Regional Responses to Human Trafficking in Southeast Asia and Australasia

  • Heli AskolaEmail author
Living reference work entry


This chapter discusses the challenges involved in responding to trafficking in human beings in Southeast Asia and Australasia, focusing on the development and implementation of anti-trafficking responses in these subregions of the Asia-Pacific. This chapter first outlines the diverse migration patterns and the scope of the problem in the Asia-Pacific. It then assesses the effectiveness and comprehensiveness of the measures adopted in Southeast Asian states and in Australia and New Zealand. This chapter examines measures adopted to improve the investigation and prosecution of trafficking, the protection of victims, and the prevention of trafficking. Considering the many challenges involved in cross-jurisdictional cooperation in the region, this chapter gives special attention to partnership and the promotion of regional cooperation, including within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).


Southeast Asia Australasia Regional cooperation 


This chapter examines the responses to trafficking in human beings in the Asia-Pacific region, focusing on the Southeast Asian states (i.e., Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam) and two Australasian states (Australia and New Zealand). The Asia-Pacific region is characterized by considerable historical, political, economic, cultural, ethnic, and environmental diversity. It is possible that trafficking in persons is occurring also in the Pacific Islands, but little is known about its scope (UNODC 2016b). In contrast, Southeast Asia, comprising low-income countries, middle-income countries, and high-income countries, has a significant trafficking profile, in terms of both large number of people affected now and its potential for generating trafficking in the future, while Australia and New Zealand are highly industrialized states which are predominantly attractive as destination countries, including for victims from Southeast Asia (UNODC 2016a; US Department of State 2017).

The main framework of reference for this chapter is the 2000 United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (UN Trafficking Protocol). The UN Trafficking Protocol operates primarily by setting standards for the criminalization and prosecution trafficking and – to a lesser degree – by encouraging the adoption of measures for the protection of victims and for preventing trafficking. It also provides a universal framework for cooperation (partnership) between states. It is important to note that trafficking, which involves the movement of people for the purpose of their exploitation (Art. 3(a) of the Trafficking Protocol), is both somewhat imprecisely defined in international law and in practice forms “part and parcel” of broader migration patterns, including irregular migration (Piper 2005: 207). The phenomenon is, in other words, both difficult to define and dynamic, which makes collecting comprehensive and comparable data difficult. As a result, the scale of trafficking also remains difficult to pin down, making analysis complex and challenging (Schloenhardt and Wise 2014).

The Nature and Scope of Trafficking in the Region

All Southeast Asian states serve as source, transit, or destination countries, but often in varying degrees – many are mainly characterized as source countries (e.g., Myanmar, Indonesia, Laos, the Philippines), with fewer serving largely as destination and/or transit countries (Brunei, Singapore, and, to some extent, Malaysia) (US Department of State 2017). The various pull and push factors and complex migration patterns in the region mean that the Greater Mekong Subregion, which has traditionally been considered a hub of trafficking, remains important, with Thailand a prominent destination for migrants from neighboring Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar (UNODC 2017). While much of the focus in Southeast Asia has been on sexual exploitation (Piper 2005; Kneebone and Debeljak 2012), it is clear – especially after the revelations regarding exploitation in the Thai seafood industry (ILO 2013; EJF 2014) – that trafficking also occurs for forced labor. Labor exploitation takes place in several sectors, and also involves significant numbers of men (Pocock et al. 2016). Indeed, trafficking is known to occur across a broad range of industries (e.g., agriculture, fishing construction, and domestic services). Forms of child trafficking, including trafficking for forced marriage and begging, are also found across Southeast Asia (UNODC 2016a).

The root causes for trafficking in Southeast Asia include economic disparities and gaps between the wealthier and more globalized economies (e.g., Malaysia, Thailand) and those with lower levels of socioeconomic development, closed economies, and/or instability and conflict (e.g., Myanmar); demand for low-skilled and low-wage migrant workers (including in sex industries); inequality and uneven distribution of employment opportunities; and limited capacity to regulate migration and/or lack of flexible, fast, and cheap legal migration options (Asis 2008; Blackburn et al. 2010; Larsen 2010; UNODC 2016a). Though trafficking, characterized by coercive or deceptive methods and exploitation, is in theory a distinct phenomenon, in practice it to a degree overlaps with forms of irregular migration, smuggling, as well as refugee movements (e.g., Farrelly 2012). The 2015 discovery of the bodies of hundreds of Rohingya migrants and refugees who had been kept in inhumane conditions in camps in southern Thailand near the Malaysian border is one example of this complexity (Auethavornpipat 2017). Even with basic agreement on the definition, however, quantifying trafficking remains difficult. Reported trafficking figures (see UNODC 2016a) represent only fraction – but it is difficult to know how large the hidden picture of trafficking is in Southeast Asia (Song 2016; Yusran 2018).

Australia and New Zealand have been, to some extent, shielded from large-scale human trafficking by their relative geographical isolation and highly regulated immigration programs, but both states also attract trafficking because of their open economies and sustained demand for migrant workers. Just as in Southeast Asia, in Australia the discourse on trafficking was initially focused on women and sexual exploitation, and early knowledge formation focused on the sex work industry (Segrave 2004; Simmons and Burn 2010; Simmons et al. 2013). The majority of identified and investigated cases still involve exploitation in the sex industry, often of Southeast Asian women, though it is now known that trafficking also occurs in other sectors (Australian Government 2016b). Marriage and partner migration have been used to facilitate the trafficking of people into Australia (Lyneham and Richards 2014). Though trafficking in persons is still not well-recognized in public debates, awareness of trafficking has been forming more rapidly in Australia than in New Zealand. Unlike the Southeast Asian states, Australia and New Zealand rank well in international assessments of their anti-trafficking action (US Department of State 2017). Temporary migrant workers, however, are vulnerable to exploitation by employers who subvert pay and working conditions and create disincentives for reporting workplace violations (Berg and Farbenblum 2017; Segrave 2017; Hedwards et al. 2017).

Responses to Trafficking in Southeast Asia

Prosecution, Protection, and Prevention

Both awareness of and responses to trafficking in human beings in Southeast Asia predate the adoption of the UN Trafficking Protocol, but the introduction and implementation of policy measures has intensified since its adoption (e.g., Kneebone and Debeljak 2012; Yusran 2018). The pace of ratification of Trafficking Protocol in Southeast Asia is uneven, reflecting the diversity of political, cultural, and economic development in the region. What the diverse nations of the subregion do have in common is their traditionally strong advocacy of state sovereignty, national security, and noninterference in the internal affairs of a state, which has made many of them averse to the adoption of hard international legal obligations and to regional cooperation (Kranrattanasuit 2014). However, significant developments have taken place since 2000. The Philippines, a major migrant-sending country, ratified the Protocol in 2002 and has robustly attempted to increase social protection of Filipino migrant workers overseas. Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Indonesia subsequently became parties to the Protocol, with Vietnam, Thailand, and Singapore joining since 2012. Brunei is the only ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) state currently outside the Protocol’s framework.

Southeast Asian nations have also made progress in the enactment of national legislation on trafficking in the last 15 years (Song 2016). Overall, the various criminal law provisions adopted against trafficking in ASEAN states are of variable quality. For instance, Kranrattanasuit (2014, Chap. 4), in her evaluation of the laws in Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam, finds that the criminal offenses in these states are not always complete or consistent with the elements set out in the Trafficking Protocol. Typically, elements of offenses may not be clearly articulated, liability may not be comprehensively addressed, and/or the focus of criminalization may exclude certain forms of exploitation. For instance, Cambodia’s anti-trafficking legislation has been much criticized for its focus on the sex industry and for its discriminatory effects on women (Sandy 2012; Bradley and Szablewska 2016). However, many states have also made some progress in the adoption of more comprehensive legislation: for instance, Singapore had no antihuman trafficking law until 2014, and its other relevant legislation had gaps and an exclusive focus on prostitution (Wong 2014), but its new anti-trafficking law, despite some shortcomings, criminalizes trafficking along the lines of the Trafficking Protocol (Wong and Juay 2015).

Legislation is, of course, only the first step, and much depends on whether the criminalization of trafficking is followed by actual implementation and enforcement, not to mention care, support, remedies for victims, and effective prevention measures that raise awareness about trafficking, seek to reduce demand for it, and target the root causes of exploitation. Many problems persist in these areas. Law enforcement in many states concentrates on trafficking involving women and children – even where labor trafficking is also criminalized, the focus may be on the sex industry (e.g., US Department of State 2017; Chapman-Schmidt 2015). Even where law exists, and national coordination systems are in place, they may, as in the Philippines, be undermined by corruption (Guth 2010). In many countries, coordination and multiagency cooperation are still often poor (e.g., Indonesia, Myanmar, and Vietnam), and problems with insufficient coordination are compounded by inadequate resourcing of law enforcement, lacking awareness and expertise on trafficking, limited institutional capacity and inability, and/or unwillingness address exploitation (UNODC 2017). Though these obstacles pose particularly serious issues in states with weaker capacity, relatively prosperous states like Malaysia also experience these issues (Wan Ismail et al. 2017). Moreover, such problems also complicate cross-jurisdictional cooperation (see below the discussion of partnership).

The UN Trafficking Protocol recognizes that victims of trafficking need protection and assistance, for instance, to alleviate issues with access to redress, irregular status, and fear of deportation (Gallagher 2010). Successful trafficking prosecutions often also rely on a system that provides adequate support to victims of trafficking to encourage them to give evidence. However, victim protection and support (and measures to encourage them to cooperate with law enforcement) remain limited across Southeast Asia, with Brunei, Cambodia, Singapore, and Vietnam having implemented Article 6 of the Trafficking Protocol in a very limited way (Song 2016). Some states, like Brunei and Vietnam, prosecute trafficking victims with criminal offenses and/or deport actual and potential victims – indeed, limited, or improper, victim identification by frontline officials remains an issue in many states (US Department of State 2017). Many of the problems with protecting victims also have to do with imprecise or insufficient legal provisions for the protection, care, and housing of trafficking victims (often targeting only victims in the sex industry), limited access to dedicated resources, and constraints on civil society activity. As a result, migrant workers, even those utilizing Migrant Worker Resource Centres, often fail to obtain a remedy (ILO 2017).

Prevention means addressing factors that make individuals vulnerable (such as inequality), reducing demand and tackling practices that facilitate trafficking, such as corruption (Gallagher 2010, Chap. 8). All ASEAN states make some efforts at preventing trafficking, but often prevention is conceptualized narrowly, in the sense of law enforcement as a deterrent or as measures to raise awareness of the risks of migration. However, problems persist in addressing demand and actively promoting safe and legal migration avenues that would reduce the vulnerability of migrants to exploitation (UNODC 2017). Asis (2008: 196) has argued that there is a prevalent “hands-off policy with respect to migrants’ rights” in Southeast Asia that underpins and encourages abuse. When legislation provides limited protection for migrants or is not enforced or, when some sectors, such as domestic work, are excluded from labor law protections, migrant workers are left vulnerable to exploitation (Andrevski and Lyneham 2014; Pocock et al. 2016). The reasons for this neglect of migrants’ rights are deeply embedded in existing economic and social relations. Most crucially, addressing trafficking as a labor rights issue is a threat to the existing economic order in receiving states, whose existing legal structures provide limited protection for the large numbers of migrants who provide cheap labor for the growing economy (Yea 2015; Farrelly 2012).

Overall, responses to trafficking in Southeast Asia are skewed toward criminal justice response, focused on prosecutions (Song 2016). There is also a powerful narrative of trafficking as a form of sophisticated organized crime, which may be misplaced, at least as a blanket statement (Sandy 2012; Molland 2012; Keo et al. 2014). Some have questioned whether Southeast Asian states have a genuine commitment to developing a more comprehensive approach to trafficking or whether they are driven by political considerations, such as the annual US Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report (based on US Trafficking Victims Protection Act 2000) which ranks states into “tiers” on the basis of their compliance with anti-trafficking standards (Sandy 2012; Palmer 2012; Chapman-Schmidt 2015). As poorly performing states face the possibility of unilateral sanctions, such as denial of non-humanitarian aid, the TIP Report provides a powerful incentive to adopt legislation and to pursue prosecutions. However, likely negative consequences of this external pressure include the possibility of politically motivated action, a skewed focus (e.g., on increased numbers of raids or prosecutions), and the reinforcement of a pre-existing discourse of trafficking as a security and crime problem, which sidelines both the obligation to protect victims and take effective steps to prevent trafficking.


All Southeast Asian states are affected by regular and irregular migration and trafficking, but international cooperation and policy development at the regional level have been hampered by the legacies of prior confrontation and existing tensions in interstate relations (e.g., Thai-Cambodia, etc.) and the strong priority given to the principle of noninterference in the internal affairs of a state in the region. The difficulty of collaboration across the region has meant many governments have pursued bilateral agreements and memoranda of understanding to strengthen regulation and coordination of international labor migration. These are, however, often complex, limited to specific industries, or inflexible, slow or expensive legal migration channels (Kneebone and Debeljak 2012; UNODC 2016a). Moreover, uneven bargaining power between labor-sending and labor-receiving states can make such agreements weak and fail to ensure key protection issues are addressed (UNODC 2016a). However, many Southeast Asian states have found that regional cooperation provides one means to combat the rise of transnational organized crime to the region (Emmers et al. 2006), leading to attempts to build a regional approach to trafficking.

Trafficking has been on the transnational crime agenda of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations since the 1990s (for a summary, see Yusran 2018). As ASEAN is becoming more interdependent and integrated economically (Simon 2008), it has moved toward a strategy to collectively address migration and trafficking (Emmers et al. 2006; Kranrattanasuit 2014; Yusran 2018). The focus has been on addressing trafficking as a form of organized crime, which poses a political security challenge (separate from labor migration, which is considered a social and cultural challenge). This emphasis has not always been conducive to treating trafficking as a human rights violation (Renshaw 2016). Criticisms of previous ASEAN mechanisms dealing with trafficking have also highlighted their ineffectiveness (Kranrattanasuit 2014: 52). States have prioritized declarations and other soft law instruments, such as ASEAN Declaration Against Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (2004) and ASEAN Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers (2007). These instruments have contained only general mentions of victim protection. ASEAN has also lacked effective institutional structures with a mandate to monitor and ensure the effective implementation of these non-binding instruments (Kranrattanasuit 2014, Chap. 3).

Considering this history, it is significant that ASEAN has recently adopted a binding regional legal regime. The ASEAN Convention Against Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (ACTIP) was signed in November 2015 and came into force in March 2017. Complemented by the ASEAN Plan of Action Against Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, it is the first substantive treaty of ASEAN on a specific issue with human rights implications. Though ACTIP is largely an anti-crime instrument, its quick ratification is a sign of growing awareness of the complex security challenges involved in trafficking that impact on the whole region (Yusran 2018). ACTIP is similar to the Trafficking Protocol in terms of its broad definition of human trafficking (Art. 2) and its general approach. It focuses on the need for criminalization of trafficking (and related money laundering/obstruction of justice/corruption, Arts. 5–9) but also sets some standards for the protection and rehabilitation of victims (Arts. 14–15) and on prevention measures (Art. 11). Furthermore, it sets out areas for cooperation – such as mutual legal assistance, extradition, validity of documents, confiscation of proceeds, and interstate law enforcement.

Though ACTIP provides clearer regulatory standards than the ASEAN Declaration, its emphasis is squarely on the criminalization of trafficking and on the prosecution of traffickers, as opposed to the development of protection and prevention measures. On protection, it does require victim identification guidelines and the provision of care and support for victims; it also encourages non-penalization of victims for any unlawful conduct. The language used, however, at times suggests states must simply “consider” certain things, like not prosecuting victims “in appropriate cases” (Art. 14(7)). Prevention measures are largely conceived in terms of very broadly phrased obligations and include awareness campaigns, discouragement of demand, and alleviation of factors that make persons vulnerable to trafficking (Art. 11) (Yusran 2018). Although ACTIP formally applies to trafficking in “persons,” much of the specific attention on women and children suggests that ACTIP is more concerned with sexual exploitation (and a paternalistic impulse to protect women and children) than with labor trafficking. Indeed, in general ACTIP treats trafficking as largely separate from migration and has little to say on how states ought to legislate to ameliorate the vulnerability of migrant workers to exploitation that arises from gaps in regulation, unscrupulous migration agents, and use of practices such as debt bondage.

Overall, ACTIP contains incipient moves toward recognizing trafficking not only as a criminal offense that requires effective partnership across the region but as a human rights challenge, which is crucial for addressing trafficking comprehensively. However, ACTIP also comes with limited monitoring and feedback mechanisms, which means it cannot be taken for granted that the instrument will be effectively implemented and utilized (Yusran 2018). ACTIP does suggest some space is being created for a regional approach and incentives to address trafficking as not simply as a crime and security problem but a shared human rights concern that affects civil society (Renshaw 2016). At the same time, Article 4 ACTIP states that its obligations are to be implemented based on ASEAN principles, such as sovereign equality, territorial integrity, and nonintervention. Considering these are the very justifications ASEAN states have cited when shying away from discussing human rights, transparency, and accountability, it remains open whether ACTIP can assist in addressing the existing biases of anti-trafficking action in Southeast Asia, including the focus on criminalization as opposed to protection of victims and prevention (Yusran 2018).

Responses to Trafficking in Australia and New Zealand

Prosecution, Protection, and Prevention

Since its ratification of the UN Trafficking Protocol in 2005, Australia has made considerable efforts to address trafficking in terms of adopting legislation and encouraging agencies to cooperate and to dedicate resources to this end (Schloenhardt and Jolly 2013: 350). In 1999, Australia introduced criminal provisions against trafficking and various forms of exploitation, such as slavery, in the Commonwealth Criminal Code (Criminal Code Act 1995). In 2004, in response to trafficking in persons being considered by both the Australian Parliament and the international community as a growing form of transnational organized crime, the government adopted its first Action Plan to Eradicate Trafficking in Persons. The criminal law provisions of the Commonwealth Criminal Code have since then been updated several times and now criminalize slavery and slavery-like practices, including servitude, forced labor, and deceptive recruiting (Division 270); Division 271 contains specific offenses for trafficking in persons and debt bondage. The current National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking and Slavery 2015–2019 (Australian Government 2014: 19) states that Australia’s action against trafficking revolves around four pillars: prevention and deterrence, detection and investigation, prosecution and compliance, and victim support and protection.

Between 2004 and March 2017, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) received more than 780 referrals for human trafficking and slavery-related matters. In the 2016 calendar year, there were 105 referrals of alleged human trafficking and slavery-related offenses, but a majority of these were on forced marriage (see also Australian Government 2016b: 20). Despite this number of referrals and despite securing prosecutions being a key objective of the government’s strategy, there have been a limited number of prosecutions by the Commonwealth DPP, and only about 20 persons have been convicted of relevant offenses from 2004 to 2017 (Australian Government 2017a: 18). Most of the cases resulting in convictions have concerned the sex industry and have not involved sophisticated organized crime (Simmons et al. 2013; Davy 2017). The small numbers imply that some cases are not proceeded with or that some cases which could potentially be trafficking cases are instead pursued under the enforcement of workplace rights (US Department of State 2017: 72). These are guaranteed by the Fair Work Act 2009 (which does not contain specific provisions on slavery and trafficking offenses) and are enforced by the Fair Work Ombudsman for all workers in Australia, including those employed illegally.

Australia provides support for identified victims of trafficking via the Support for Trafficked People Program (STTP), administered by the Department of Social Services and currently delivered by the Australian Red Cross. Access to the STTP is via AFP assessment (Australian Government 2016b: 31). Between 2004 and April 1, 2017, the AFP referred 341 suspected victims of trafficking and related offenses to the STTP (Australian Government 2016b: 31). All persons referred by the AFP now receive intensive support for up to 45 days to provide time for individuals to assess their options. If the person is a noncitizen without a valid visa, they can be granted a Bridging F visa (BVF) for this period and sometimes for a further 45 days. If a person is required to remain in Australia to assist authorities with an investigation or prosecution, another longer-term BVF can be granted for the duration of the criminal justice process (since 2015, a BFV is used instead of Criminal Justice Stay visas). A trafficked person may also in some cases be eligible for a Referred Stay (Permanent) visa (RSV) (previously Witness Protection (Trafficking) (Permanent) visa) if they have made a significant contribution to and cooperated closely with an investigation and would be in danger if returned to their home country. This allows the holder to remain in Australia permanently.

The above-mentioned system in practice maintains a connection between victims’ willingness to assist the police in the criminal investigation/prosecution process and their access to protection/support beyond the initial rest and recovery period. This kind of nexus has often been considered unhelpful, as it fails to prioritize victims as persons whose human rights have been violated and may not address the barriers faced by migrants that discourage them from cooperating with law enforcement authorities in the first place (Gallagher 2010: 299). Though the Australian system has improved somewhat over the years, the response offers only limited and conditional protection and has been criticized for putting the interests of the state before those of trafficking victims (Segrave 2004; Davy 2017). A recent parliamentary inquiry suggested that access to the protection program should be more explicitly de-linked from cooperation with law enforcement and participation in the criminal justice process, while also supporting the establishment of a national compensation scheme for victims of trafficking and related offenses (Australian Government 2017a: 35).

Australia’s prevention activity has been described as “thin in substance” (Schloenhardt and Jolly 2013: 309). The current National Action Plan aims to “prevent human trafficking and slavery by tackling the root causes of exploitation, raising awareness amongst the general community, and building the resilience of groups who may be vulnerable to these practices” (Australian Government 2014: 24). While there have been some campaigns to raise awareness of trafficking in Australia (see Schloenhardt et al. 2012), prevention measures targeting root causes and vulnerability to trafficking are largely targeted at source regions, such as Southeast Asia. Measures to reduce demand receive only limited attention in terms of maintaining compliance frameworks (ibid.: 30). The prevention of trafficking has recently been discussed in context of the debate over the Modern Slavery Act, proposed in 2017 (Australian Government 2017b). While the inquiry was mostly focused on examining the quasi-extraterritorial regulation of business activities, including the requirement to prevent trafficking and similar practices in business supply chains, it also supported the adoption of preventative measures to tackle labor exploitation, particularly for migrant workers, such as improving visa protections and removing conditions attached to visas that enhance employers’ power over migrant workers (ibid., Chap. 9).

Up until recently, New Zealand has focused almost exclusively on prevention activities in relation to trafficking, with authorities operating under an assumption that New Zealand is affected by trafficking only to a very limited degree, if at all (New Zealand Department of Labour 2009). New Zealand ratified the UN Trafficking Protocol in 2002 and updated its legislation (Crimes Act 1961) to include the offense of human trafficking, but only in the context of international border crossings (Sections 98C and 98D). Trafficking has not been considered to pose a major challenge in New Zealand, despite various allegations (e.g., in the agricultural and construction sectors) (New Zealand Law Society 2014) and press reports suggesting the presence of trafficking in New Zealand (Carville 2016). Trafficking-related issues have been raised also in relation to workers employed in foreign fishing vessels (Harré 2012; Stringer et al. 2016). The Plan of Action to Prevent People Trafficking (New Zealand Department of Labour 2009) includes prevention measures such as awareness-raising, international engagement, and development assistance.

Recently, New Zealand has placed more emphasis on the use of criminal law and acknowledged that the country is not completely immune from trafficking. The first trafficking prosecution was completed in 2015 (regarding the trafficking of 18 Indian nationals into forced labor in 2008–2009); however, the accused were only found guilty of immigration fraud. In 2016, the first successful trafficking conviction was obtained against a Fijian national, Mr. Faroz Ali, for 15 human trafficking charges: a further case, involving deceived Bangladeshi citizens, proceeded to charges in 2017 (New Zealand Immigration 2017). In 2015, the government also made its first certifications of trafficking victims, providing them with temporary visas. Unlike in Australia, which has a system of visas and assistance in place that is specifically designed for this purpose, assistance arrangements in New Zealand are still managed on a case-by-case basis. The Crimes Amendment Act 2015 also amended Section 98D to cover “exploitation,” broadly defined. Showden (2017) argues that this change, as well as a generally increased emphasis on the use of criminal law, is a sign of US influence as the “hegemonic enforcer” of anti-trafficking law, echoing claims made in relation to Southeast Asia.


Australia’s International Strategy to Combat Human Trafficking and Slavery demonstrates Australia’s aspiration to be a regional leader in the eradication of trafficking (Australian Government 2016a: 3). Southeast Asia is the principal focus of Australia’s engagement and its prevention activities (Australian Government 2016a: 7). The current Australia-Asia Program to Combat Trafficking in Persons (AAPTIP) (from 2013 to 2018) was given a budget of AU$50 million and aimed to strengthen the criminal justice responses to human trafficking in Asia and particularly in the countries of the ASEAN. This program first started in 2003 (as Asia Regional Cooperation to Prevent People Trafficking or ARCPPT, 2003–2006, then as the Asia Regional Trafficking in Persons Project or ARTIP, 2006–2012). It is Southeast Asia’s largest single dedicated anti-trafficking investment, with a focus on enhancing the capacity of the criminal justice authorities to tackle trafficking. It provides Australian technical assistance and support ASEAN and has been arguably instrumental in shaping the abovementioned ASEAN Convention (Australian Government 2016a: 11).

One of the often-mentioned voluntary forums with which Australia is involved in as a way of fostering cooperation in addressing trafficking is the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime (“Bali Process”). The Bali Process includes all ASEAN states and involves an uninstitutionalized mechanism of policy coordination and forum for dialogue in the region (Emmers et al. 2006). The Bali Process, in which also New Zealand participates, has helped to shape regional policy direction in Southeast Asia via non-binding regional policy guides, intended for use as reference tools (e.g., on criminalization, victim identification, and victim protection). Based on the UN Trafficking Protocol, such soft law has arguably encouraged ASEAN states to implement international standards (Song 2016). However, as Schloenhardt and Jolly (2013) point out, the Bali Process was conceived of as a regional response to irregular migration and is predominantly focused on anti-smuggling, a strong priority for Australia. It therefore treats trafficking largely as a form of migration and transnational crime, reinforcing a focus on security-driven initiatives and criminal justice responses.

In terms of prevention, the current TRIANGLE II program (tripartite action to enhance the contribution of labor migration to growth and development in the ASEAN, AU$20 million, 2015–2025) delivers technical assistance and support. TRIANGLE I (2010–2015) was implemented by the ILO and supported the establishment of 27 Migrant Worker Resource Centres (MRCs) in Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar to provide knowledge and resources to migrant workers to safeguard their labor rights (Australian Government 2016a: 14). TRIANGLE II aims to improve access to safe and legal migration channels and better jobs, where rights are protected and skills recognized during migration and on return. TRIANGLE is a modest start to addressing the common criticism that the Australian regional response has been much more focused on advocating for tougher law enforcement and criminal justice cooperation than seriously tackling the root causes of trafficking, such as inequality and the lack of safe migration opportunities in the region (Burn et al. 2005; Schloenhardt and Jolly 2013; Davy 2017).

It has been proposed that Australia could play a greater role regionally, including via providing more secure funding (Australian Government 2017a: 31). Similarly, it has been suggested that Australia could give more support to Southeast Asia dedicated to the protection of victims of trafficking (Song 2016: 11). Similar comments could be made in relation to New Zealand, which is also a member of various international organizations and fora which address trafficking and offer development assistance for anti-trafficking projects in developing states (New Zealand Department of Labour 2009).


The development and implementation of anti-trafficking responses in Southeast Asia and Australasia makes it clear that the UN Trafficking Protocol has been deeply influential in encouraging the adoption of legislation. Despite many intra-regional differences, the central role of criminal law and criminal justice cooperation is visible in both Southeast Asia and Australasia, now also in New Zealand. The law enforcement agenda that goes hand in hand with the idea that trafficking involves sophisticated transnational organized criminal networks may not always fit with the evidence that suggests trafficking is highly dynamic and context-specific and may also occur via small-scale or loose networks and middlemen. Moreover, when both the prevention of trafficking and protection of victims are seen through the lens of sophisticated transnational crime, their potential may be marginalized. The protective frameworks in Southeast Asia are still relatively weak and do not always focus on victims as individuals whose rights have been violated. Prevention measures also rarely go beyond deterrence and crime prevention. Trafficking in human beings is deeply embedded in the regional settings of Southeast Asia and Australasia. This suggests that the effectiveness and comprehensiveness of anti-trafficking measures can be improved by developing safe migration opportunities, protecting migrant workers and addressing the inequalities that sustain the exploitation of migrants. Protecting the rights of migrant workers should become a priority for ASEAN, which could build on ACTIP and work toward the development of more comprehensive legal frameworks on preventing exploitation and promoting safe migration; Australasia should encourage the development of accountability mechanisms both as part of domestic efforts and as part of broader regional prevention efforts.



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Copyright information

© The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of LawMonash UniversityClaytonAustralia

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