Human Rights in Asia Conference 2020

by Alana Meier

Last week the 12th annual Human Rights in Asia Conference took place in the form of two virtual panel discussions. Originally scheduled to happen in person at the University of Essex 21 March, the event was postponed due to the sudden COVID-19 outbreak. However, the students pushed through to find a new way to bring this important event to light.


The Origins of the Essex Human Rights in Asia Conference

Despite ongoing violations and the need for a stronger focus on human rights, Asia is a region often overlooked in western human rights education. The absence of a regional human rights mechanism for Asia is one of the reasons often attributed for this. Yet, this absence actually compounds the existing challenges faced by human rights defenders and practitioners in the region.

To compensate for this gap, postgraduate students from the University of Essex launched the Human Rights in Asia Conference in 2009. This now annual conference is predominantly student run, with the support of Dr. Sanae Fujita and the Essex HRC Events and Communication team. Each year a specific country situation or thematic area is chosen. Past years’ themes included development and human rights in Asia, natural disasters and human rights, human rights in Myanmar and human rights in South Asia.


A Focus on Human Trafficking

The inspiration for this year’s theme – Human Trafficking – came following the heartbreaking and horrific incident that occurred on 23 October 2019 whereby 39 people were found dead in a lorry container in Essex. The victims included ten teenagers, the youngest of whom were two 15-year-old boys, are believed to have come from Vietnam. The driver of the lorry has since been charged with 39 counts of manslaughter as well as human trafficking and immigration offences, and five other have been charged in connection with the investigation on ground of conspiring to assist unlawful immigration.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s 2018 Global Report on Trafficking in Persons indicated that the overall number of identified and reported trafficking victims has increased. Their research found these numbers are most pronounced in the Americas and across Asia; a reality which is illustrated in the Counter Trafficking Data Collaborative (CTDC) global map on victims of trafficking data. This could mean more people are being trafficked, but it could also be because countries have increased their capacities to detect this crime and identify victims in addition to the international community’s focus on in developing standards for data collection.

Most of the victims detected across the world are female – the majority of victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation and 35 per cent of those for forced labour are female. These are also the two most common forms of exploitation associated with human trafficking taking place across Asia.

The Human Rights in Asia conference offered attendees an opportunity to learn more about the different patterns of trafficking that have emerged in the respective countries in which each of the panelists live and/or work. As well, different areas of research interest and approaches to combating human trafficking – from policy implementation to grassroots prevention- were explored.


An event in 2 virtual parts…

The first event of the two-part series took place Tuesday 7 July and focused on broader international and legal perspectives on human trafficking in Asia. The panel was moderated by Dr Marija Jovanovic and featured presentations by:

  • Professor Parosha Chandran – Human Rights Barrister and Professor of Practice in Modern Slavery Law at King’s College London
  • Sarah Mount – Senior Program Officer for Freedom Fund’s Thailand and Ethiopia hotspots.


The second panel occurred Thursday 9 July and offered approaches at a more national level with a focus on Thailand, Vietnam, Nepal and India. It was moderated by post-graduate LLM and MA students, Anila Baskar and Alana Meier. The conference organisers aimed to have representation from working in difference regions and disciplines such as non-governmental organisations, journalism, and academia. The speakers included:

  • Hannah Bondi – Community Human Rights London’s SDG 8.7 Programme Officer
  • Veerawit Tianchainan is Executive Director of The Freedom Story, Thailand
  • Dr Shovita Dhakal Adhikari – Lecturer in Criminology and Joint Programme Lead for BA Sociology and Criminology Programme at Bournemouth University
  • Giang Nguyen – News Editor at BBC Vietnamese World Service



Overall, the conference had another successful year providing the platform for over 200 attendees to deepen their understanding of human rights in Asia. Recordings of both events will soon be made available by the Human Rights Center. Additionally, the report for this year which will be published in coming weeks, as well as access to past year’s reports, can be found here.