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Human Trafficking

Efforts mount in Japan to counter human trafficking

by International Labour Office, ILO-Online

Human trafficking is a growing problem in Japan and new efforts for stronger measures to combat modern forms of forced labour are gaining momentum. This report examines the phenomenon and what Japan and its ILO partners are doing about it.

Every week, small but desperate groups of Thai women seek the aid of their Embassy in Tokyo in a last-ditch attempt to free themselves from a life of exploitation and violence
They - like scores of other foreign workers in Japan - are victims of human trafficking. They’ve been brought to the country to work, often illegally and through deception over the nature of their job and their earnings. Many who end up in this underground economy endure appalling conditions in sweatshops and the sex industry. Lack of accurate statistics makes it difficult to estimate numbers, but in 2003, 51 cases of trafficking were reported to the police and 83 victims were found.
It’s not just women who are victims of human trafficking. Men are trafficked too, into work in the so-called “3-D” industries - Dirty, Dangerous or Difficult jobs, such as construction. Often the traffickers are linked to Japan’s organized crime networks, the yakuza, who charge the trafficked workers large sums to get them into Japan, to place them in work and to provide food and lodging. “Debts” of 500,000 to 900,000 yen (US$4,500-8,500) are not uncommon and the result can be an unbreakable cycle of debt bondage; even when working ten or more hours a day, many trafficked workers can never repay what they “owe”.

How it started
Human trafficking really took off in Japan in the 1980s. In response to rapid economic growth, and demand generated by the growing number of bars and restaurants, Thais, Filipinos and Koreans flooded into the country, often through channels linked to organized crime.
Then, as the economy weakened in the 1990s, the country tightened controls on immigration, inadvertently forcing an increasing number of would-be migrant workers into the arms of traffickers and organized crime. At the same time – according to Japan’s National Police Agency (NPA) – the range of countries from which illegal migrants began their odysseys started to widen, with victims from South America and Eastern Europe appearing on the scene.

However, until recently, the public took little interest in the problems of migrant workers – Japan remains a society with an extremely low percentage of foreign residents, and much of the illegal activity is hidden. Things began to change in December 2002 when the Japanese Government signed the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons (a supplement to the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, and known as the Palermo Protocol). Since then a number of symposiums and other events have been held, by both the Government and international organizations, to draw attention to the issue and raise public awareness. An Experts Committee on Violence against Women has been formed and serves as a centre at the central Government level on the issue of trafficking, and an inter-agency forum now exists within the Government to address the issue effectively.

But significant problems still remain. Although human trafficking from Japan to another country is a criminal offence, there is no provision in the penal code covering trafficking of people into Japan. Many victims of trafficking are brought into the country by deception techniques that can even go as far as involving family members and friends. Having no visa or having overstayed their visa period, they are reluctant, as illegal aliens, to go to the authorities for help, especially as they may also be under threat of violence and certainly under close surveillance by their ‘minders’. Keiko Otsu of the HELP Asian Women’s Shelter in Tokyo, says, “Many women are threatened by intermediaries that, if they escape they will be imprisoned for staying illegally in the country”. Their families are often threatened too. Such victims are treated as criminals when they seek the help of the police or the Immigration Bureau. “Even when the middlemen or traffickers are arrested it is difficult for the victims to claim damages because they will have been deported. The fact that the system does not guarantee the rights of victims makes it difficult to investigate trafficking,” Ms. Otsu says.

When cases do come to court the victims often find limited sympathy for their situation. Some members of the judiciary claim that since many women know they will be working as prostitutes the issue is simply one of smuggling human beings, not one of forced labour. However, the Thai Consul, Mr. Pisanu Sobhon, who deals with many trafficking cases, disagrees. “They are not informed beforehand that their jobs are highly exploitative and arduous, nor that they will not be allowed to go back when they want. This is nothing more than clever deceit and should be considered as forced labour,” he says.

NGO response
NGOs such as HELP and the Saalaa House for Women in Tokyo, which have served as shelters for escaped trafficked women, are now becoming more vocal. Encouraged by the Government’s signature of the Palermo Protocol, these NGOs set up the Japan Network Against Trafficking in Persons (JNATIP), which held its first meeting in 2003, and was attended by ten NGOs, a sign that the voluntary community in Japan is gearing up to pressure the public sector and ensure that trafficked women and men get better treatment.

The Japanese Government has not ratified ILO Convention No. 105 on Forced Labour. Activists therefore recommend that the Government develop a clear public position on trafficking, in the shape of a national action plan that involves all social partners.
To this end, a specific anti-trafficking law has to be passed in order to punish the guilty with appropriate sentences. Recently, a well-known criminal broker, charged with trafficking numerous Colombian women, was convicted for violating immigration and labour law only, receiving a custodial sentence of less than two years, whereas ten to 20 years - or even life - would have been handed down in countries where anti-trafficking legislation is in force.

Other challenges involve better education of government officials, who often underestimate the criminal nature of trafficking, while society itself continues to consider trafficked women as responsible for their own situation. NGOs want to see more Government funds made available for providing services to those escaping, including victim protection visas, which will allow them to remain in Japan for a short time, initiate legal action if they wish, and not live under the threat of deportation.

ILO action
In November 2001, the ILO created a special unit to coordinate anti-human trafficking work, called the Special Action Programme to Combat Forced Labour (SAP-FL). While continuing ILO prevention programmes in countries of origin, the SAP-FL has prioritized emphasis on the demand side of trafficking, and begun pilot studies in a number of destination countries.
The ILO sees trafficking as a violation of basic human rights, a labour migration issue, a gender issue, and one of the worst forms of child labour. Efforts also focus on research, awareness raising, technical cooperation, and working with governments, employers, workers and other organizations to abolish forced labour. As SAP-FL chief Roger Plant says: “Barriers … against legal migration in a context of demand for cheap migrant workers … can create a dangerous breeding ground for traffickers”. A major report, called “Human trafficking for sexual exploitation in Japan”, will be published shortly by SAP-FL.

09-02-2005 by International Labour Organization
words © International Labour Organization
picture ©aph
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