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I. Summary
II. Key Recommendations
III. Context
IV. Profiles
V. International Legal Standards On Trafficking In Women
VI. Recruited In Thailand--Sold On Japan
VII. Servitude In The "Snack Bars"
VIII. Deportation As "Illegal Aliens"
IX. Response Of The Japanese Government
X. Response Of The Thai Government
XI. International Response
XII. Recommendations
  • To the Japanese Government
  • To the Thai Government
  • To the Japanese and Thai Governments
  • To All Governments
  • To Intergovernmental Organizations
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
International Organization For Migration (IOM)
International Labor Organization (ILO)
World Health Organization (WHO)
Human Rights Watch OWED JUSTICE
Thai Women Trafficked into Debt Bondage in Japan

Human Rights Watch
New York Washington London Brussels
Copyright September 2000 by Human Rights Watch.
All rights reserved.
Printed in the Unted States of America.
ISBN 1-56432-252-1
Library of Congress Card Number: 00-107963


Trafficking in persons is a global phenomenon of large-scale proportions. Incidents of trafficking have been reported in all regions of the world, and, while the number of persons trafficked each year is impossible to determine, estimates range from hundreds of thousands to millions of victims worldwide. The international community has taken note of this egregious human rights violation, and efforts are underway in domestic, regional, and international fora to address the problem and define appropriate state responses. Mary Robinson, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, has been particularly vocal on this issue, calling on states to take concrete measures to prevent, punish, and provide redress for trafficking abuses. Several inter-governmental organizations have also renewed their commitment to protecting the rights of undocumented migrants. While this is a different issue, their efforts could have important implications for victims of trafficking, whose immigration status is typically undocumented.

This chapter provides a brief overview of some of the initiatives that Human Rights Watch believes have the most potential to affect the experiences of women trafficked from Thailand to Japan and influence the Japanese and Thai governments' response to this problem.

Government Efforts: Multilateral and Bilateral

One important multilateral government initiative is the United Nations' effort to establish international standards for states' response to trafficking in persons as part of its larger effort to combat the activities of cross-border crime syndicates. In December 1998, the U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution calling for the elaboration of a convention against transnational organized crime, supplemented by a protocol on trafficking in women and children. The Ad Hoc Committee on the Elaboration of a Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (Ad Hoc Committee) was created by this resolution, with the responsibility of drafting the convention and the trafficking protocol by the end of 2000. In 1999, the committee agreed to expand the trafficking protocol to cover all trafficking in persons, with special attention to women and children. Delegations from both the Japanese and Thai governments are participating in these Ad Hoc Committee negotiations. At the time this report was being prepared, the convention and the trafficking protocol were still under negotiation. Human Rights Watch believes that if appropriate human rights protections are included in the protocol, it could significantly facilitate the prosecution of traffickers and increase the protections, services, and access to redress available to victims.

The Group of Eight (G8) meetings have provided another high-profile and potentially effective forum where member governments -- Japan, the United States, Canada, Australia, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, and Russia -- have discussed the problem of trafficking in persons. In October 1999, the G8's Senior Experts' Group on Transnational Organized Crime (the "Lyon Group") released the "Guiding Principles and Plan of Action to Combat the Smuggling of and Trafficking in Human Beings," in which it agreed to "intensify its efforts to develop, enact and facilitate national, multilateral and international principles, agreements, strategies and actions to prevent and counter the smuggling of and trafficking in human beings." This statement recognized the potential importance of the trafficking protocol discussed above and called for the enactment of domestic legislation to facilitate the prosecution of traffickers. Unfortunately, however, while the action plan details numerous steps that must be taken to improve law enforcement efforts, there is little reference to the measures states must take to uphold the rights of trafficking victims. The action plan states only that for those persons who provide information for the investigation and prosecution of their smugglers or traffickers, states should, "where appropriate," ensure the availability of protection, assistance, and support.(1) Human Rights Watch hopes that the G8 will continue to devote attention to this issue, with an increased emphasis on the rights and needs of trafficking victims.

Japan and Thailand have participated in a number of regional discussions regarding trafficking in persons as well. In January 2000, Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs hosted the Asia-Pacific Symposium on Trafficking in Persons in Tokyo, with participants from Japan, Thailand, and other countries in the region. In his key-note speech, Japan's Senior State Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Shozo Azuma, described trafficking as a serious crime of increasing proportions and expressed his government's hope that the symposium would serve to deepen participants' understanding of the problem. In March 2000, Japan and Thailand sent delegations to the Asian Regional Initiative to Combat the Trafficking of Women and Children (ARIAT), co-hosted by the United States and the Philippines in Manila. The objective of the meeting was to discuss national action plans and regional strategies to prevent trafficking, protect victims, reintegrate trafficking victims into society, and prosecute traffickers. The participants adopted an action plan that included, among other provisions, commitments to:

  • improve information sharing within and between states;

  • develop anti-trafficking information materials for dissemination to diplomatic and consular missions that include information on where to seek assistance;

  • promote cooperation among governments and nongovernmental organizations in the prevention, protection, prosecution, repatriation and reintegration aspects of trafficking in persons;

  • provide comprehensive and immediate assistance for trafficked persons;

  • promote education, vocational training, scholarship programs, and employment opportunities for children and women to reduce their susceptibility to being trafficked;

  • improve states' ability to prevent and prosecute trafficking through legal reform and training, as necessary; and

  • facilitate trafficked persons' repatriation and safe reintegration in their countries of origin.

    Participants also agreed to periodically assess their progress in implementing the action plan and to promote the participation of both state and non-state actors in that implementation.(2)

In addition, there are bilateral and domestic initiatives in some countries with potentially important implications for the Japanese and Thai governments' responses to the trafficking of women from Thailand to Japan. The United States government and the European Union, for example, have strong ties with both of these governments and regularly interact with them in a variety of bilateral and multilateral fora. These fora could provide important opportunities to raise the issue of trafficking in persons and promote appropriate government responses. In addition, the United States and the European Union are engaged in international anti-trafficking activities that could -- and in some cases already do -- involve collaboration with Japanese and/or Thai officials.

In the United States, training programs on combating trafficking in persons form a significant component of these activities. Foreign law enforcement officials receive such training through a number of U.S. agencies, including the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), which opened a training office in Tokyo in 1997; the Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) of the Department of State, which established the International Law Enforcement Academy in Bangkok in 1999; the Federal Bureau of Investigation, whose international training activities include the Pacific Rim Training Initiative (PTI); the Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section of the Department of Justice, which is involved in international training activities regarding child exploitation and the trafficking of women and children for sexual purposes; and the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the Department of State (formally of the U.S. Information Agency), whose International Visitor Program has included bringing foreign law enforcement officials to the United States to discuss anti-trafficking tactics.(3) These training activities typically address trafficking in persons within the context of efforts to combat transnational organized crime and/or illegal migration, and frequently focus on enforcing laws against undocumented immigration. Greater attention is needed to the steps states must take to protect the human rights -- and physical safety -- of trafficked persons.

The United States' response to trafficking in women and children in Asia has also included foreign assistance programs funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Department of State. These programs are designed to prevent trafficking -- through disseminating information warning women of the dangers of trafficking and/or creating additional economic opportunities for women and girls at home -- and facilitate the repatriation and reintegration of trafficking victims.(4) So far these activities have been carried out primarily in South Asia, but there are plans to increase prevention and reintegration efforts in Southeast Asian countries, including Thailand. Finally, when this report was being prepared in mid-2000, the United States Congress was considering legislation that would establish a mechanism for monitoring governments' responses to trafficking in persons worldwide, and draft versions of the bill included a set of "minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking," providing for assistance to countries who met those standards and sanctions on those who did not.

The European Union (EU) has also demonstrated a strong interest in combating trafficking in persons. The DAPHNE Initiative, for example, has provided funding to several nongovernmental organizations in Europe who work to prevent trafficking and assist its victims. This initiative was proposed by the Commission of the European Communities (European Commission) in 1997 and was designed to support NGOs involved in combating violence against women and children. In implementing the program, the Commission has recognized the importance of addressing trafficking in women and in children as a part of this effort.(5) In 1998, the European Commission issued a communication on trafficking in women reaffirming that the practice represented "an unacceptable violation of women's rights," and that the issue remained "high on the political agenda of the EU." The communication further provided that any policy in this field should prioritize "help and support to the victims of this serious and degrading violation of human rights."(6)

To date, the focus of the EU's anti-trafficking activities has been trafficking into and/or out of European states.(7) However, as a significant donor of humanitarian aid in Asia, and a regular participant in high-level meetings with the governments of Japan and Thailand, the EU is in a good position to raise the problem of trafficking in women from Thailand to Japan and to engage in collaborative efforts to improve prevention and response mechanisms. As noted in the European Commission's 1998 communication on trafficking, existing EU aid programs already address some of the root causes of trafficking, such as poverty and unemployment, but more could be done. In particular, the European Commission suggested supporting collaborative projects in developing countries to improve legislation, judicial and police training against trafficking in women, and prevention and awareness-raising actions.(8)

Intergovernmental Organizations Address Trafficking in Persons

Intergovernmental organizations that address labor and migration issues have increasingly recognized the importance of incorporating efforts to address trafficking abuses into their work. The International Labor Organization (ILO) has noted that there is a close connection between protecting the rights of undocumented workers and addressing the problem of trafficking. As ILO Asia Pacific Regional Director, Mitsuko Horiuchi, has explained, "The one foolproof way to curtail clandestine migration and exploitation of migrants by traffickers, intermediaries and unscrupulous employers is simply to respect the rights of migrant workers."(9) To support such efforts, ILO experts are working with governments to assist them in drafting relevant legislation and policies to prevent trafficking and to protect the rights of migrant workers and their families. The ILO has also urged states to ratify the "Convention concerning Migrations in Abusive Conditions and the Promotion of Equality of Opportunity and Treatment of Migrant Workers," which it adopted in 1975.(10)

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) also recognizes that trafficking in persons often occurs within the context of larger migratory flows. IOM's policy on trafficking in migrants attributes the rise in this practice to the "market for irregular migration services" that has resulted from reduced opportunities for legal migration coupled with a large pool of potential labor migrants in some countries and a persistent demand for foreign labor in others. IOM's efforts to combat trafficking in migrants have included organizing regional and global seminars, conducting research, publishing reports, engaging in technical cooperation activities with governments, participating in information dissemination programs in countries of origin, and promoting the safe return and reintegration of trafficking victims.(11) In addition, IOM has highlighted the need for counseling, legal aid, and medical support for trafficking victims and other migrants. In October 1999, IOM signed a memorandum of understanding with the World Health Organization (WHO), agreeing to pursue concrete measures and detailed recommendations to "better meet the health needs of migrants and other displaced persons."(12)

Several of these programs have the potential to improve the Thai and Japanese government responses to trafficking in women. In Thailand, ILO and IOM have already been instrumental in the government's efforts to formulate a response to the trafficking in persons into and out of the country. Representatives of both organizations were members of Thailand's National Committee on Combating Trafficking in Women and Children, which drafted the "Memorandum of Understanding on Common Guidelines of Practices for Agencies Concerned with Cases where Women and Children are Victims of Human Trafficking" in 1999. IOM's technical cooperation activities in East and Southeast Asia include developing guidelines for police and immigration officials to distinguish between trafficked migrants and other migrants in an irregular situation, in order to adjust their practices and procedures accordingly. IOM also published a report in April 1999 describing trafficking abuses suffered by women who migrate from Thailand to Japan, entitled To Japan and Back: Thai Women Recount their Experiences. Two years earlier, IOM released a study on trafficking in women into Japan from the Philippines.(13)


1. Ministerial Conference of the G-8 Countries on Combating Transnational Organized Crime (Moscow, October 19-20,1999), "Communiqué, Annex 2: Guiding Principles and Plan of Action to Combat the Smuggling of and Trafficking in Human Beings." Available: March 2000.

2. "ARIAT Regional Action Plan Against Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children," March 29-31, 2000, Manila, Philippines. Available: June 2000.

3. IOM, Trafficking in Migrants, Quarterly Bulletin, September 1997; Weekly Special Report, January 28, 2000, "International Issues: Clinton on Administration Action on Human Trafficking." Available March 2000.; Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, Department of State,"Crime Programs." Available: March 2000; The FBI Academy, "International Training Program." Available: March 2000; Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section, Criminal Division, Department of Justice,"International Aspects of Child Exploitation." Available: March 2000; Department of State, "International Visitor Program." Available: March 2000.

4. Weekly Special Report, January 28, 2000, "International Issues: Clinton on Administration Action on Human Trafficking." Available: March 2000; USAID, "Democracy Programs: Asia Regional." Available: March 2000.

5. European Commission Press Release, "The DAPHNE Initiative: Commission supports new projects to combat violence against women and children," IP/99/40, Brussels, January 21, 1999. Available: (search using document number and/or date). May 2000.

6. Commission of the European Communities, "Communication from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament: For Further Actions in the Fight Against Trafficking in Women," Brussels, December 9, 1998, COM(1998) 726 (see "General Introduction" and "Main Policy Principles").

7. It has also focused almost exclusively on the trafficking of women for sexual exploitation. Human Rights Watch would encourage the European Union to adopt a broader understanding of the problem that includes the trafficking of women, men, or children into servitude in any occupation or labor sector.

8. Commission of the European Communities, "Communication from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament: For Further Actions in the Fight Against Trafficking in Women," Brussels, December 9, 1998, COM(1998) 726 (see Part III.2: Cooperation with Developing Countries).

9. Statement by Mitsuko Horiuchi, ILO Asia Pacific Regional Director, to the International Symposium on Migration: Towards Regional Cooperation on Irregular/Undocumented Migration, Bangkok, 22 April 1999. Available: March 2000.

10. As of May 15, 2000, there were twelve States Parties to this Convention and an additional three signatories (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, "Status of Ratifications of the Principal International Human Rights Treaties, as of 15-May-00"). The Convention will enter into force when at least twenty States have accepted it.

11. IOM, "Trafficking in Migrants: IOM Policy and Responses." Available: March 2000.

12. WHO, "WHO, IOM to Strengthen Collaboration on Migration and Health Issues," Note for the Press, no. 22, October 4, 1999. Available: March 2000.

13. IOM, Trafficking in women to Japan for sexual exploitation: a survey of Filipino women, April 1997.