setbacks, with both governments arguing for a shorter stay before resettlement or repatriation, Papua New Guinea received its first 19 asylum seekers from Iran and Sri Lanka in November 2012.

Papua New Guinea: problem or solution?

A new joint report released on April 2 by the International Organization for Migration and Papua New Guinea’s Department of Justice and Attorney General found that human trafficking thrives in one of Australia’s “solutions” to the problem.

Papua New Guinea itself, according to the report, shows “a high rate of domestic and international trafficking of both adults and children for the purpose of forced labor, sexual exploitation and domestic servitude.”

The victims were observed to have entered the country with the help of organized crime rings. Facilitators assist in onward travel, employment and accommodation for the smuggled persons in a country that has no laws prohibiting all forms of trafficking.

The reports advocates for a joint multi-sector effort to curb the problem, which seems to be the direction that the Australian government is moving in at the Bali meeting.

5th Ministerial Conference of the Bali Process

Carr said in Bali: “We are going to work toward more regional cooperation on the whole agenda of people smuggling and human movement.”

“We need regional cooperation to see them treated more humanely, that the borders are respected and that you have orderly handling of the movement of people,” he added.

Carr sees human trafficking and people smuggling as a law enforcement issue, which calls for more effective control at airports and more effective border protection.

To this end, Australia has partnered with Indonesia to set up a joint police training facility under the Jakarta Center for Law Enforcement Cooperation.

Australia has also partnered with other countries under the Bali Process to form a Regional Cooperation Framework and a Regional Support Office to foster state capacity in responding to asylum issues in Asia-Pacific.

In the future, we might even see more Australian regional processing centers in the other countries.

“Australia has agreements with Nauru and Papua New Guinea which have resulted in regional processing centers in those countries. Australia sees potential to engage other Bali Process members in the arrangements as they develop,” Australian Minister for Immigration and Citizenship Brendan O’Connor said at the event.

From cooperation to action

Commenting on the conference, UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Erika Feller stressed that governments need “to move beyond the language of cooperation to practical and concrete action.”

Feller also recommends developing “protocols on rescue and interception at sea to support more predictable and effective ways to disembark, process and seek solutions for maritime arrivals,” as well as the mobilization of resources and joint support services to be used upon the request of states.

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About the author

  • Johanna Morden

    Johanna Morden is a community development worker by training and a global development journalist by profession. As a former Devex staff writer based in Manila, she covered the Asian Development Bank as well as Asia-Pacific's aid community at large. Johanna has written for a variety of international publications, covering social issues, disasters, government, ICT, business, and the law.