Originally posted for the Stimson Center’s Southeast Asia Change blog: http://www.theseachange.org/2015/06/the-drama-of-human-trafficking/ Photo of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh in 2013, photo credit to EU/ECHO/Pierre Prakash and used under a creative commons license.

While recent U.S.-driven anti-trafficking policy initiatives in Myanmar have focused on training the central government to adopt new laws and sensitizing police, little has been accomplished in the way of trafficking prevention, particularly in Myanmar’s conflicted ethnic areas. Examining the civil conflicts in two of the country’s most troubled communities—the Rohingya and the Kachin—I argue that building sustainable peace within Myanmar’s ethnic communities should be a central focus of U.S. anti-trafficking policy if it wishes to remain a leader in the fight to combat trafficking.

In recent decades, the U.S. government has pursued a congressionally supported mandate to combat human trafficking, both on its own shores and throughout the developing world. It’s done this by investing in countries willing to comply with the State Department’s anti-trafficking protocols, and ranks each country according to a Tier system in its annual Trafficking In Persons (TIP) Report. Having raised Myanmar’s status from “Tier-3” to “Tier 2 Watch List” in 2014, America rewarded the central Myanmar government for its nascent efforts to combat the problem. In so doing, the U.S. also increased support for these efforts—granting hundreds of thousands of dollars to international organizations to help the Myanmar government craft anti-trafficking laws and sensitize its police to the “victim-centered approach.”

Laudable as these efforts are, they have done little to address the underlying drivers of trafficking, particularly in Myanmar’s conflicted ethnic areas. Indeed, building legal frameworks and emphasizing the rehabilitation of victims suggests that the U.S. government’s efforts in Myanmar are a continuation of its usual method for combating trafficking: rescue. Over the past 15 years, the U.S. has relied heavily on rescue as its primary anti-trafficking strategy throughout the developing world. Examples include cooperating with local authorities in raiding brothels, karaoke bars and massage parlors in Thailand, Cambodia, and elsewhere to locate victims of sex trafficking who are working as prostitutes against their will.

The problem with this approach is that it does little to prevent trafficking from occurring in the first place. As numerous scholars have pointed out, it is the “push factors” associated with irregular migration—factors such as warfare, poverty and political upheaval—that lead to gross forms of labor exploitation. In a country such as Myanmar, where ongoing warfare between the army and armed ethnic separatist movements threatens the security of millions of citizens, failing to address these “push factors” has resulted in a burgeoning trafficking crisis. Unless these factors are addressed, rescuing victims will do nothing to stop the cycle of trafficking from continuing.

Two ongoing ethnic conflicts—one involving the Rohingya and the other involving the Kachin—illustrate this cyclic connection. Recently, headlines around the world have exploded with news of the horrific plight of the Rohingya “boat people”—precariously positioned migrants from Myanmar’s Rakhine state who have been denied legal status, in some cases after decades of residence. Lacking basic freedoms and economic opportunities at home, ethnic Rohingyas have taken to the waters in search of a better life on other shores. Despite enduring horrific conditions on these vessels, the migrants have been rejected as asylum-seekers by other Southeast Asian governments, prompting a humanitarian crisis at sea. The visibility of the crisis has heated to such a boil that Myanmar’s government has attempted to prevent reporters from accessing the victims.

In a less publicized but equally devastating situation, the Kachin, another ethnic people, continue to face a humanitarian crisis of their own. Conflict between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the central Myanmar government has been a constant since Myanmar’s independence from colonialism in 1948, and intensified with the breaking of a seventeen-year ceasefire in June, 2011. Fighting has escalated in and around KIA-controlled areas, and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) face insecurity in camps along the Myanmar-China border.

These conditions have given rise not only to an increase in sexual violence, but also to trafficking. Some analysts have begun making this connection explicit: a recent Bloomberg article suggests that the humanitarian crisis among the Rohingya people is fueling the trafficking epidemic. Similarly, studies by this author and Al Jazeera show that the ongoing war between the Myanmar government and the KIA is fueling the trafficking of Kachin women into China as “forced brides.” Given these desperate conditions, it is no wonder that the trafficking crisis has spilled onto neighboring shores.

This rise in trafficking among Myanmar’s ethnic peoples should push the U.S. to examine whether its own initiatives are having an effect. Moreover, the question remains as to whether the Myanmar government intends to use the U.S.’s help to protect its ethnic citizens from being trafficked. Were this truly the case, then the Myanmar government would discontinue its policies of ethnic discrimination and rights violations in these regions, and instead, work to foster sustained peace.

The problem with the U.S. government’s focus on strengthening Myanmar’s anti-trafficking policies is that these policies are not reaching ethnic communities—the very citizens who are most vulnerable to labor exploitation. Indeed, simply trusting that the government’s anti-trafficking efforts will have a “trickle down” effect in these areas, while armed conflict continues to rage, is naive at best. Instead, the U.S. should actively promote peace between these actors. As the Burma Relief Centre has explained, building sustainable peace in Myanmar necessitates engaging with stakeholders at the community level.

Cooperation with community-based organizations should also be made a priority. The U.S. government could, for example, support Kachin NGOs and other stakeholders in developing anti-trafficking policies that specifically meet the needs of the Kachin community. The U.S. could also support initiatives that facilitate dialogue between the KIO, Rakhine leadership and Central Myanmar government around the issue of trafficking, ensuring that a multiplicity of voices is heard.

Band-aid solutions involving rescue and law enforcement do little to prevent trafficking from occurring in the first place. Instead, the US government should give urgent priority to finding ways to mediate or otherwise influence the situation on the ground. While this is no easy matter, failing to adopt this approach may render the U.S. an ineffective actor in the trafficking drama—a drama that is playing out in front of the eyes of the world.