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Globalisation has spurred a surge in migration, leading to a significant rise in abusive and irregular migration, particularly human trafficking. South-East Asia has witnessed a pronounced increase in human trafficking over the past decade, with an estimated 200-225,000 women and children trafficked annually, representing nearly one-third of the global trade. In 2022, South and Central Asia reported the highest prevalence, with approximately 50 million trafficking victims identified. The region’s human trafficking is fuelled by interconnected factors such as climate change, globalisation, armed conflicts, pandemics, and the normalisation of brutal norms, resulting in sex trafficking and forced labour. Despite efforts by NGOs, inter-governmental organisations, and government ministries, persistent challenges in Asia include weak law enforcement, corruption, and limited support for victims. This policy brief aims to provide a comprehensive overview of existing initiatives, highlighting gaps in counter-trafficking responses. Through analysis, the study contributes to ongoing efforts to combat human trafficking and protect vulnerable populations in Asia.

TW: violence, sexual violence


Human trafficking, characterised as a modern form of slavery, persists as a grave global concern with profound social, economic, and security implications. The interconnectedness brought about by globalisation has triggered rapid transformations in Southeast Asia, impacting its economic, political, demographic, and labour landscapes. Unfortunately, this dynamic evolution has also heightened the demand for inexpensive labour, turning the region into a distressing epicentre for human trafficking. Slaves are not only ruthlessly exploited and abused within the region but are also shipped across the globe, from Japan to Brazil, underscoring the global nature of this illicit trade.

In 2021 alone, an estimated 29.3 million people were living in modern slavery in Asia and the Pacific, constituting a staggering 59 percent of the global total. Adjusting for population size, the region ranked third globally in terms of the prevalence of modern slavery, with 6.8 per thousand people forced into labour or marriage. Within the five regions, Asia and the Pacific had the second-highest prevalence of forced marriage (3.3 per thousand) and the third-highest prevalence of forced labour (3.5 per thousand)1. Forced labour, sexual exploitation, and forced marriage emerge as the most pervasive forms of trafficking in the region.

Human trafficking involves a spectrum of heinous activities, including recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring, or receipt of individuals through force, fraud, or deception, with the intent to exploit them for profit or coerce them into labour and commercial sex2. This crime not only infringes upon an individual’s right to movement but also poses a dire threat to human rights, dignity, and, significantly, national security.

The rising trends in human trafficking across East Asia and the Pacific emphasise the need for a comprehensive response. Despite various initiatives by NGOs, inter-governmental organisations, government ministries, and human rights groups, persistent patterns in counter-trafficking strategies persist. This policy brief offers a concise overview by examining the root causes of the issue, highlighting existing initiatives, and identifying areas in counter-trafficking responses that require improvement.


Intra-regional trafficking in East Asia: a focus on sexual exploitation

The predominant form of victimisation in East Asia and the Pacific involves trafficking for sexual exploitation, constituting a substantial 64 percent of detected cases3

A problem that has no border

As slaves are transported globally, their harrowing journey often entails deplorable conditions, with many confined to overcrowded boats and holding pens. Tragically, thousands of victims succumb during the transportation process.

China, Japan, Malaysia, and Thailand emerge as prime destinations for traffickers from neighbouring countries4, with two significant border regions notorious for human trafficking activities. The Indonesia–Singapore–Malaysia sea border stands out as a unique hotspot. Fuelled by economic disparities between Indonesia and its wealthier neighbours, coupled with stringent social controls in Singapore and Malaysia, traffickers exploit the allure of the sex industry in Indonesia. Consequently, a disturbing number of Indonesian women and girls are trafficked within the country to cater to customers from Singapore and Malaysia. Another hotspot is the border between Thailand and Myanmar, where traffickers thrive. The influx of ethnic minorities fleeing persecution in Myanmar has rendered them vulnerable due to their undocumented situation. This vulnerability becomes a target for traffickers seeking to exploit the dire circumstances. 

A gender-based trafficking

Human trafficking is widely recognized as gender-based harm, with women and children facing a heightened risk of exploitation. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), more than 60% of trafficked women and over 25% of trafficked girls are specifically targeted for gender-specific labour, encompassing roles such as childcare, domestic work, and sex work, as of 20215.

In 2023, South Asia accounted for 45% of all child brides, and witnessed the trafficking and forced marriage of over 22 million women6. The rise of illicit brokers and marriage agencies is intricately tied to broader geopolitical dynamics, including the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and China-backed development projects. As regional connectivity expands, so does the reach of traffickers, targeting women, especially those from ethnic or religious minorities and impoverished communities. Constrained by limited educational and employment options, these women in remote areas often succumb to marriage brokers. In coercive situations, women’s bodily autonomy and reproductive rights are disregarded, exacerbating the trauma experienced.

Children are also major victims of human trafficking. In India, each year, an alarming one million children are ensnared in the harrowing web of prostitution7. In Bangladesh, child trafficking for labour exploitation is pervasive, occurring both domestically and across borders along established routes. Bangladeshi children fall victim to trafficking for various purposes, including prostitution, forced and bonded labour, camel jockeying, marriage, and organ trade. Girls are commonly trafficked into domestic or commercial sex work, while boys are frequently sent to toil in manufacturing industries and sweatshops in India and Pakistan. A staggering 90 percent of trafficked Bangladeshi children find themselves in India, with the remainder destined for Pakistan and select Middle Eastern countries8. In the case of Chinese children, the majority of those trafficked are sold into the sex industry in Thailand. The surge in child trafficking in the region is intricately connected to the rise of online child pornography, including live-streaming of child sexual abuse—an immensely profitable industry estimated to yield $3–$20 billion annually9. Notably, Cambodia and Thailand have been identified as significant sources of pornographic material10.

Sex trafficking

In Southeast Asia, victims of sex trafficking play a crucial role in fuelling a thriving sex tourism industry that spans from remote villages to major cities. Sex trafficking, a grave gender-based human rights violation, carries profound individual and public health consequences, serving as a potential pathway for the spread of HIV in developing countries. Over 80% of annual trafficking victims are girls and women, with around 150,000 trafficked within and between South Asian nations yearly, contributing to an estimated 3.9 million HIV cases in Asia11.

India and Nepal are major destinations for victims forced into sex work, sourced from other South Asian nations, with 1.5 million Nepalis vulnerable to trafficking, and 60% of female victims to India being adolescents aged twelve to sixteen12.

Cambodia, with a flourishing sex industry, exports victims regionally and internationally to markets like Japan and Korea. Exploited for sex work, many victims are driven to prostitution due to poverty-level wages in alternative employment. In Cambodia, where sweatshop wages can be as low as $80 per   month13, prostitution becomes a more appealing option. Approximately one-third of prostitutes in the country, primarily Vietnamese, are under 18, enduring abuse and fatal consequences in the domestic sex trade14. Instances of torture, such as electric shock, reveal the grim reality of an industry fundamentally rooted in a culture of slavery.

Forced labour, the second main form of human trafficking

According to the ILO’s most recent figures, more than 11 million people in Asia Pacific are victims of forced labour; accounting for well over half of the global estimated number of 22 million victims15. Estimated another way, at least three in every 1000 people in Asia-Pacific are in forced labour, trapped in jobs into which they were coerced or deceived and which they cannot leave. Domestic work, agriculture, construction, manufacturing and entertainment are among the sectors where forced labour is most often found.

Economic insecurity compels workers to take on risky jobs or loans from unscrupulous employers, leading to exploitation in labour-intensive roles to repay debts. We can notice a gender-based discrimination and undervaluation of low-skilled occupations limiting women’s options for decent work and regular migration, often leading them to lower-paid informal sectors without labour protection. Moreover, vulnerability increases for migrants, facing the risk of exploitation, as well as sexual and physical violence due to fear of deportation, isolation, language barriers, or lack of knowledge about their rights.

The Thai fishing industry is notorious for its significant reliance on slave labour, where trafficked fishermen, primarily from Myanmar and Cambodia, endure harrowing conditions such as forced labour, torture, and even death16. Similar indicators of Trafficking in Persons (TIP) and forced labour have surfaced in Korean, Taiwanese, and Chinese fleets, drawing crews from various Southeast Asian countries, including Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Myanmar, and Cambodia17.

Indonesian-flagged vessels have raised concerns, with 71 percent of surveyed fishermen lacking possession of identity documents and over 88 percent experiencing substantial salary deductions and irregular wages, clear signs of forced labour18. Indonesian fishermen on Chinese vessels reported physical violence, gruelling 20-hour shifts, and insufficient food, leading to hundreds being removed and the recorded deaths of 12 individuals from 2019 to 2020. Some vessels from China, Korea, and Taiwan retain Indonesian workers beyond their contracts until replacements are found.

In North Korea, approximately one in ten people faces modern slavery19, while over one million Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim minorities in China’s Xinjiang region are arbitrarily detained20.

Factors impacting on Trafficking Victims

Contrary to common belief, the driving force behind slavery is not solely rooted in absolute poverty but encompasses a complex web of factors, including vulnerability, marginalisation, and inequality. A vulnerable individual is someone who finds themselves in a situation where they have “no genuine and acceptable alternative but to endure the abuse inflicted upon them”21.

Climate change

Intensifying typhoons and other natural disasters in Southeast Asia, fuelled by climate change, exacerbate the vulnerability of potential trafficking victims, including children orphaned or separated from families. 227.6 million people have been displaced since 200822. After Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines in 2013, survivors faced exploitation as domestic servants, beggars, prostitutes, and labourers. Drought-affected migrants from Cambodia to Thailand take perilous routes, making them easy targets for criminal networks. However, despite mounting evidence linking climate change to forced migration, climate change and natural disasters are rarely regarded as contributing to human trafficking in global discussions or national-level policy frameworks.

Climate change also has an impact on early marriages for young girls, often seen as a “protective” measure against periods of drought and floods23. As natural disasters displace populations, with families seeking refuge in evacuation camps or temporary shelters, they become vulnerable to various risks, including gender-based violence. Fearing sexual violence, some families may opt for early marriages, believing it offers protection in challenging circumstances rather than harm.


Globalisation is seen as a catalyst for the surge in human trafficking, fuelled by economic factors that accentuate socio-economic disparities. This global phenomenon aids traffickers by reducing transportation costs, making international flights and long-distance train rides quicker and more affordable. The ease of managing illicit activities is heightened through bribery of officials. Internet-driven globalisation facilitates the export of women for labour exploitation and prostitution. Women become traded, bought, consumed, and exploited goods. 

Asia’s increased interconnectedness has turned it into a hotspot for sex tourism, where both foreign and domestic tourists purposefully seek sexual encounters. The affordability of travel in countries like Thailand and Cambodia, coupled with power, class, and legal factors, makes it easier for Westerners to engage in paid sex. Tourists often feel liberated from their home country’s norms abroad, leading to increased interactions with sex workers. The cultural context and the legality of sex work in these countries contribute to reduced stigma and fear. The strength of the dollar in South Asian countries further incentivises Westerners to spend on taboo activities, feeling wealthier and more powerful than in their home countries. While sex tourism has become a lucrative business, providing much-needed capital to poorer countries, it has also led governments to loosen restrictions on sex trafficking and the sex industry, resulting in further exploitation of vulnerable women. Globalisation’s increased connections between poorer Asian countries and wealthier Western nations contribute to the heightened likelihood of girls and women being trafficked from Asia into the West.

Armed conflict

The UN sheds light on the complex web of dynamics that unfold during conflict and political instability, fuelling an alarming rise in criminal activity24. Traffickers strategically target their victims within the vast population displaced by armed conflict and natural disasters. In their desperate pursuit of safety and protection, these displaced individuals, especially women and girls, become exceptionally vulnerable to exploitation. In this volatile environment, gendered vulnerabilities come to the forefront, particularly impacting women and girls. As in these contexts, families may resort to negative coping mechanisms, such as marrying their young daughters, to deal with economic stress.

Such conflicts as in Myanmar and the southern Philippines significantly amplify vulnerability. In 2021, over 5,000 Rohingya individuals from Myanmar were trafficked or smuggled into different parts of Bangladesh, subsequently rescued by police and returned to refugee camps25. During conflicts, borders become focal points for criminal activities. Numerous scam centres in Myanmar are strategically located in weakly regulated and often porous border areas, characterised by a lack of formal law enforcement structures, oversight, and accountability26. Traffickers also exploit ethnic minorities affected by internal conflicts in Myanmar; Karen, Shan, Akha, and Lahu women are trafficked for sexual exploitation in Thailand, while Kachin women are sold as brides in China27. The impact of armed conflict is particularly severe on children, as the United Nations has documented instances of armed groups in the Philippines, including Moro rebels and communists, recruiting children for both combat and non-combat roles, sometimes through force28.

COVID-19 pandemic

The Covid-19 pandemic not only intensified financial hardships across Southeast Asia but provided an opportune environment for traffickers to exploit gendered vulnerabilities.

Despite disruptions to traditional trafficking operations during quarantine measures, there was a significant rise in online exploitation and sex trafficking across the region. Traffickers adapted to technology advancements during the pandemic, worsening profit-driven human rights abuses and minimising detection risks29. The Philippines, a historical hub for online sexual exploitation of children, experienced a surge in abuse during Covid-19 lockdowns. From March to May 2020, the Department of Justice’s Office of Cybercrime reported a 264% increase in online tips related to child sexual exploitation compared to 201930. The issue remains in the inadequate protective and legal services for girls against online abuse, necessitating focused attention on enhancing digital literacy, online safety, and access to protective resources tailored to their gender-specific vulnerabilities.

The pandemic’s economic fallout has heightened women’s vulnerability to human trafficking in the region. In Cambodia, where women make up 80% of the garment industry workforce, the prevalence of fixed-term contracts increases employment precariousness, amplifying the power imbalance between male employers and female employees31. This imbalance, coupled with economic uncertainties, fosters an environment conducive to exploitation, trapping women in abusive situations with limited recourse.

A 2023 UN report highlights a distinctive shift in the recent surge of human trafficking in Southeast Asia due to the pandemic32. Unlike historical patterns of outflows of uneducated citizens for forced labour, the current multi-billion-dollar industry witnesses inflows of foreign citizens, some well-educated with professional degrees. Victims, recruited under the guise of legitimate job opportunities, face torture and extortion if they fail to comply or meet revenue targets, leading to increased debt when sold to new captors. This evolving paradigm heightens the risk for educated women, as traffickers exploit their aspirations for better opportunities and educational ambitions, leveraging their desire for professional growth against them.


Weaknesses in state law enforcement capacity

Significant challenges persist, notably the lack of accurate information on the scale of trafficking, hindering the measurement of anti-trafficking policy effectiveness. The gap between legal frameworks and their enforcement at the national level poses issues. Despite political will, law enforcement agencies lack the required skills, knowledge, and resources to address the evolving complexities of human trafficking. Ongoing gaps in documentation, research, and analysis keep many aspects of smuggling and trafficking shrouded in mystery. Governments lack a centralised record or database of investigations and judicial proceedings, resulting in incomplete law enforcement data.

For instance, Thailand, labelled as Tier 2 by the US Department of State for human trafficking, displayed heightened efforts to combat trafficking but fell short of meeting minimum standards33. Challenges persist, notably in inconsistent victim identification practices during labour inspections, leaving many victims, particularly those in forced labour, unidentified. The government faced criticism for insufficiently protecting victims involved in cyber scam operations abroad, often not recognizing them as trafficking victims and detaining them. Plus, despite efforts to train over 48,000 fishery workers on rights and trafficking, insufficient education for employers in vulnerable sectors persisted34.

Cambodia, rated Tier 3, falls short of meeting minimum standards to eliminate trafficking, showing limited efforts on its anti-trafficking capacity35. Indeed, some steps have been taken, such as increased investigation, prosecution, and conviction of traffickers. A special working group was formed to tackle large-scale cyber scam operations linked to indicators of forced labour, and more Cambodian trafficking victims were identified and provided with services. However, challenges persist as revealed in the midterm evaluation of the 2019-2023 National Action Plan, highlighting issues such as insufficient coordination, resources, and overlapping responsibilities at both sub-national and national levels. The Ministry of labour and Vocational Training (MOLVT) maintains an action plan to reduce child labour by 2025, but officials denied its existence in the brick industry despite 400 inspections in 2022, which failed to identify trafficking victims or vulnerable children, in contrast to 350 cases reported in 2021. Moreover, the 2008 Law on the Suppression of Human Trafficking and Commercial Sexual Exploitation criminalised sex and labour trafficking, with penalties ranging from seven to 15 years for offences involving adult victims and 15 to 20 years for those involving child victims. However, NGOs reported that the government, in practice, imposed fines and short jail sentences of six days to one month under the labour law for labour traffickers, failing to deter future crimes or deliver justice for victims.

Additionally, foreign workers’ protection against human trafficking in Asia is often inadequate. Authorities neither provided nor referred potential foreign victims to services, opting to penalise these victims for crimes committed while being trafficked. This resulted in indefinite detention until they paid bribes for release or their embassy funded their deportation. In South Korea, the legal system struggles to regulate foreign sex workers, leading to “double illegality” for these women. Guidelines issued in 2016 to identify sex trafficking victims, but labour exploitation remains under-regulated36. Hence, there is an absence of effective identification, prosecution, and prevention measures to safeguard victims from a range of threats, including those originating from the state.

Indeed, some policies can have detrimental effects on human trafficking issues. China’s One Child Policy, for instance, led to a gender imbalance, leaving many men unable to find wives. As a result, some turned to the sex trade in southern Asia, paying significant amounts for brides, often from poorer countries like Myanmar. Many women were coerced, kidnapped, or deceived into this trade37. After giving birth to a son, they were exploited and often compelled to renounce their relationship with the child before leaving China38. Moreover, upon reaching the border, many faced detention for immigration offenses. This illustrates the severe consequences of policies that lack thorough research and careful consideration.

Immigration policies heighten human trafficking risks in East Asia, particularly for undocumented migrant workers. In Thailand, factors like poverty or illiteracy may result in unregistered births, leading to a lack of legal documentation39. This hinders access to formal employment, making individuals more susceptible to exploitation by unscrupulous employers or employment agents, as they will not have the ability to change employers easily.

Lastly, there are additional factors stemming from states that contribute to human trafficking. Underemployment, poverty, and limited education heighten vulnerability, increasing the likelihood of individuals falling prey to traffickers. In regions like Vietnam, children from impoverished families, tied to low-yield land, struggle to escape poverty due to a lack of skills and alternative employment opportunities, placing them at high risk of trafficking40. Finally, addressing cultural norms in countries like Thailand and India, where using prostitutes or maintaining mistresses as “minor wives” is accepted, is crucial41. This cultural acceptance contributes to high demand for women and children in the sex industry. Traditional practices, such as sending girls to work as prostitutes or by families, like auctioning off girls’ virginity (sold for US$150)42, perpetuate exploitative situations. While current efforts target criminalising traffickers, there is a recognized need for increased focus on prevention and victim protection.

The interconnected dynamics of corruption and trafficking

Trafficking is highly lucrative. For instance, employers of prostitutes in Vietnam make substantial profits, up to $2,000 per month, a significant contrast to the country’s average per capita income of just $300 annually43. Such revenues can easily attract corrupt agents.

Corruption and official complicity in trafficking crimes, including by high-level senior officials, remained widespread and endemic, impacting law enforcement effectiveness. Authorities failed to investigate or criminally hold accountable officials implicated in credible reports of complicity, particularly with unscrupulous business owners engaged in human trafficking across the country. UNODC’s 2023 research contends that corruption is not just a facilitator but an inseparable component of human trafficking and smuggling in Southeast Asia, stating that these crimes are impossible without corruption44.

Public officials, including law enforcement officers, immigration officials, labour inspectors, border guards, and prosecutors, as well as individuals in the private sector such as labour recruiters, airport employees, and accommodation providers often play a role as facilitators in smuggling and trafficking activities. Corrupt individuals engage in various illicit actions throughout the entire process, from recruiting individuals into trafficking schemes to allowing the passage of fraudulent documents through immigration controls and accepting bribes for border crossings without proper documentation. The repercussions of this corruption extend beyond mere facilitation, as it weakens overall controls, obstructs investigations and prosecutions, and hampers effective protection for women who are victims of human trafficking.

The high level of impunity enjoyed by traffickers and smugglers is largely attributed to corruption, resulting in minimal success in prosecuting these crimes. States often hesitate to directly address economic and political interests when combating modern slavery, despite widely ratified forced labour conventions by the International Labour Organization (ILO). Approximately 10 percent of forced labour is attributed to states or politically motivated armed groups45. For instance, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has faced repeated concerns from UN bodies for engaging in enslavement, coercing citizens into labour within prisons and overseas construction sites where a substantial portion of their wages is confiscated46. Moreover, in several Greater Mekong Subregion countries, police and military personnel are implicated in child trafficking and prostitution, occasionally owning sex establishments and profiting from these illicit activities. In a 2016 case, law enforcement and military officials were accused of intercepting boats carrying smuggled Rohingya, subsequently handing them over to traffickers47. Many victims were forced into labour on Thai fishing vessels. Allegedly, traffickers paid officials in exchange for intercepting and delivering the smuggling boats, and some victims were taken from immigration detention facilities and transferred to traffickers.

Paradoxically, corruption’s presence may drive trafficking, exploiting individuals seeking to escape areas affected by corruption in their political, social, or economic circumstances. Traffickers use the perception of corruption as a tool to recruit and manipulate vulnerable individuals.

Limited support services and protection for victims

Human trafficking is an issue of serious global public health concern. The relentless trauma experienced by trafficked victims significantly impacts their mental health, leading to symptoms such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, alienation, and disorientation. Victims often exhibit extreme sadness, hopelessness, suicidal thoughts, cognitive impairment and memory loss. Concentration difficulties, aggression, and anger may also arise48. Studies show that trauma worsens over the trafficking period, with lingering effects unless proper support and counselling are provided. Physical abuse from customers and employers includes beatings, strangulation, belt, cable, or brick assaults, and stabbing. Sex trafficking initiation often involves rape, sometimes by multiple perpetrators, and may be preceded by drugging.

As an example, the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand documented the impact of trafficking on around 100 male fishermen. After three years of exploitation, 39 had died, and those who returned home were severely ill—emaciated, emotionally disturbed, and experiencing impaired vision, hearing, and mobility49.

HIV/AIDS is also a real concern in South Asia, with approximately 3.9 million people living with HIV in Southeast Asia in 2022, with women constituting 37% of the total50. Countries like India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Nepal, and Thailand have the highest HIV infection rates51. Structural barriers in some nations, like limited access to contraception and sexual health services, particularly affect vulnerable groups such as Burmese women in illegal and debt-bondage in the Thai sex industry. These barriers lead to consequences, like lack of care, late treatment, septic abortions, and untreated infections, resulting in chronic complications. Trafficked Burmese sex workers in Thailand face HIV rates two to three times higher than voluntarily working Thai women in the industry52. Moreover, HIV-positive individuals, when discovered, may face expulsion from certain states, and knowingly spreading HIV has been criminalised in some countries, exacerbating the challenges faced by women with limited control over their sex lives.

Victims of trafficking encounter other multiple challenges. Firstly, despite the illegality of prostitution in Thailand, China, and Burma, sex workers, whether trafficked or not, routinely face harassment from regional police and security agencies53. Burmese sex workers in Thailand are frequently arrested in raids initiated by brothel owners when the women have repaid their debt and should start receiving payment. Thai police, with free access to sex venues, make trafficked sex workers highly susceptible to rights violations and health threats. Fear of police and associated bribes deter sex workers from seeking necessary healthcare, causing delays in treatment.

Secondly, repatriation of trafficked individuals presents unique challenges. Women from the sex industry may encounter severe social and family stigma, despite being trafficking victims54. The reintegration process is complex, with no guaranteed recovery, as some may struggle to readjust to a “normal” lifestyle. Even if employed, behavioural challenges due to trauma can hinder sustained work. Returning to the place of origin often means facing the same issues that led to initial migration – unemployment, abuse, and discrimination -, compounded by new stigma. For those with HIV from sex work, repatriation without protection and medical care may worsen their situation.

Finally, health law enforcement faces notable limitations. In some countries, policing systems remain significantly entwined with politics, making it less possible to practically decentralise police forces to communities. Moreover, building partnerships between police, public health, and community sectors is challenging due to a lack of trust in law enforcement in certain regions. Nevertheless, insufficient resources may hamper cooperation, especially in developing and underdeveloped countries. The implementation of diversion programs, for example, becomes challenging without adequate services to divert individuals from the criminal justice system. Additionally, the lack of resources, especially on the public health side, hinders the exploration of technology-based approaches to address the issues. Finally, the scarcity of resources and education for practitioners poses a barrier. Further research is essential to develop effective approaches for each country, and formulate guidelines for law enforcement and public health practitioners to promote healthcare and prevent crime in the region.


Global measures

Instruments addressing human trafficking have historical roots, dating back to the abolition of slavery. Notable among them are the Slavery Convention (1926) and the Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Practices Similar to Slavery (1956). International legal frameworks, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights (1966), The United Nations Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others (1949), and the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979), have further contributed to contemporary efforts aimed at eliminating trafficking.

Two key international agreements address human trafficking as a transnational crime: the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, also known as the Palermo Protocol. The latter categorises the offence into three elements: the act (recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring, and receipt of persons), the means (force, coercion, abduction, and deception), and the purpose (prostitution, forced labour, slavery, and organ removal). Central to anti-trafficking efforts is border protection, emphasising control over illegal migration. Article 11 of the Palermo Protocol mandates states to enhance border controls for detecting and preventing human trafficking, with legislation preventing commercial carriers from being used for such purposes55. More specifically, article 6 underscores the importance of gender-sensitive approaches, aligning with the Palermo Protocol, while Article 7 mandates the development of national laws emphasising the protection, rehabilitation, and empowerment of female and child victims. 

While the Trafficking Protocol serves as a primary international instrument, several other instruments are relevant in preventing human rights breaches resulting from trafficking. These include the Convention on the Rights of the Child and its two Optional Protocols. The first protocol addresses the involvement of children in armed conflict, limiting their participation in military conflicts. The second protocol focuses on the sale of children, child prostitution, child pornography, and child labour, obliging states to protect the rights and interests of child victims in these contexts. Additionally, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women is another vital document in this context.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) is creating training materials for law enforcement to combat human trafficking and smuggling across borders. These materials prioritise international cooperation and holistic approaches to prevent responses from inadvertently creating new routes for criminals involved in these activities. UNODC has supported rural and remote communities in Southeast Asia impacted by illicit trafficking, offering sustainable livelihoods and improving access to education, healthcare, and infrastructure56. Additionally, UNODC supports law enforcement in border and rural areas, establishing Border Liaison Offices (BLOs) in the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS)57. UNODC also assisted India by creating anti-human trafficking units (AHTUs) in 2006, operating in 225 of over 600 districts58. Finally, UNODC is actively combating gender-based trafficking in collaboration with UN Women, UNICEF, and other agencies. A joint platform, developed with stakeholders such as governments, civil society, and donors, aims to emphasise the significance of addressing trafficking in persons. It seeks partnerships for coordinated programming and funding. Additionally, UNODC has partnered with the European Union (EU) and the International Organization for Migrations (IOM) for anti-trafficking initiatives. 

Governments, international organisations, NGOs, and networks have acknowledged the necessity of regional and subregional strategies to combat trafficking. This has also led to various programs, including those by the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCHR), and the United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), specifically addressing labour exploitation and human trafficking.

Finally, the Assessment of Clinical Judgement (ACJ) also contributes to improving the effectiveness of anti-trafficking measures by emphasising the importance of Education59. It recommends targeted education and training programs for officials, including border control, law enforcement, labour inspectors, and the judiciary. The ACJ also advocates for collaborative efforts between states on both bilateral and multilateral fronts to strengthen the collective fight against trafficking.

Regional actions in Combating Human Trafficking in Southeast Asia

In addition to global legal frameworks, Southeast Asia adopted the ASEAN Convention Against Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, in 2015. At the subregional level, the Coordinated Mekong Ministerial Initiative Against Trafficking, aligning closely with the Palermo Protocol, has spurred bilateral agreements for enhanced cooperation within the Greater Mekong region60. Beyond Southeast Asia, the Bali Process, initiated in 2002, serves as a platform for Asia-Pacific countries to engage in dialogue, raise awareness, and build capacity to combat human smuggling, trafficking, and transnational crime. Recognizing the transnational nature of human trafficking, both international and regional regimes encourage information sharing, policy coordination, criminalization of trafficking, mutual legal assistance, victim protection, and offender prosecution.

Several regional protocols have been implemented to combat human trafficking. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), primarily focusing on sex trafficking in South Asia. Comprising eight member states and nine observers, including key partnerships with UN agencies like UNODC, SAARC addresses trafficking challenges in the region.

In Hong Kong, the March 2018 Action Plan to Tackle trafficking in persons and to enhance protection of foreign domestic helpers introduces a comprehensive strategy encompassing victim identification, investigation, enforcement, prosecution, protection, prevention, and collaboration with diverse stakeholders61.

Japan, Australia, Canada, the United States, and the EU are the main nations addressing trafficking in the context of irregular migration62. Australia utilises airline liaison officers and coastal surveillance to combat illegal entry. Japan tackles illegal immigration with collaborative efforts and legislative measures, including criminalising illegal entry and targeting child prostitution and pornography. The United States actively participates in a global anti-trafficking initiative, evident in a pivotal 2000 bill safeguarding foreign victims in the US sex trade, and promotes international collaboration through initiatives like the OSCE Action Plan implementation. Specifically, the European Union also expresses growing concern about trafficking within its member states.

The EU actively supports the fight against human trafficking by addressing the root causes in certain Asian countries. Notably, the Philippine government has, since the 1970s, placed high emphasis on labour export to support its balance of payment deficits and to reduce the number of unemployed persons. The EU had a key role in improving labour conditions in the country and combating human trafficking risks63

The EU’s development assistance to the Philippines prioritises governance, job creation, renewable energy, and support for vulnerable populations in Mindanao. The total development aid allocated for the 2014-2020 period exceeds EUR 200 million. This assistance primarily targets two key sectors: inclusive growth and the rule of law, aligning closely with the Philippine Development Plan 2017-2022, a medium-term strategy aimed at poverty reduction and achieving the SDGs.

The Philippine Development Plan underscores the importance of enhancing the prosecution of trafficking and organised crime through justice reform, as well as strengthening measures to protect overseas workers from human trafficking and exploitation, including combating illegal recruitment.

The EU collaborates with various partners such as ILO, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), UN WOMEN, IOM, and UNDP to finance regional and national programs addressing modern slavery issues faced by Filipino overseas workers and internal challenges. Initiatives like the EU Gender Action Plan aim to improve migration governance in the region, particularly regarding women’s needs, reducing risks of violence, and preventing trafficking of women migrant workers through enhanced access to information and coordinated gender-responsive services. On the business front, the EU co-funded projects like the Responsible Supply Chains in Asia (implemented between 2017 and 2020 in collaboration with ILO and OECD). In the Philippines, this program focused on the food commodity sector, a significant employer and driver of the country’s export economy. Its objectives included promoting responsible business practices, fostering an enabling policy environment, and facilitating dialogues. Positive outcomes have been observed in the improvement of the situation for trafficked and exploited children, with national authorities creating an implementation plan for the Children’s Emergency Relief and Protection Act to combat child trafficking effectively.

The European Union (EU) recognizes the power of collaboration and synergy in combating modern slavery. With the positive impact of the generalised system of preferences implementation in the Philippines, the upcoming EU Free Trade Agreements offers opportunities to enhance legal reforms in the country’s labour landscape. Additionally, the achievements of international initiatives like Safe and Fair and Ship to Shore underscore the significance of regional cooperation in the fight against modern slavery.


To sum up, the issue of human trafficking in Southeast Asia presents a complex and multifaceted challenge that extends across international, regional, and national levels, as it is a problem with no borders. Women and children in Asia stand at the forefront, emerging as the primary and most vulnerable targets of human trafficking. Forced labour, the second most prevalent form of modern slavery, often coupled with sexual exploitation, subjects individuals to deplorable and inhumane conditions, resulting in severe mental and physical consequences for all victims.

Despite numerous initiatives and dedicated efforts, the problem persists, and there are indications that it is on the rise. A significant weakness lies in the lack of cooperation and coordination among the diverse stakeholders involved in counter-trafficking, both nationally and regionally. The causes of trafficking, including poverty, lack of employment opportunities, lack of awareness, conflicts, globalisation, and climate change are deeply rooted in complex global and local structures.

The effectiveness of counter-trafficking initiatives is hindered by inadequate laws, weak enforcement, corruption, and insufficient awareness and capacities among law enforcers. Protection services primarily focus on prostitution, with limitations in resources, capacities, and coordination. Return and reintegration programs face bureaucratic hurdles, and the lack of follow-up often makes evaluating their effectiveness challenging.

To address the trafficking situation comprehensively, it is essential to move beyond national-level analyses and extend efforts to regional and cross-regional levels. Strengthening initiatives, particularly in law enforcement, criminal prevention, and prosecution, is crucial. A successful and cooperative strategy requires a clear understanding of trafficking patterns and processes in the region, drawing lessons from past experiences. The increasing recognition of the complexity of human trafficking emphasises the need for nuanced and targeted interventions.

Moving forward, it is imperative to bridge the existing gaps in knowledge through comprehensive data and information collection. The various regional efforts play a vital role in developing effective responses to the trafficking issue in Southeast Asia. By learning from past experiences and understanding the diverse patterns, purposes, actors, and emotions involved in trafficking, stakeholders can work collaboratively towards more impactful and sustainable solutions. The global awareness of human trafficking as a grave human rights violation necessitates continuous efforts and cooperation at all levels to combat this hidden scourge effectively.


Addressing the complex and pervasive issue of human trafficking in Asia requires a multifaceted and comprehensive approach. The following recommendations aim to provide a strategic framework for combating human trafficking. 

  • Strengthen domestic and cross-border cooperation through the development and implementation of more regional guidelines in coordination with national and bilateral guidelines, fostering international cooperation to combat trafficking effectively.
  • Encourage governments to adopt an open-minded approach and collaborate with international partners to enhance law enforcement cooperation in the fight against trafficking.
  • Implement sustainable livelihood programs in border communities to reduce vulnerability to trafficking by providing alternative economic opportunities and skills training.
  • Enact and enforce legislation criminalizing child abuse, including incest, rape, and prostitution, and provide appropriate support and counselling services for affected children.
  • Enhance labour standards to prevent the demand for cheap illegal labour, aligning with ILO Conventions to eliminate the worst forms of labour and enforcing regulations to combat trafficking for labour.
  • Encourage businesses to adopt ethical labour practices and supply chain transparency, conducting due diligence to ensure that their operations do not contribute to or benefit from human trafficking.
  • Reformulate laws to eliminate biases against individuals involved in prostitution, focusing on providing support and rehabilitation rather than punitive measures.
  • Recognize and treat individuals involved in trafficking, especially illegal migrants, as victims rather than criminals, ensuring appropriate support, protection, and rehabilitation.
  • Develop and implement protocols for the better identification of trafficking victims, ensuring a victim-centred approach in law enforcement and support services.
  • Enhance prevention mechanisms by targeting the root causes of trafficking, including poverty, lack of employment, and lack of education, through community-based interventions.
  • Invest in training and empowering local law enforcement agencies, NGOs, and community leaders with the skills to analyse and respond to human trafficking trends specific to their regions.
  • Increase the number of female police officers with special training to address the unique needs and vulnerabilities of women and girls in trafficking situations.
  • Invest in Educational Outreach Campaigns to raise awareness about the risks and consequences of involvement in the sex trade, coupled with the effective criminalization of sex trafficking
  • Develop and implement rehabilitation programs tailored to the particular needs of individuals rescued from commercialised prostitution rackets, addressing both physical and psychological recovery.
  • Implement initiatives to challenge and change social norms that perpetuate sexual double standards, particularly those contributing to the exploitation of women and girls.
  • Improve data collection and sharing mechanisms to enhance the understanding of trafficking patterns and support evidence-based policymaking
  • Foster partnerships and consultations with communities and trafficking victims to better understand and address the shortcomings and challenges in existing laws and regulations.
  • Establish comprehensive medical and psychological support systems for trafficking survivors, ensuring their physical and mental well-being through specialised care.
  • Create opportunities for girls in sectors other than the entertainment industry, offering viable alternatives to reduce their vulnerability to trafficking.


We thank Vannina Bozzi-Robadey, Jeanne Delhay, Clémence Hoet & Marine Lambotte, for their proofreading.

Picture: Photo CC BY-SA 2.0 Deed

To quote the article:

HUGOT, L. (2024). Human Trafficking in Asia: a Hidden Scourge. Generation for Rights Over the World. [online] May 2024.

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