This year, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has chosen ‘act to protect and assist trafficked persons’ as the focus of the World Day against Trafficking in Persons. The theme recognizes that most trafficked persons are never formally identified and therefore do not receive the protection and other services they are entitled to. Indeed, researchers estimate that the number of people in situations of human trafficking is in the tens of million, but last year only 66,520 trafficked persons were recognized as such.
2017 represents a real opportunity to take stock of our global efforts to counter human trafficking, and to analyze the causes of the disconnect between the scale of the phenomenon and those able to access the assistance available. The United Nations Global Plan of Action to Combat Trafficking in Persons (GPA) will be appraised for the first time by the UN General Assembly (UNGA) on 27-28 September 2017. Adopted by the UNGA in 2010, the Plan states that:
‘We, the States Members of the United Nations, reaffirm our commitments to end the heinous crime of trafficking in persons, especially women and children, express our determination to prevent and combat trafficking in persons, protect and assist victims of trafficking in persons, prosecute crimes of trafficking in persons and promote partnerships to strengthen coordination and cooperation, and resolve to translate our political will into concrete action.’
Rather than leave it as a demonstration of political will, the international community agreed to routinely appraise the progress achieved in the implementation of the GPA, towards ‘improving the coordination of efforts against trafficking in persons.’
Global efforts to counter the phenomenon saw a further boost in 2015 with the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, often referred to as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In the SDGs, governments have committed themselves to ending human trafficking and related forms of exploitation, including through:
SDG 8.7: Take[ing] immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking and secur[ing] the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour, including recruitment and use of child soldiers, and by 2025 end[ing] child labour in all its forms.
SDG 16.2: End[ing] abuse, exploitation, trafficking and all forms of violence against and torture of children.
These commitments need to be translated into national and regional action, accompanied by appropriate monitoring efforts to measure progress.
In the Greater Mekong Sub-region, the Coordinated Mekong Ministerial Initiative against Trafficking in Persons (the COMMIT Process) is a regional mechanism between six countries (Cambodia, China, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand and Viet Nam) jointly affected by significant patterns of human trafficking. Their commitments as outlined in multi-year Sub-Regional Plans of Action, have strong, national underpinnings, with agreed reporting requirements based on a joint monitoring framework. These efforts are supported by the United Nations Action for Cooperation against Trafficking in Persons (UN-ACT), a regional project of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), as the Secretariat of the COMMIT Process.
The COMMIT governments have recognized the need to improve and increase the identification of possible trafficked persons. This is demonstrated by the ‘After Trafficking’ research conducted through COMMIT with NEXUS Institute and UN-ACT’s predecessor project, the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP). ‘After Trafficking’ is a landmark study demonstrating the extent of often unmet needs of trafficked persons in the region. The report has since been translated into a practical guidebook for reintegration practitioners based directly on the experiences of those affected by the phenomenon.
Beyond this, the COMMIT governments have worked with their counterparts in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to develop ‘Common Indicators for the Identification of Victims of Trafficking’ to support frontline officials to more easily identify possible trafficked persons. They have gone on to develop ‘COMMIT Guidelines on Victim Identification and Referral Mechanisms’ to improve standards in the care and assistance provided. These steps have all helped build the ability of counter-trafficking partners in the region to provide better support, but there is still a long way to go.
With this World Day against Trafficking in Persons, UN-ACT recognizes the efforts that have gone towards a more coordinated and strategic approach to counter human trafficking. The demonstration of this political will has been expressed from the highest levels of governments and the United Nations. Momentum is building, but the picture of both scale and characteristics of human trafficking emerging thanks to increased research efforts shows what tremendous task we have at hand.
It is hoped that, with the landmark appraisal of the Global Plan of Action to Combat Trafficking in Persons to come this year, our understanding of what has worked and what hasn’t will be significantly strengthened, paving the way for more evidence-based and results-oriented interventions going forward.
 ILO (2012) ‘Global Estimate of Forced Labour’ or Walk Free (2017) ‘2016 Global Slavery Index’
 US State Department (2017) ‘2017 Trafficking in Persons Report’
 UN General Assembly (2010) 64/293. United Nations Global Plan of Action to Combat Trafficking in Persons. 64th Session
 UN General Assembly (2013) 68/192. Improving the coordination of efforts against trafficking in persons, 68th Session; and UN General Assembly (2015) 70/179. Improving the coordination of efforts against trafficking in persons, 70th Session
 UN (2015) ‘Transforming our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’