As the voluntary lead shepherd against trafficking in persons (TIP), the Senior Officials Meeting on Transnational Crime (SOMTC)-Philippines, through the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG), supported the findings and recommendations of the study conducted by the ASEAN-Australia Counter Trafficking (ASEAN-ACT) on implementing the non-punishment principle for victims of human trafficking.

DILG Secretary Eduardo M. Año said the ASEAN-ACT study is pivotal in ensuring that victims of human trafficking are protected and “not victimized twice” by the system and the laws that impose punishment for the acts that they have committed as a result of human trafficking. 

“They are victims, not criminals. The least that states and governments can do is to protect them, and not to penalize them for acts that they have unwillingly committed as victims. Governments should, therefore, revisit their laws and rules to ensure that victims of human trafficking are not unduly punished by the same laws that should protect them,” Año said.

The DILG Secretary, however, said there should be clear-cut guidelines and a common understanding to ensure that the non-punishment principle is not abused or misused, especially by habitual offenders.

“This principle still needs further discussion to ensure that there will be no gray areas and for the laws against human trafficking to be applied effectively. At the end of the day, prevention of trafficking in persons should be our main goal so that there would be no need to put this principle into use,” he said.

The non-punishment principle, according to the ASEAN-ACT study, sets out that victims of trafficking should not be prosecuted or otherwise punished for the unlawful acts they have committed as a consequence of trafficking. The study says that the principle does not offer blanket immunity, but is a critical tool for victim protection and human rights-based criminal justice response to human trafficking.

The ASEAN Convention Against Trafficking In Persons, Especially Women and Children - signed by all ASEAN Member States - states that victims of trafficking should not be punished for unlawful acts committed because of being trafficked. Yet across the region, victims of trafficking may face punishment for immigration offences, use of fraudulent documents, involvement in prostitution or drug-related activities, or for offenses they commit trying to escape their exploitative situation.

Recommendations of the Study

During the official launch of the ASEAN-ACT study, DILG Assistant Secretary for Peace and Order Manuel B. Felix, who represented SOMTC-Philippines, said the implementation of the non-punishment principle for human trafficking victims is a giant leap towards the actual implementation of various international, regional, and domestic laws and policies concerning human trafficking.

“This study is the very first of its kind in Asia and the practical and policy oriented recommendations stipulated here are all in accordance with ASEAN principles for various applications not just here in the Philippine setting but the entire ASEAN region,” Felix said.

“By applying the non-punishment principles recommended in this study, we can better protect our fellow Filipinos in case they get involved in criminal or administrative crimes here or abroad as a consequence of human trafficking,” he added.

Among the recommendations indicated in the study to strengthen the implementation of the non-punishment principle to protect victims of human trafficking are: building the capacity of frontline officials to identify potential victims of trafficking among people they encounter as offenders; ensure that frontline officers understand the impact of arrest on victims of trafficking and on criminal justice response to trafficking; amend legislation to reduce risk of inappropriate prosecution of victims of trafficking; draft or amend legislation to enact explicit statutory provisions to give effect to the non-punishment principle, capturing all victims for all types of offense); avoid or mitigate sentences for convicted victims of trafficking; and explore opportunities in legislation to eliminate criminal records of victims of trafficking.

The ASEAN-ACT Non-Punishment Principle Study involved a desk review and a series of roundtable discussions with 122 government and 74 non-governmental representatives in six countries, including the Philippines, Cambodia, Viet Nam, Lao PDR, Thailand, and Indonesia.

The findings and recommendations of the said study are offered to legislators, policy makers, and criminal justice practitioners across the ASEAN region, to support their ongoing efforts to protect the human rights of victims as a paramount part of their response to human trafficking.

Aside from Asec Felix, also present during the official launch of the said study were key international partners from ASEAN-ACT, SOMTC Indonesia, SOMTC Cambodia, and over 200 participants from various ASEAN countries.

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