JAKARTA: Southeast Asian leaders will take steps to strengthen the fight against human trafficking in the region, according to a draft of a joint statement expected to be released after a summit this weekend.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) leaders will say there is an “urgent need” for a comprehensive approach to the transnational crime, according to the draft communique which was seen by AFP on Friday.

The leaders will acknowledge “the urgent need for a comprehensive regional approach and a legal instrument” that will enable ASEAN’s 10 member states to help victims, especially women and children, it said.

The trafficking of people including women and children for forced or low-paid labour such as prostitution is a major problem in Southeast Asia, but governments have often been accused of doing little to fight the smugglers.

This could change at the weekend when ASEAN leaders vow to “strengthen regional and international cooperation” and improve the region’s ability to investigate smuggling syndicates, according to the draft document.

Measures will be put in place to ensure that victims are “treated humanely and provided with such essential medical and other forms of assistance”, including prompt repatriation to their countries of origin, it says.

The presidents and prime ministers will also task officials with accelerating the setup of an ASEAN convention on the trafficking of persons.

Many victims of human trafficking — especially women lured by the prospect of finding legal work abroad — end up as prostitutes in the region’s notorious red-light areas, experts said.

Southeast Asian children are meanwhile trafficked to be press-ganged into the global fishing industry, according to Euan Graham, a senior fellow at the Singapore-based S Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

“Southeast Asians, including children, also feature prominently among the victims of trafficking for forced labour,” wrote Graham, a maritime security expert, in a recent commentary.

“Southeast Asia is the principal location for trafficking persons for forced labour into the fishing industry. Thailand is the main destination country and many of those trafficked are from Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos,” he wrote.

The leaders will also refer to commitments on people smuggling made as part of the Bali Process initiated in 2002, under which Australia has been pushing for the region to do more to stem the flow of asylum seekers on rickety boats to its northern shores. – AFP/cc