Dislocation: Rohingya refugees tell harrowing stories about their search for safety © Getty
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Human trafficking is a worldwide scourge, but some of the most cruel cases of people being illegally transported for exploitation are in Asia. Revelations of the misery of trafficked people, from organised online child abuse to slave labour on fishing boats, have increased the pressure on governments and companies to act.

The revelations have encouraged law firms to join forces with anti-trafficking groups to analyse which laws can be used to tackle the problem and how the rules need to be toughened. The move is part of a developing culture of pro bono work in the region.

The refugee crisis on Southeast Asia’s seas in 2015 revealed the extent of people smuggling and human trafficking. Thousands of people, including many members of Myanmar’s persecuted Muslim Rohingya minority, were stranded at sea on their way to Thailand, Malaysia and beyond. Authorities in Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur said they had discovered a network of smugglers’ camps that included graves filled with scores of bodies. People held in such camps have described how they were assaulted by smugglers who would in some cases extort thousands of dollars from them, or their families back home.

Catches from fishing boats that use enslaved workers sometimes enter the supply chains of multinationals. Big food companies say they are working to address this, while governments, including Thailand’s, say they are instituting tougher enforcement of regulations of boat operators.

In some of the worst cases, children are victims of trafficking. Online child abuse is a growing problem in Asia Pacific countries from the Philippines to Australia. Interpol said in January that it had identified 10,000 victims of child sex abuse around the world by using software on images and videos to make connections between victims, abusers and locations. The links between child exploitation, slavery and trafficking is increasingly clear.

Liberty Asia, a leading anti-trafficking charity, has been helped by pro bono work from two law firms, White & Case and Ropes & Gray.

White & Case worked on a review of the Convention Against Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (Actip). The 2015 agreement by the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) has “lofty intentions”, says the firm, but also “significant weaknesses” compared with its European equivalent.

Jon Bowden, the White & Case partner who led the project, says the lawyers were drawn to it because they were aware of the dislocation of people across the region, who have been forced to move by a variety of crises.

The research has also been a useful reminder of potential warning signs that companies’ operations might be tainted by trafficked labour, he says. “It sharpens people’s minds from a diligence standpoint — what to look for in personnel that are being used by businesses.”

Archana Kotecha

Problems the firm focused on included gaps in enforcement, corporate liability and domestic laws in the region’s states. A wider difficulty is that although the convention is a joint effort, implementation of it falls to the countries themselves, reflecting Asean’s tradition of not interfering in its members’ domestic affairs.

White & Case’s review is designed to feed into both the Asean secretariat and member states’ own updating of their laws to comply with the convention. The firm says its study is also unique in comparing the Asean rules with European anti-trafficking rules.

Archana Kotecha, Liberty Asia’s head of legal, praises White & Case for a “creative approach” that “doesn’t limit the law to the words that define it”. She adds: “It doesn’t matter that the words don’t say it, we can still guide actions and efforts according to international standards.”

Ropes & Gray has been working with Liberty Asia as it expands its pro bono work in Asia. It has hired a programme co-ordinator and added four lawyers from offices in the region to its pro bono committee.

A Hong Kong-led team in Ropes & Gray has been working on how to use anti-bribery law to fight trafficking. The firm is developing a toolkit for anti-trafficking groups. It aims to show how companies and other organisations could be in breach of the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, how they can avoid being sucked into involvement in human trafficking and how they can report suspicious activity most effectively. The firm also hopes that its work on using the act and other laws to highlight financial flows potentially linked to human trafficking could help cut off some of those sources of money.

Separately, a project by Norton Rose Fulbright targeted the problem of online child sex abuse in Australia, which generated 11,000 referrals to the country’s federal police in 2015 alone.

The firm was asked by Anti-Slavery Australia, a campaign group, to prepare a report on how authorities deal with online child exploitation and identify areas to improve.

The research examines existing laws, sentencing of offenders, the role of internet service providers and other companies, and education and prevention. It also looks at international collaboration and the link between online child exploitation and human trafficking. The work will be presented at the seventh World Congress on Family Law and Children’s Rights in Dublin, Ireland, in June.

The pro bono work on trafficking matches lawyers’ skills and time to a problem that is deeply disturbing and in danger of overwhelming efforts to tackle it. Leanne Collingburn, national pro bono executive for Norton Rose Fulbright Australia, says the project was compelling because of the urgency of the task and the importance of a subject that people find frightening. Anti-Slavery Australia, she says, is “an incredibly sophisticated — albeit under-resourced — organisation.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
About this series

There is a growing sense of maturity among the region’s law firms. Their clients are hungry for legal expertise, and in response the firms are showing a willingness to innovate. In this report, we also feature our annual list of the 10 most innovative individual lawyers