Cambodia, China, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand,Vietnam

July 30, Agence France Presse

Six Asian nations progress towards human trafficking pact

Bangkok: Senior officials from China and five Southeast Asian nations on Friday concluded their first-ever talks to thrash out a new framework for fighting human trafficking in the region.

United Nations officials cited substantial progress in the closed-door discussions aimed at hammering out the basics of an agreement expected to be signed between Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam when ministers meet in Yangon in October.

But they also warned that the battle against trafficking could actually be slowed by growing regional economic cooperation, the easing of customs procedures and the opening of transnational transport routes.

"The meeting was highly successful, and a number of tentative agreements have been reached which will be discussed further in the next step in the process," said Philip Robertson, program manager for the UN inter-agency on human trafficking in the greater Mekong River subregion.

It was the first time the countries came together to combat what Thailand's minister of social development and human security, Sora-at Klinpratoom, described at the beginning of the three-day talks as a "modern-day form of slavery".

Should a memorandum of understanding be inked in Yangon it would be the first of its kind in the world, Robertson said.

Some 800,000 men, women and children are estimated to be trafficked annually across borders worldwide in a billion-dollar illicit trade. Most victims of trafficking are severely exploited and many are sexually abused.

Human trafficking is considered a surging crisis in Asia, and several countries of the region have been strongly criticized for failing to recognize the scale of the problem.

The UN's top official in Thailand said that while the states involved in the talks were showing a growing recognition of the crisis there was some way to go before a pact was agreed.

Of crucial concern was whether any cross-border framework among the six nations would be legally binding.

"They have agreed it was binding in spirit, but in the letter of the law that might be going a little bit far at this stage," UN resident representative Robert England told AFP.

He warned that socio-economic development in Southeast Asia was hampering the battle against trafficking.

"Regional development represents a huge economic opportunity for people, but the ease of mobility created for the purposes of promoting economic opportunities and jobs also has a social downside," England said.

"The downside is the increasing trafficking of drugs and people."

The region, supported by donors such as Japan and the Asian Development Bank, could be unwittingly fuelling the crisis by opening up transnational highways, reducing border controls, and simplifying customs and administration procedures.

"Such steps would make it easier to traffic methamphetamines and heroin and certainly easier to traffic people. Development is a two-edged sword," England added