EU Counter-Human Trafficking Engagement in Southeast Asia

The European Union has been cooperating with ASEAN Member States and funding counter-human trafficking efforts in the Southeast Asia region for over fifteen years now. The following study analyses common instruments, plans of action and programmes of these two entities, examines their accomplishment and discusses possible effects.

The region of Southeast Asia has been dealing with the issue of trafficking in persons for a long time. Alongside the largest share of girls and women trafficked for sexual exploitation, a considerable number of men and women are also trafficked for labour exploitation. Other forms appear as well, such as forced marriages or the production of pornography. [1] Both global and domestic dimensions of trafficking are key issues of this region, as its victims reach dozens of countries in East Asia, the Pacific Ocean, the Middle East, Europe, and North America, and are also trafficked in large numbers within the region.

The phenomenon of Human Trafficking in Southeast Asia and European Engagement

Trafficking in persons is part of a wider phenomenon of violence against women and children. However, the groups vulnerable to human trafficking are also male and female migrant workers and people with disabilities. Besides focusing on counter-trafficking itself – protection of vulnerable groups, investigative methods, victim identification and protection – prevention of human trafficking touches upon gender equality, women’s education, migration, health access, border management policies, and prevention of child exploitation.

Various forms of human rights violations, besides human trafficking, emerge in all Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Member States. These are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. As mentioned above, ASEAN states are often source countries for trafficking to the European Union. Thus, it is essential for the EU to engage in the region to prevent trafficking in its origins.

Map of ASEAN Member States with their respective national flags. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Apart from being an economic partner to Southeast Asia, the EU acts there as a development aid provider as well. With ASEAN, it cooperates on the multilateral level through various action plans, conventions, and instruments. EU bilaterally collaborates with individual ASEAN Member States through Partnership and Cooperation Agreements. They mostly contain trade and sustainable development policies – with the EU’s role as a donor to each of the respective countries – and initiate dialogues dealing with civil and political human rights violations. A special type of dialogue has been established with Laos, the EU-Lao PDR Human Rights and Governance Dialogue, addressing, amongst other things, the sexual exploitation of children. We published a study focused on the drivers for human trafficking in Laos – “Lao People’s Democratic Republic: Socialist Source for Human Trafficking Industry.”

First Steps of the Mutual Cooperation

The first ASEAN-EU official initiative focusing on non-trade issues, and thus human trafficking as well, was the Regional EU-ASEAN Dialogue Instrument (READI) implemented in 2005. Two years later, the Nuremberg Declaration and Action Plan to Implement the Nuremberg Declaration were adopted. Within these documents and with the funding from READI, the EU and ASEAN promoted, among other aims, mutual stronger cooperation in countering human trafficking. They created regular ASEAN Senior Officials Meeting on Transnational Crime (SOM TC) Plus EU Consultation and ASEAN-EU cooperation in information sharing, legislative framework and institutional capacity-building, as well as a collaboration of law enforcement agencies and civil society organisations to tackle human trafficking and other threats. Moreover, they emphasized building and strengthening ASEAN’s capacity in promoting gender equality, and research, collection, and analysis of gender-disaggregated data through technical guidance, assistance, and human and financial resources from the EU. [2] [3] These goals, as outlined above, are important for the prevention of human trafficking as well.

It is important to note that ASEAN itself has dealt with the issue of human trafficking prior to these efforts. The inclusion of human trafficking into the ASEAN-EU discussions meant broadening their cooperation, not bringing the issue to the table for the first time. The ASEAN-EU collaboration was widened by the issue of human trafficking since it is often understood as a transnational crime requiring transnational instruments to combat.

In 2007, ASEAN Member States adopted ASEAN Charter, which pledged to establish a common human rights body. [4] Soon after, in 2009, the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission of Human Rights (AICHR) was created. The Commission was drafted together with non-state regional actors. [5] Based on the Commission’s work, ASEAN Human Rights Declaration (AHRD) and ASEAN Convention Against Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children were adopted, in 2012 and in 2015, respectively.

Nevertheless, the ASEAN Charter, AICHR and AHRD have been heavily criticised by international non-governmental organisations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The main criticism towards the Charter is that it heavily emphasises the principle of non-interference in member states’ domestic affairs. [6] The background of this critique lies in the many human rights issues in every ASEAN country which require an independent monitoring body. The AICHR’s representatives are governmental nominees and work through consensus which effectively prevents countries from reporting on human rights violations in other member states as their efforts can be vetoed. The AICHR is called for to act impartially and states to appoint Commissioners transparently. [7] The AHRD was criticised for lacking the participation of civil society [6] and failing to meet international standards to which ASEAN countries are signatory parties. [8]

Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei. Source: Flickr.

Bandar Seri Begawan Plan of Action (2013-2017) and its accomplishments

Bandar Seri Begawan Plan of Action outlined the ASEAN-EU cooperation for the years 2013-2017. When compared to its predecessor, the plan brought a few new aspects. Among the most important ones, it aimed to enlarge counter-trafficking efforts by (a) implementation of the ASEAN-EU Comprehensive Border Management Programme, (b) EU support of the work of AICHR and ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children (ACWC) by regional dialogues, seminars, awareness raising activities, or exchange of best practices, and (c) EU support to ASEAN institutions in policies and programmes focused on the well-being of women, children, the elderly, people with disabilities, and migrant workers. [9] The realisation of these goals is examined in the following subchapters which describe the common actions of ASEAN and the EU.

Implementation of the Border Management Programme

The European Union funded the EU-ASEAN Border Management Programme which enabled ASEAN countries to access Interpol’s tools and services in countering human trafficking. In 2015, a follow-up EU-ASEAN Border and Migration Management Programme II was launched. This three-year programme, again funded by the EU and implemented by Interpol, focused on the interconnectivity of ASEAN law enforcement agencies to reduce trafficking in persons and other transnational crimes. [10] Under the programme, there were five workshops during which over 275 frontline border officials from all ten ASEAN countries were trained. [11] The training focused on human trafficking investigative techniques, victim identifying and interviewing methods, and understanding legal frameworks and human rights. [12]

EU support of the work of AICHR and ACWC

In terms of cooperation between the EU, AICHR and ACWC, there has been a regular Policy Dialogue on Human Rights starting in 2015 and continuing in 2017 and 2019. It served as a platform for discussing recent developments and exchanging best practices in human rights policies in ASEAN including human trafficking. [13] The Dialogue developed from previous study visits of AICHR and ACWC representatives in the EU, and EU Special Representative for Human Rights visits in Jakarta. [14] However, no new Dialogue on Human Rights meeting has been announced, although outlined in succeeding plans of action.

Women, children, the elderly, people with disabilities, and migrant workers policies and programmes

In 2016, READI was replaced by Enhanced Regional EU-ASEAN Dialogue Instrument (E-READI). It is an EU-funded development cooperation programme with a budget of 20 million euros building up on the Bandar Seri Begawan Plan of Action and especially its subsequent ASEAN-EU Plan of Action. This programme supports the interaction of civil society, the private sector and other relevant stakeholders. It promotes, among others, dialogue on human rights, gender equality, safe migration, well-being, rights and welfare of women, children, people with disabilities, and migrant workers. [15] Particularly, it provides logistical support to EU-ASEAN meetings, workshops, study visits, and the conduct of expert studies and analyses. In addition to EU-ASEAN cooperation, it focuses on strengthening the private sector and public-private cooperation in Southeast Asia. [16]

For instance, E-READI funded the realisation of the Progress Report on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality in ASEAN undertaken by the ACWC. [17] When it comes to the trafficking of women and children, the Report’s authors welcome the first legally binding ASEAN Convention Against Trafficking of Persons, Especially Women and Children (ACTIP) as a much-needed initiative towards regional mechanisms for handling complaints and cases. Its careful and thorough implementation, as called for by the Commission, was reflected in the next Plan of Action.

ASEAN-EU Plan of Action (2018-2022) and its accomplishments

Among new initiatives, the ASEAN-EU Plan of Action emphasises (a) cooperation on the implementation of ACTIP, the ASEAN Plan of Action Against Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, and the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organised Crime, (b) research and raising awareness in safe migration and in gender and criminal justice dimension of human trafficking, and (c) dialogue for exchanging best practices in addressing migration. [18] The following subchapters examine the accomplishment of these aims.

Implementation of key conventions

All ten member states have signed ACTIP, ratified the UN Convention Against Transnational Crime, and ratified or acceded[1] to the supplementary Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children. Progress in the implementation of ACTIP by ASEAN states themselves is being widely examined (see for instance [19], [20], [21]). However, when it comes to the focus of this study, there is no information about the EU’s role in the implementation process.

Research and raising awareness in safe migration and in gender and criminal justice dimension of trafficking

At the beginning of 2018, a five-year-long Safe and Fair Programme was launched. Within this programme, ASEAN, the EU, the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UNW), and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime cooperate towards improving conditions for migrant women in Southeast Asia. Under funding mainly from the EU (25 million euro from the EU, 0.5 million euro from ILO and UNW), it aims to make women migrant workers less vulnerable to trafficking, improve their access to information and services, provide a better understanding of the benefits of women migrants by society, improve data, and enforce law reforms. [22]

According to the EU and ASEAN, the programme contributed to providing service and information on safe migration and gender-based violence to 185 673 women migrant workers and their families, reaching 460 552 people through campaigns on positive attitudes and non-discrimination towards women migrant workers, strengthening 19 laws, policies, and strategies for women migrant workers, and starting development of 4 information systems and 11 referral mechanisms. [23]

Participants of the Safe and Fair Public Forum on 11 April 2019 raising their hands to stop violence against women migrant workers. Source: Flickr.
Dialogue on the exchange of best practices in addressing migration

The last EU-ASEAN Dialogue on Safe Labour Migration was held in 2018. A year after, the ASEAN Safe Migration Campaign funded by E-READI was launched, and ASEAN-EU Labour Mobility-Sharing Experiences and Lessons Learnt event took place. The Lessons Learnt event was intended as an inaugural ASEAN-EU platform for, among others, sharing experiences, good practices, and perspectives on labour migration governance. [24] However, there have been no other discussions since.

Effects Felt

As indicated above, the EU is not the only actor collaborating with ASEAN states on combating trafficking in persons. It is therefore challenging to conclude the exact effects that the EU’s actions have on the region. Furthermore, for a long time, there has not been an EU funding instrument targeting human trafficking itself, but rather a wide range of programmes, from security-oriented to solely developmental ones. That made it difficult to produce comprehensive data evaluating outcomes of EU-funded counter-trafficking, as The European Court of Auditors suggests in its analysis from 2017. [25] However, in February 2022, the European Commission announced new funding under the EU Strategy on Combating Trafficking in Human beings. [26] The calls for proposals target breaking human trafficking business models and supporting victims and are also open to overseas entities. Thus, the evaluation of the EU’s contribution at least in the funding dimension can be clearer.

The Covid-19 pandemic had a partial impact on the cooperation of EU and ASEAN institutions, for instance in postponing indefinitely the Policy Dialogue on Human Rights. As found in the evaluation, the Dialogue on Safe Labour Migration and Labour Mobility-Sharing Experiences and Lessons Learnt events were not prolonged either. The newest Plan of Action to Implement ASEAN-EU Strategic Partnership (2023-2027) improves this by pledging to regular ASEAN SOM TC Plus EU, participation of ASEAN in operational activities of the European Multidisciplinary Platform Against Criminal Threats, Working Arrangement of Aseanapol and Europol, and capacity building in the border management system. [27] Even though no legal obligations stem from the plans, under the last one almost 90% of action lines were fulfilled or processed in February this year. [28] This and the factor of the EU-ASEAN Dialogue Partnership evolving into a Strategic Partnership supported by a new plan of action indicates potential for further development.

Article reviewed by: Veronika Čáslavová, Kristýna Drmotová


[1] Accession has the same legal effect as ratification.


[1] UNODC. 2021. “Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2020.” United Nations publication, Sales No. E.20.IV.3.

[2] ASEAN-EU. 2007. “Nuremberg Declaration on an EU-ASEAN Enhanced Partnership.” European Commission, March 15, 2007.

[3] ASEAN-EU. N.d. “Plan of Action to Implement the Nuremberg Declaration on an EU-ASEAN Enhanced Partnership.” ASEAN.

[4] Association of Southeast Asian Nations. 2008. “The ASEAN Charter.” ASEAN Secretariat, January 2008.

[5] Morada, Noel. 2012. “Europe and Southeast Asia: ASEAN-EU Interregionalism between Pluralist and Solidarist Societies.” Review of European Studies 4, no. 3 (July): 89-99.

[6] Human Rights Watch. 2018. “Human Rights in Southeast Asia. Briefing Materials for the ASEAN-Australia Summit.” Human Rights Watch, March 17-18, 2018.

[7] Amnesty International. 2009. “Amnesty International Public Statement. The Inauguration of the ASEAN Inter-Governmental Commission on Human Rights.” Amnesty International, October 23, 2009.

[8] Amnesty International. 2012. “Postpone deeply flawed ASEAN Human Rights Declaration.” Amnesty International, November 5, 2012.

[9] ASEAN-EU. N.d. “Bandar Seri Begawan Plan of Action to Strengthen the ASEAN-EU Enhanced Partnership (2013-2017).” ASEAN.

[10] Association of Southeast Asian Nations. 2015. “EU, ASEAN Launch 2nd Phase of Border Management Programme.” ASEAN, October 19, 2015.

[11] INTERPOL. 2017. “INTERPOL EU ASEAN Migration & Border Management programme 2016.” INTERPOL, YouTube Video, 3:16.

[12] Association of Southeast Asian Nations. 2016. “ASEAN, EU cooperation spotlights border security.” ASEAN, November 3, 2016.

[13] Association of Southeast Asian Nations. 2019. “European Union, ASEAN hold 3rd Human Rights Policy Dialogue.” ASEAN, November 27, 2019.

[14] European Union External Action Service. 2015. “EU-ASEAN Policy Dialogue on Human Rights.” EEAS, October 23, 2015.

[15] European Union External Action Service. 2019. “Enhanced Regional EU-ASEAN Dialogue Instrument.” EEAS, May 27, 2019.

[16] EU-ASEAN. N.d. “Enhanced Regional EU-ASEAN Dialogue Instrument. E-READI.” EEAS.

[17] ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children. 2016. “Progress report on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality.” ASEAN Secretariat.

[18] ASEAN-EU. N.d. “ASEAN-EU Plan of Action (2018-2022).” ASEAN.

[19] Yusran, Ranyta. 2018. “The ASEAN Convention Against Trafficking in Persons: A Preliminary Assessment.” Asian Journal of International Law 8 (1): 258-292.

[20] Solim, Jevlin. 2019. “The Accommodation of ASEAN Convention Against Trafficking in Persons (ACTIP) in Indonesia Regulation.” Fiat Justisia: Jurnal Ilmu Hukum 13 (2): 167-86.

[21] Smerchuar, Numtip, and Warach Madhyamapurush. 2020. “The Puzzle of ASEAN Instruments to Combat Human Trafficking.” WIMAYA 1 (02): 40-47.

[22] International Labour Organisation. N.d. “Safe and Fair: Realising women migrant workers’ rights and opportunities in the ASEAN region.” International Labour Organisation.–en/index.htm.

[23] EU-ASEAN. N.d. “45 Years of Relations. EU-ASEAN Strategic Partnership. Blue Book 2022.” EU in ASEAN.

[24] Association of Southeast Asian Nations. 2019. “ASEAN launches Safe Migration Campaign; top ASEAN, EU officials discuss safe labour migration.” ASEAN, December 12, 2019.

[25] The European Court of Auditors. 2017. “Special Report. EU support to fight human trafficking in South/South-East Asia.” The European Court of Auditors Special Report no. 9.

[26] Directorate-General for Migration and Home Affairs. 2022. “New EU funding to combat trafficking in human beings.” European Commission, February 17, 2022.

[27] ASEAN-EU. N.d. “Plan of Action to Implement the ASEAN-EU Strategic Partnership (2023-2027).” ASEAN.

[28] Association of Southeast Asian Nations. 2022. “Joint Press Release 29th ASEAN-EU Joint Cooperation Committee (JCC) Meeting Convenes Virtually.” ASEAN, February 11, 2022.


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