Insights and Analysis

A Pacific Solution to a Pacific Challenge: A Human-Rights Approach to Human Trafficking

February 8, 2023

By Amelia Makutu, Jasmine Henry, Jovesa Tagivakatini, Maribel Buenaobra, Nanise Rasuaki, and Priya Dhanani

The turquoise waters of the Pacific Islands may offer a picture-postcard setting, but they belie a spectrum of challenges faced by inhabitants of this vast ocean region. These include devastating climate events, fragile economies and unemployment, harmful social norms, and growing international organized crime. Pacific Island countries have also been identified as sources, transit points, and destinations for trafficking in persons (TIP), especially sex and labor trafficking.

Suva, Fiji, in the Pacific Islands

As 2023 began, The Asia Foundation observed National Human Trafficking Prevention Month by reflecting on our work to address human trafficking across Asia and the Pacific. Our latest initiative is a five-year, USAID-funded program in Fiji, the Marshall Islands, Papua New Guinea, and Tonga, the Pacific Regional Initiative and Support for More Effective Counter-Trafficking in Persons (Pacific RISE-CTIP).

The Pacific Islands are susceptible to trafficking because they have porous borders and lack the resources and personnel to combat it. Their narrow economic base and high unemployment put vulnerable groups at risk of exploitation. The Pacific relies heavily on industries with complex global supply chains, often prone to exploitive labor practices. The exact scope of the problem is unclear because of a lack of data and public awareness.

Recent studies show that sex trafficking is connected to gender inequality and gender-based violence (GBV). Although there are significant cultural differences among the subregions of Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia, Pacific Islanders in general have strong cultural traditions, and these cultures are predominantly patriarchal. This can be particularly detrimental to women and girls, as GBV directed towards them, when excused or ignored, can increase their vulnerability to trafficking. A culture of silence perpetuates the suffering of TIP victims, and widespread traditions of reconciliation and forgiveness discourage victims from seeking protection and justice from the law.

The Pacific region, then, is in many ways an ideal incubator for the scourge of TIP: It is remote; its economies are fragile; laws and enforcement are inadequate. This unique profile of TIP in the Pacific will require uniquely Pacific solutions, which is a foundation of the Pacific-RISE CTIP program.

Men fishing. Many of the native industries of the Pacific Islands are vulnerable to human trafficking. (Photo: U.S. State Department)

TIP is often grouped with drug trafficking and other international organized crime, causing government leaders to address human trafficking from a crime-control rather than a human-rights perspective. Our approach focuses on the needs of TIP victims and survivors: safe shelter, counseling, medical care, legal aid, and even translation and interpretation services. Pacific RISE-CTIP works with:

  • Governments, to develop counter-TIP legislation based on UN conventions, to fund programs for victims, and to collaborate with destination countries to provide mutual legal assistance, particularly for foreign TIP victims, who are often prosecuted for violating immigration laws;
  • Men and boys, in addition to women and girls, to change harmful gender norms;
  • Members of national TIP task forces, to share best practices for research and reporting and to ensure that local and national referral mechanisms meet victims’ needs;
  • Local organizations, to improve case-management systems that identify TIP victims, provide services, make referrals, and offer court advocacy;
  • Law enforcement agencies, universities, and judicial academies, to provide victim-centered and trauma-sensitive TIP training for police, judges, and first responders;
  • The private sector, to create a counter-TIP certification process and to provide skills training and livelihood assistance to TIP victims; and
  • The media, to encourage victim-centered reporting that does not compromise victims’ rights or safety.

Launch of the Pacific RISE-CTIP campaign, viewed in the Marshall Islands with USAID and the U.S. Embassy

Most importantly, Pacific RISE-CTIP is working with local organizations and communities to develop Pacific solutions to this Pacific challenge. One common element of the cultures of this region is the importance of art. Music, dance, storytelling, and painting are primary forms of expression in the Pacific Islands that can often be the most effective way to communicate ideas because they speak to ancestral roots.

In the Marshall Islands, we’ll collaborate with members of the National Task Force on Human Trafficking to present counter-trafficking concepts at a teen arts camp. A team of poets, painters, and photographers will work with the teens to help them explore the concepts in their own preferred medium. Pacific RISE-CTIP will also work with a local radio station, where we will host a drive-in film festival featuring short films on TIP and its impact in the region. The festival will feature selected works by promising young directors and videographers. In addition to these events, the Pacific RISE-CTIP team will work with local artists to develop graphics for children’s books written in local languages.

Local partnerships and creative, art-based initiatives can raise awareness of TIP in the Pacific because they resonate with the community. And their success can be measured by the work that local communities are inspired to undertake.

Amelia Makutu is lead communications consultant for Pacific RISE-CTIP, Jasmine Henry is a consultant in the Marshall Islands, Nanise Rasuaki and Jovesa Tagivakatini are current and former program officers, respectively, for Pacific RISE-CTIP in Fiji, and Priya Dhanani is former assistant director of The Asia Foundation’s Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality Program. They can be reached via Maribel Buenaobra, Pacific RISE-CTIP deputy chief of party, at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Pacific Islands
Related programs: Women's Empowerment and Gender Equality
Related topics: Trafficking in Persons


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