The Role of Intelligence in the Disruption of Human Trafficking, Slavery and Forced Labour






By Duncan Jepson, Liberty Asia & B.C. Tan, Thomson Reuters


The discovery of clandestine camps and mass graves on the border of southern Thailand and Malaysia in May 2015 has rightly put into the global spotlight the trafficking of Rohingya people from Myanmar to Malaysia via Thailand. This underpins Asia’s subpar record on addressing the issue of human trafficking and forced labour. The 2014 “Trafficking in Persons Report” issued by the US State Department listed eight countries in the Asia Pacific region on the Tier 2 watchlist, which flags countries whose governments do not fully comply with the minimum standards of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance with these standards. Four other Asia Pacific countries were listed in the lowest Tier 3 category, which highlights countries that do not comply with the minimum standards of the TVPA and are not making significant efforts to do so.

In addressing this global issue, criminal enforcement and prosecution remain central. However, successful enforcement actions in relation to human trafficking remain few, particularly considering the scale of the issue. The 2014 United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report on human trafficking states that between 2010 to 2012:

• 40 per cent of countries registered 10 or more convictions on an annual basis

• Only 16 per cent of the countries have exceeded 50 convictions annually

• 13 per cent of countries have been observed to exhibit an increasing trend of convictions

On the other hand, the International Labour Organization estimated that almost 21 million people became victims of forced labour in 2012.

There are a number of reasons that account for the low prosecution rates:

1. Accurate ongoing data and intelligence about human trafficking, forced labour and modern slavery remains limited and tools to improve this position are still nascent.

2. Work has concentrated on sex trafficking, with substantially less on labour issues.

3. Transnational human trafficking trade is made up of highly complex and fluid networks of transactional and local actors, presenting a huge task for any organisation to investigate and identify.

4. Most countries have yet pass comprehensive laws against human trafficking and, on a global front, national laws have yet to form a coherence required to address this transnational problem.

5. Few countries have made the nesscessary resources available to enforce their existing laws, let alone the enforcement requirements of new laws with still further reaching obligations.

6. Those victims identified, a minute number of the possible total (44,000 – US State Department’s J-TIP Report 2014), tend to refuse cooperation with authorities for fear of reprisal.

Finally, there is often a high degree of corruption that enables this illicit trade, as has clearly been exhibited in the Rohingya people trafficking camps uncovered in Southern Thailand.

Global financial system

What remains surprisingly unfamiliar to many decision-makers, investigators and organisations involved with antihuman trafficking, is that access to the global financial system can be used as an effective instrument against this illicit trade.

In the regulated global financial system, there has been a long precedence of systemic requirements and an established culture of Know-Your-Customer (KYC) processes. Human trafficking has been on the list of predicate crimes involved in money laundering by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), which sets the de facto global standard in Anti-Money Laundering (AML) and Counter Financing of Terrorism (CFT) regulations.

In the financial sector and other regulated industries, there are existing clear mandatory requirements to conduct customer due diligence. After legislation instituted from ‘War on Drugs’ in the US the Bank Secrecy ACT (BSA) and later the US Patriot Act, as well as other national and international AML and CFT measures, much time and resources have been spent on creating laws, regulations and guidance around these requirements. Teams of professionals, training resources and powerful infrastructure exist globally within financial institutions dedicated to identifying illicit sources of funding and criminal activity within their clientele.

The illicit trade of human beings is fundamentally a profit-driven enterprise which is estimated to generate US$150bn annually. A simple and logical deduction would infer that denying criminals this profit, or disrupting the flow of finances, would significantly compromise illicit operations. Profits generated from forced sexual exploitation alone can reach US$21,800 per victim annually, and will at some point find its way into the legitimate economy via the regulated financial system and in doing so becomes vulnerable to detection under existing AML legislation.

Developments in extra jurisdictional and cross industry regulations, such as the introduction of the UK Bribery Act and stricter enforcement of the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act have placed the spotlight on commercial organisations to build and implement more robust internal controls such as KYS, processes to mitigate regulatory risks in their supply chains. A large number of organisations have begun to include a wider and more comprehensive set of risk topics within their KYS controls, which often include environmental crime, human trafficking, forced labour, and slavery concerns.

Power of intelligence to disrupt

Using the regulated financial systems as an instrument to help the fight against human trafficking presents a unique catalyst in addressing this global issue. Suspicious activity identified by a financial institution in the KYC process can be drawn to the attention of national Financial Intelligence Units through filing Suspicious Transaction/Activity Reports (STR /SARs).

Financial records are generally regarded as the most valuable and dependable sources of information during investigations. In a number of enforcement cases where victims were unwilling to cooperate, evidence gathered from financial records was sufficient to uncover the network and lead to successful convictions.

In a 2010 FATF meeting on combating human trafficking, participants highlighted the lack of adequate information as a barrier to an effective response. Human trafficking, like any other illicit trafficking activity, involves a multiplicity of criminal participation. Participants, most likely unknown to each other, perform many different tasks concomitantly, from physical violence, transportation, coordinating exploitation, to the banking of the proceeds.

In the Asia Pacific region where the vast majority of trafficking cases tend to be subregional; local NGOs, law enforcement and local journalists often sit on a wealth of valuable information that is rarely shared. Without the context of the big picture, the bits of information from those working on the frontline rarely makes its way out of the local community.


Human trafficking is a complex global issue driven and sustained by the exploitive nature of global economic inequality, which preys on the most vulnerable people within society. Anything less than a long term, holistic approach which addresses the criminal, financial and social aspects of human trafficking would not be adequate to tackle the issue. The antitrafficking community must be convinced that reducing access to the financial system, is the only viable way to adversely influence the financial motivation of this illicit market. Most strategies have stopped short of optimising the full power of information and data available to disrupt this illicit practice.

Creating awareness and alerting financial institutions to the part they can play by preventing and ceasing their current involvement in the movement of funds and availability of banking services, introduce a potential and powerful partner in stopping this exploitation.

A truly collaborative effort involving stakeholders from human rights advocates, governments, and organisations, through to the global financial system and law enforcement, will need to step up to ensure that these activities are stopped and the perpetrators face justice.


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