The Christian Conference of Asia (CCA) organised a two-day Asia Regional Consultation on ‘The Effects of COVID-19 on Trafficking in Persons’ on 29–30 March 2022.
The online Consultation, which was attended by over thirty participants from across Asia, focused on issues such as the gendered nature of trafficking in Asia, the situation of labour trafficking, and the importance of comprehensive prevention and response strategies. The Consultation also offered a platform for the participants and resource persons to share innovations, best practices, and strategies of resilience and adaptation in ongoing anti-trafficking ministries amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dr Mathews George Chunakara, the General Secretary of the CCA, highlighted the ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic had worsened human flows and migration, pushing people into vulnerability and into risk of being trafficked: “Human trafficking has been identified as the fastest growing criminal activity in the world today. The magnitude of this heinous crime is difficult to quantify and is often underestimated given its insidious and complex nature, which is only made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Ingpat Pakchairatchakul, from the United Nations Development Programmes (UNDP) Asia-Pacific Regional Office, spoke on “The Effects of COVID-19 on Trafficking in Persons: An Overview” and shared the unique challenges of different population groups (children, women and girls, and migrant workers, as well as responders) that were most affected by trafficking during the pandemic.
“The increased presence of authorities and more robust regulations such as border closures, lockdowns, and travel restrictions might have been preventing crime, but human traffickers are gradually finding ways to adapt their exploitation patterns as inequalities surfaced during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many traffickers have shifted their modus operandi and abused modern technologies to reach out to individuals, causing them to be at risk even when they are at a remote distance,” said Ms Pakchairatchakul.
Ms Pakchairatchakul further detailed the roles of faith-based organisations and communities in combatting trafficking during the COVID-19 era. Such strategies included identifying and reporting potential trafficking to law enforcement, collaborating with law enforcement to provide assistance to victims, educating the larger community, especially vulnerable groups, and openly welcoming survivors who face social stigma.
Joanna Concepcion, the Chairperson of Migrante International, spoke on “The Gendered Nature of Trafficking amidst COVID-19”.
“Women have suffered the most from the economic and health crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Victims of trafficking come largely from the peasant and working-class communities that are already economically insecure…Returning migrants are not receiving adequate support, alternative means of livelihood, or genuine reintegration programmes, and this makes them vulnerable to being re-trafficked,” said Ms Concepcion.
The session on “Asia’s Labour Markets: Labour Trafficking amidst COVID-19” was facilitated by Rev. Jollify Daniel from the Basel Christian Church of Malaysia (BCCM).
“Political and public discourse have regularly dovetailed in portraying migrant workers as a potential threat to national security and detrimental to the country’s long-term social and economic development,” shared Rev. Daniel, while also elaborating on different recommendations for immediate action to cater to the needs of migrant workers. Rev. Daniel further spoke about the BCCM’s ministry for migrant children through community learning centres.
Andrea Luisa Anolin, from the Batis Centre for Women in the Philippines, shared stories of women survivors of trafficking and the long process of rehabilitation and reintegration in a session entitled “Voices from those Affected”.
The “Biblical-Theological Reflection on Trafficking in Persons”, conducted by Rev. Marie Sol Sioco-Villalon from the United Methodist Church in the Philippines, focused on Ezekiel 34 to point out how bad leadership was responsible for leading people astray and forcing them into positions of abject vulnerability.
“Shepherding through loving the most vulnerable and exploited ones in a pandemic is a new way of being the Church, of being Christ. Asian churches in particular have the capacity and resources to share…Can our churches live out emptying themselves in order to love and share?” asked Rev. Villalon.
Yusmiati Vistamika Wangka, from the Christian Action Centre for Migrant Domestic Workers in Hong Kong led a session entitled “Ensuring Comprehensive Strategies during COVID-19: Protection Strategies”.
Through case studies of migrant workers who were trafficked in Hong Kong, Ms Wangka shared strategies to reach out to and provide services to victims of trafficking through legal support, wellbeing support, and reintegration programmes, while also outlining the significant challenges of unsafe migration and providing recommendations for church leaders.
Aasavri Rai, from the International Organisation of Migration (IOM), in a presentation on “Ensuring Comprehensive Strategies during COVID-19: Coordination and Response Strategies” shared key protection principles for assisting victims of trafficking, models of vulnerability assessment, and two forms of best practices, namely, community policing and collaborating with law enforcement.
Ms Rai further shared the necessity of being trauma-informed while catering to victims of trafficking: “Trauma-informed approaches aim to protect the victims’ security and wellbeing, improve victims’ capacity to cooperate with law enforcement, as well as strengthen capacities of those who work with survivors. This can be done by explaining all available courses of action, asking about concerns and needs, assuring them that their narrations are credible, that no one had the right to treat them that way, and alleviating any guilt or shame.”
A panel discussion on “Mitigating the Impact of Human Trafficking: Role of Churches and Faith-based Organisations” saw the sharing of best practices from three church-based organisations from Asia.
Felicia Wijaya and Yi-En Tzeng, representing the Garden of Hope Foundation, elaborated on the complex modes of trafficking that occurred in Taiwan through education (student visas, internship programmes), labour (documented or undocumented workers), or even forced marriage, and said that it was critical to identify and address these different pathways.
Rev. Ira Imelda, from the Pasundan Durebang Women’s Crisis Centre of the Pasundan Christian Church in Indonesia, provided a matrix to map the different roles that churches could play in sending, transit, and receiving countries in the areas of prevention, handling and assistance, and rehabilitation and social reintegration.
Rupa Pradhan Chetri, who works with Justice Ventures International Project in Nepal, shared several pathways of action for ministries pertaining to trafficking. This included approaching the issue legally and theologically, aiding in law implementation, generating awareness among least-protected communities, working alongside other organisations to provide relief support, and helping survivors reintegrate through emotional and livelihood support.
The two-day Consultation was a unique platform provided by the CCA for more than thirty participants from across Asia to share and learn best practices for migrant ministries, understand the compounded complexities of the COVID-19 pandemic in the crime of trafficking, and identify further pathways for action.