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Human Trafficking through a Sri Lankan perspective

2013 Jul 26

By  Asitha G Punchihewa

Respect for human rights and labour rights in labour receiving countries have never been a case to receive praises. (AFP) Respect for human rights and labour rights in labour receiving countries have never been a case to receive praises. (AFP)

Human trafficking is the trade in humans, most commonly for the purpose of sexual slavery, forced labor or for the extraction of organs or tissues, including surrogacy and ova removal.
There are major conceptual differences between human trafficking and people smuggling. In the former, trafficker forces, deceives or coerces the trafficked to engage in exploitative employment, sex work or organ removal. In smuggling of people, people voluntarily use a people smuggler to move from one place to another, mostly from one country to another.

Historic records are abundant on the existence of human trafficking across almost all civilizations. Sri Lanka being located at the centre of Silk Road, providing services to sailors linking East and the West could have attracted human traffickers from the past.
However, in the modern day Sri Lanka’s international human trafficking takes place mainly in the form of migrant labor workers. Although Sri Lanka’s migration for employment has been streamlined in theory, serious systematic discrepancies have remained, hence inducing international human trafficking mostly for labor and sexual exploitation. Lack of records on international human trafficking for organ removal should not provide grounds to rule out that aspect of human trafficking.  

Remittances of migrant workers accounts for approximately 50 percent of export earnings. The government’s vision is to increase the remittances from USD 6 billion in 2012 to 9 billion in 2016. For a country that has lacked to diversify economic avenues, remittances from nearly 300,000 people that it sends off shore annually seem one of the few options available to sustain income. It is estimated that around 23% of the migrant workers that go through the legal channel are in fact deceived or coerced to become victims of exploitation at a foreign destination.

Sri Lanka Bureau for Foreign Employment, a government body that operates under them as Ministry of Foreign Employment Promotion and Welfare, has been established to monitor and safeguard the interests of migrant workers. However, international human trafficking rigs operate in Sri Lanka, sometimes disguised as licensed agents of foreign employment and as outreach sub agents operating at the village level. Prospective candidates for foreign employment and also human trafficking are screened through the effective utilization of the outreach sub agents that interact at the family level. Sub agents could even be close relatives, friends, work colleagues, of prospective migrant workers or could even be village level lenders. The bitter experience of Rizana Nafeek too suggests that her parents have been the last level of intermediaries in the human trafficking chain. As in the case above sub agents too come from poor socio-economic and educational backgrounds and are themselves unable to find reasonable economic opportunities, hence inducing them to become intermediaries in human trafficking.   

Foreign employment agencies are generally owned by larger businessmen that have substantial investment capacity. Some go as far as to invest on finding systematic loop holes to obtain support of the politicians, police, health care system and the legal system to sustain the demand and supply chain of human trafficking.

They also link themselves with licensed foreign employment agencies in offshore destinations, mostly in the Middle Eastern countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Lebanon. It is a well known fact that international human trafficking is an ally of international organized crime networks that include arms, drugs, smuggling, money laundering and terror networks. Most of the labor receiving Middle Eastern countries lack conducive legal frameworks to protect victims of trafficking and are not signatories to most human rights related international instruments. Respect for human rights and labour rights in labour receiving countries have never been a case to receive praises.
On the other hand Sri Lanka’s foreign missions too have not been able to gain fame among the migrant workers. Such entities have failed to justify the delegation of power of the executive president and pumping of state resources to sustain the consular network in some labor receiving countries.      

While accepting the fact that Sri Lanka has to depend heavily on remittances as a remedy, it should never be considered as the sole source of foreign exchange earner in the long run. Sri Lanka needs to fast look at utilizing human resources of Sri Lanka that are wasted or exploited by foreigners. If the migrant workers are seen as an effective human resource than merely pawns for slavery, many untapped avenues still exist for economic diversification at the macro level.  Migrant workers are mostly confined to backward pockets of populations that need to be mapped, probably using the newly recruited graduate cadre under the Ministry of Foreign Employment Promotion and Welfare. Further, investing on the enhancement of skill base of prospective migrant workers would also increase their chances of obtaining quality employment through the provision of value added services at a more professionally accepted manner. However, enhancing the knowledge base and attitude of migrant workers remains a challenge as an overwhelming majority of them come from a poor socio-economic and educational backgrounds. Strong political willingness is required to crack down on the infamous recruitment agencies and their allies that operate freely without the legal system causing any hindrance to their way.
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