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Efforts mount in Japan to counter human trafficking

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.

Article | 05 January 2005

TOKYO - 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 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 the sex industry. Lack of accurate statistics makes it difficult to estimate numbers, but in 2004, 79 cases of trafficking were reported to the police and 77 victims were found. These official statistics are probably only the tip of the iceberg.

Often the traffickers are linked to Japan's organized crime networks, the yakuza, who charge the trafficked victims large sums to get them into Japan, to place them in work and to provide food and lodging. "Debts" of some US $ 50,000 are not uncommon and the result can be an unbreakable cycle of debt bondage; even when working so hard, many trafficked victims can hardly 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 and Filipinos flooded into the country, often through channels linked to organized crime.

Until very recently Japan took a very prudent approach to its anti-trafficking strategies, thereby eliciting a good deal of criticism. Its commitment to rigid migration policies, with a strong stance against illegal migration, may have involved a hesitancy to address trafficking more directly.

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 mechanism now exists within the Government to address the issue effectively. A national plan of action was also formulated in 14 December 2004.

Significant challenges still remain. 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 appropriate 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 civil society organizations in Japan is gearing up to pressure the public sector and ensure that trafficked women and men get better treatment.


Since human trafficking from Japan to another country is a criminal offence and there is no provision in the penal code covering trafficking of people into Japan, the Government submitted the revision of the Penal Code for the approval of the parliament at its 2005 ordinary session to cope more harshly with human trafficking, abduction and confinement that infringe on the freedom of a person.

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 years would have been handed down in countries where anti-trafficking legislation is already 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 the ILO Office in Japan and SAP-FL.