US-ASEAN Engagement on Human Trafficking: Assessing a Paradigm Shift

Report from Ruji Auethavornpipat, 2017 ASEAS(UK) Research Impact Award Recipient

Ruji East-West Center
Ruji Auethavornpipat at the East-West Center, Washington, D.C. | Image Credit: © Ruji Auethavornpipat

My proposed project examines the cooperation between the US and ASEAN in combating human trafficking in Southeast Asia. It particularly seeks to understand the nature of anti-trafficking policies within the engagement and further interrogates the role of the US government, which is known to be the “global sheriff” on the issue, in shaping regional institutions and policy at the ASEAN level.

As part of the application for the ASEAS(UK) Research Impact Award, the proposed objective of the funding was to provide financial support for field research in the US during my visiting fellowship at the East-West Center (EWC) in Washington, DC. Both the support from the EWC and ASEAS(UK) facilitated data collection among key stakeholders, whose access might otherwise have been restricted or denied. I was able to gain insight on policy making from important stakeholders such as US congressional staffers, US government officials, ASEAN representatives, international organisation officials, scholars and non-governmental organisations.

In particular, the ASEAS(UK) Research Impact Award capitalised on my Visiting Fellow capacity and allowed me to reach out to experts located in three other states in addition to DC.  These individuals have a significant role in influencing and shaping  US foreign policy in combating human trafficking in the ASEAN region. Their insights were crucial in comprehending the nature of the US policy and cooperation with ASEAN in Southeast Asia.

My findings reveal a nuanced picture of the US role in combating human trafficking, which is not usually captured in the literature. Additionally in terms of policy making, the results reveal discrepancies between policy design and the area of anti-trafficking, particularly labour trafficking, which need to be addressed by strengthening institutional support both within the US and ASEAN. These findings were first disseminated at my public talk at the EWC in September 2017, at which key stakeholders were present.

As the Award provided financial support, the next step for my future research plans  include following through with the recommended contacts of other experts based in Southeast Asia. These individuals are directly engaged with the implementation of policies designed by Washington and ASEAN. Hence, talking to them would allow me to analyse the policy at the implementation level.

Ruji Auethavornpipat is a PhD Candidate in the Department of International Relations at the Australian National University. His doctoral study examines the contestation of migrant worker rights norms in Southeast Asia. Ruji previously held visiting fellowships at the Bamberg Graduate School of Social Sciences, Germany; ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore; and Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Indonesia.