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08 July 2024 | Event
Innovative Strategies Emerge as Asia-Pacific Experts Discuss Trafficking-Related Financial Crimes, Illicit Money Flows

Stakeholders from across the Asia-Pacific region and beyond convened in Jakarta, Indonesia June 4th and 5th to discuss trafficking in persons and associated illicit money flows. The Technical Experts Meeting brought together law enforcement, financial intelligence officials, civil society and private sector representatives from 11 Bali Process Member States to share experiences, knowledge and best practices on identifying, tracking, disrupting and seizing illicit money flows fueling human trafficking in the region.

Discussions highlighted the evolving nature of human trafficking, including the emergence of new technology-enabled forms of the crime. Participants stressed the need for inter-agency collaboration and for identifying innovative strategies to disrupt the vast illicit money flows underpinning human trafficking operations, particularly through ramping up response efforts to address the massive scale of money laundering by the transnational organised crime groups operating cyber-scam centres.

Participants emphasized the importance of moving beyond conventional anti-money laundering (AML) approaches to include leveraging new technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), as well as to focus on informal money laundering channels such as hawala networks and the use of social media groups to facilitate money laundering.

The event was opened by Caka Alverdi Awal, Director for International Security and Disarmament at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Indonesia, and Lara Franzen, Counsellor, Australian Mission to ASEAN. In their remarks, both speakers emphasised that bringing together diverse expertise from across sectors is essential for addressing the complex challenges posed by human trafficking and for developing robust, comprehensive regional responses to counter this pervasive crime, particularly in the context of trafficking for forced criminality.

Co-organised by the Regional Support Office of the Bali Process (RSO), ASEAN-Australia Counter Trafficking (ASEAN-ACT) and the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC), the Meeting highlighted the need for an inclusive approach to following the money, including strong public-private partnerships that include new actors in the field of financial technology.

“The group brought together an incredible wealth of knowledge and expertise in following the money related to human trafficking,” highlighted Tuesday Reitano, Deputy Director of GI-TOC. “While we need to promote more research and evidence gathering, we also need to become better at sharing this data, cross-breeding lessons learned and applying them. For this we need trust, and this meeting was an important step in that direction”.

Communication and Collaboration are the Priority

Representatives from national governments and financial intelligence units (FIUs) emphasised the need to break down silos between agencies and to foster deeper collaboration between the public sector, private sector, and civil society to enhance intelligence sharing, access technical assistance, and participate in global initiatives to disrupt trafficking in persons and associated illicit money flows. Financial investigators were noted as too often operating separately from those working on human trafficking cases, as well as from cybercrime investigators and other technical law enforcement teams.

Experts at the meeting also emphasised the importance of working with civil society to address financial crimes, as CSOs play a key role in collecting valuable and otherwise inaccessible intelligence that can further support the ability to identify, arrest, and prosecute offenders. Additionally, CSOs are often able to raise awareness around new trafficking patterns and the evolving operations of organised crime.

Beyond the Formal Financial Sector

Experts highlighted the need to look beyond the formal financial sector when tracking illicit money flows associated with trafficking in persons. With an estimated 70% of the population in Southeast Asia being unbanked or underbanked, and a significant portion working in the informal economy, informal means of transferring money remain widely used by both victims and criminals. These flows, including payments in cash, mobile money or transfers made via apps often cannot be monitored with the current state-led tools and make it difficult for authorities to trace financial flows that could help identify instances of trafficking.

Further complicating the issue is that criminals frequently exploit alternative financial channels such as hawala networks, fintech platforms, and cryptocurrency to hide, move, and reintegrate their illicit profits. Participants called for a broader perspective to managing illicit money flows and to anti-money launder efforts in response.

Utilising Technology to Combat Organised Crime

Participants also discussed the role of technology in both facilitating and combating illicit money flows tied to trafficking in persons. It was noted, for example, that messaging apps such as Telegram can be used to facilitate the operations of organised crime groups, including money laundering services, and that heightened attention needs to be paid to moderating these channels.  On the other hand, emerging technologies – particularly AI – provide an opportunity to track and flag suspicious transactions more effectively.

It was stressed, however, that technology alone is not sufficient; it must be accompanied by utilising existing capacity, expertise and international cooperation to effectively combat trafficking in persons and money laundering on a global scale. As the resources required to respond to the evolving technological nature of financial crimes are often limited, an increase in public and private sector partnerships would provide the necessary expertise from all parties strengthen responses.

“This meeting made clear the power of collaborative efforts in tackling complex issues like human trafficking and illicit financial flows. By bringing together experts from diverse fields – law enforcement, financial intelligence, civil society, and the private sector – we’ve opened new avenues for innovation and cooperation,” said the RSO’s Transnational Crime and Technology Programme Manager, Ryan Winch. “The insights shared here will be invaluable as we work to develop more effective, technology-driven strategies to disrupt criminal networks and protect vulnerable individuals across Bali Process Member States.”


Looking Ahead

Looking beyond the Meeting, participants recognised the momentum created by recent focus on cyber-scam operations and exploitation for forced criminality. They stressed the importance of using this as a catalyst for action on wider trafficking in persons trends and as an opportunity to bring new actors to the table.

The RSO plans to use insights from this meeting to inform updates to the Policy Guide on Following the Money in Trafficking in Persons Cases, which will serve as a reference for practitioners responding to trafficking through a “following the money” approach. Expanding its efforts to address illicit money flows will also feature in the RSO’s soon to be published two year work plan, which will include more specific next steps and activities.