Australia Funds Anti-Trafficking Effort

BANGKOK (AP) -- Australia on Thursday launched a new 80 million Australian dollars ($55 million) program to help Southeast Asian nations combat human trafficking.

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said the 10-year program was an extension of Canberra's assistance to the region to tackle the menace in the last 15 years. She said Australia has helped train more than 13,000 judicial officials who bolstered their legal systems to fight human trafficking and ensure better protection for victims in the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Payne said at the launch of the program with her ASEAN counterparts that the bloc has made progress with the 2015 launch of its own action plan to combat trafficking, especially in women and children, but deeper cooperation was required as the scale of the challenge remained "immense."

"There are many deep-rooted factors that enable transnational crime from corruption through to the unequal status of women and children and other vulnerable groups," she said. "Our partnership with ASEAN on human trafficking continues to grow, promoting a fairer and more just region."

Millions of Filipinos and Indonesians work abroad, while the crackdown on minority Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar has led to hundreds of thousands fleeing to Bangladesh and other neighboring countries, making them prey to traffickers.

The International Organization for Migration said that out of some 7,000 victims of trafficking that it assisted globally in 2015, a quarter came from ASEAN countries.

The U.S. State Department annual report on human trafficking showed that the problem is massive, with Myanmar in the worst tier for failing to protect Rohingya from violence in Rakhine state. The U.S. report said Rohingya were subject to exploitation, with some children abducted in transit and girls sold into forced marriages in India, Indonesia and Malaysia.

The U.N. has described the violence that drove Myanmar security forces to commit mass rapes, killings and arson as "ethnic cleasning." Myanmar's government says it has been routing out Rohingya insurgent groups.

Some 700,000 Rohingya have fled the violence into neighboring Bangladesh.

Payne, in a speech at her annual meeting with ASEAN foreign ministers, expressed Australia's concern over the situation in Rakhine state. She said Australia is committed to work with Myanmar, Bangladesh and the region to seek a durable solution to the Rohingya crisis.

Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah said later Thursday that Myanmar has to overcome a "trust deficit" in its plans to bring Rohingya refugees home. A high-level Myanmar team met with Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh recently and agreed to hold further talks. Rohingya representatives have voiced suspicion over Yangon's sincerity because the government refuses to grant them full citizenship.

ASEAN ministers, in a joint communique Wednesday, voiced hope that an investigative body set up by Myanmar's government will seek accountability through an impartial investigation into the alleged human rights violations. They also stressed the need to address the root causes of the conflict and for the proper factors to be in place for the Rohingya to return home.