JOURNAL | INDONESIA 360 by: Atin Prabandari and AAI Diah Tricesaria

Last May and June, Southeast Asia suffered its biggest migrant crisis since the Indochina Refugee Crisis of the 1970s. Thousands of Rohingya refugees and Bangladeshi migrants were stranded in the Andaman Sea and Malacca Strait in atrocious conditions, without adequate food and water and suffering physical and mental abuse at the hands of their human traffickers. After being abandoned at sea, their boats were rejected or turned away by Indonesia and Malaysia in what was described as a game of “maritime Ping-Pong,” before both countries, under growing international pressure, finally agreed to provide temporary shelter to more than 5,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshis.

Regrettably, the international response was mainly directed toward humanitarian efforts to mitigate the impacts of the crisis. Some efforts were also put toward addressing the root causes of the crisis, including the Myanmar government’s discriminative policies toward Rohingya Muslims and poor economic conditions in Bangladesh.

Little attention, however, was given to the intermediary causes that triggered the crisis. One should not forget that the crisis emerged as a result of the Thai authorities’ crackdown on one of the biggest human trafficking networks in Southeast Asia, following the discovery of mass graves in illegal trafficking camps on the Thai-Malaysian border. The panicked traffickers had no option but to use sea routes instead of the usual overland routes. When the crackdown continued at sea, the traffickers abandoned the boats, leaving their passengers to die and setting off a regional crisis that received global media coverage.

What played out, sadly, is just the tip of the iceberg. Human trafficking in Southeast Asia is huge in scale, deep and chronic. There are a myriad of complex trafficking networks involving many actors in different roles. There have been many efforts at the national, subregional, regional and interregional levels to combat human trafficking, but they have not significantly reduced the magnitude and sheer number of human trafficking operations and victims.

We argue that there are at least four factors that contribute to the difficulties in combating human trafficking in Southeast Asia. The first is related to a lack of consensus among decision makers on how to understand human trafficking. The second is the lack of adequate judicial and legal systems, and substandard law enforcement at the national level within the region, especially related to corruption and the involvement of high-ranking officials in trafficking. Third, there is a lack of synergy and coordination among the multiple actors involved in countertrafficking efforts, and fourth, there is a lack of leadership in coordinating regional efforts. Therefore, we contend that Indonesia’s leadership will be crucial in dealing with this scourge.

The state of human trafficking

Both human trafficking and people (and/or migrant) smuggling fall under the category of transnational crime. However, the most significant difference is that victims of human trafficking are victims of fraud who are in most cases forced and threatened into slavery in various industries that require low-skilled labor or into the sex trade. People smuggling, meanwhile, is a transactional agreement between the smuggled person and the smuggler. The deal ends as soon as the smuggled migrant arrives at his destination.

Human trafficking victims face coercion and violence to work off a debt occurring from an agreement that they did not necessarily understand or sign on to. Unlike people smuggling, a person doesn’t have to be moved across geographical borders to become a human trafficking victim. It is important to note that human trafficking is not smuggling people or migrants, but smuggling people or migrants could lead to and end up as human trafficking.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has formulated three core elements in defining human trafficking:

  1. The act (of what is done) through the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons.
  2. The means with the use of threats, force, coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, abuse of power or vulnerability, or giving payments or benefits to a person in control of the victim.
  3. The purpose, such as exploitation of sex workers, slave labor or similar practices.

The forms of human trafficking vary, especially in the contemporary world. One of the earliest forms of human trafficking involved conquering or occupying military forces forcing victims of war – women and children – into sexual slavery. This form of human trafficking, especially upon women, is a legacy of World War I and World War II. Today, with massive global economic growth and increased development, there is growing demand for low-skilled labor at cheap rates, in particular given rising production costs. The race to the bottom, where manufacturing companies try to spend the least by getting low-skilled labor at minimum wages and putting them in dangerous work environments, is spreading, in particular within developing economies. 

Indeed, the most detectable forms of human trafficking are sexual exploitation and forced labor. The UNODC’s 2014 Global Report on Trafficking in Persons noted that as many as 53 percent of detected trafficking victims were sexually exploited, 40 percent did forced labor and 7 percent were put to other uses including as child soldiers and street beggars. There were even trafficking victims – 0.3 percent of the total – who had their organs forcibly removed and sold on the black market. The data was taken from 124 countries from 2010 to early 2014. Not surprisingly, most victims were women (49 percent) and girls (21 percent). 

In Southeast Asia, many say that poverty and economic disparity among and within countries are the main drivers of human trafficking. Nearly all of the 10 member nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) play a role either as sender, receiver, transit point or all of the above. In 2010, the US State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report stated that, if there was a ranking for regional blocs in human trafficking, Asean would have a Tier 3 rating – the lowest possible ranking, clearly indicating that little has been done by governments in Southeast Asia to combat human trafficking. Out of the 10 member nations of Asean, nine are on a list where human trafficking is categorized as going unchecked. (In the most recent report, released in July, Malaysia was controversially upgraded to Tier 2, while Myanmar remained at Tier 2 and Thailand was at Tier 3.)

In general, the pattern of trafficking and smuggling within the Asean region is pretty clear. There are two major overlapping regions of interest: the Mekong region and the Malaysian archipelago. They overlap because, in many cases, traffickers portray themselves as migrant smugglers but the trip ends with slavery and exploitation. In 2010 alone, as much as 40 percent of the movement of migrants in these regions was unrecorded, implying an increase in human trafficking, according to a paper published by Kelsey Lee of American University in Washington. The main source countries for people who end up as trafficking victims are Myanmar, Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines are seen as source, transit and destination countries, while Singapore is suspected of receiving women forced into being sex workers. 

Although almost all Asean member countries have expressed doubts about the reliability of US government reports on human trafficking, it is undeniable that there exists a “push” and “pull” model. The Mekong region is the least developed region within Asean. Of five Asean member countries situated there, only Thailand has reasonably high economic growth, while Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam are still struggling. Obviously, poverty is the main “push” factor in illegal migrant movements. Most human trafficking cases occurring in these countries started as an agreement to smuggle the poor to another country. Traffickers from Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar mainly send victims to Thailand, which has a more developed economy and high demand for cheap, low-skilled labor, thus acting as the “pull” factor.

In recent decades, human trafficking has consistently been triggered by political instability such as in Myanmar; similarities of language between Laos and Thailand and their long, open and largely unprotected joint border; and even rising supply and demand following Cambodia’s emergence from isolation and war in the early 1990s. In addition, growing industries in the Mekong region also are a significant pull factor for human trafficking, such as the region’s ballooning tourism sector, which requires both sex workers and cheap labor to build tourism-related infrastructure.

By 2004, Asean itself finally acknowledged human trafficking as an “emerging regional problem” threatening its commitment to human development, security and improving the quality of life of its peoples. 

Existing measures

There are agreements on various levels among governments and nongovernmental actors in Southeast Asia on combating human trafficking. One of the earliest regional initiatives was the Bangkok Declaration on Irregular Migration in 1999. The declaration came out of the “International Symposium on Migration: Toward Regional Cooperation on Irregular/Undocumented Migration,” initiated by the government of Thailand in cooperation with the International Organization for Migration (IOM). The initiative was followed by several other regional commitments such as the Asia-Pacific Consultation, which expanded commitments to the region, the Manila Process and the Asian Regional Initiative Against Trafficking in Women and Children.

Asean, as the only regional organization in Southeast Asia, also paid attention by issuing the 1997 Asean Declaration on Transnational Crime and the 1999 Asean Plan of Action to Combat Transnational Crime, and by creating the Asean Center on Transnational Crime. Subregional projects included the 2004 Coordinated Mekong Ministerial Initiative Against Trafficking, which involved Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. There was also the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime, an interregional initiative co-chaired by Indonesia and Australia, which started in 2002 and was still very active until recently.

Despite the various regional efforts, human trafficking has not been reduced significantly. To deal with the matter, we believe, decision makers should place more emphasis on the following:

First, they must be aware of the lack of consensus on the definition of human trafficking. An IOM report in 2000 acknowledged the lack of an exact definition of trafficking and how it should be applied. This could lead to difficulties in collecting comparable data. Another problem in defining human trafficking is that some leaders might see the problem as merely a migration issue, thus giving a false perception that trafficking victims are illegal migrants. This could result in “double victimization,” with victims being treated as a national threat, criminalized and not given the necessary protection they deserve. There are also multidimensional ways of seeing trafficking, for example as a human rights, employment or human security issue. We argue that a more united and consensual view must emerge within the region so that the response to the trafficking scourge is more effective.

Second, at the national level, many Southeast Asian countries have not been applying necessary legal and judicial frameworks to deal with human trafficking. Many of them might have signed the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime and the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, but few have ratified them and made them part of their national regulations. Also, rarely mentioned in the fight against trafficking is the lack of law enforcement in these countries and the high levels of corruption.

Third, even though there are various international, governmental and nongovernmental actors involved in the countertrafficking efforts, there remains a lack of concerted attempts and synergy among actors. Given the multidimensional, cross-cutting and cross-boundary nature of the trafficking issue, awareness, support and teamwork are vital. On the national level, for example, a government’s policies must go hand in hand with the work of civil society in combating trafficking. The transborder nature of trafficking networks makes interstate cooperation and coordination inevitable, and as such regional frameworks are essential. Internationally, there is also a need to establish firm goals and encourage leading nations such as the United States to assist other countries in combating trafficking.

Fourth, it is inescapable that more synergy and concerted efforts in the region require strong leadership, especially from within the region itself. A natural leader, or primus inter pares (“first among equals”), in Southeast Asia would play a significant role in guiding coordinated efforts. 

Leadership is important  

Indonesia is a main source country and, to a lesser extent, also a destination country, especially relating to sex trafficking and forced labor involving children, women and men. Indonesians are being trafficked domestically and transnationally. According to the IOM, the main domestic destination for Indonesian trafficking victims is Batam Island in Riau Islands Province, while internationally they mostly land in Malaysia. Most trafficking victims arriving in Indonesia come from Uzbekistan, China, Thailand and other Central Asian and Eastern European countries.

Indonesia remained as a Tier 2 country in the 2015 US Department of State’s Trafficking in Person Report, indicating countries that do not comply with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s minimum standards but have made significant efforts to do so. Indonesia has signed international protocols such as the United Nation Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime and the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, but has not ratified those protocols yet. That said, in 2007 Indonesia passed an anti-trafficking bill that regulated debt bondage, labor exploitation and transnational and internal trafficking.


Despite Indonesia’s average score it does have the potential to lead concerted regional efforts and synergies in combating trafficking in Southeast Asia, for the following reasons.

First, Indonesia has been long known as the natural leader in the region. It was one of the early initiators of the establishment of Asean in 1967. As a leader, Indonesia has gained respect within the region and its influence has enabled it to mediate conflicts such as the dispute between Malaysia and the Philippines over Sabah in 1968, the Cambodian civil war, Myanmar’s Cyclone Nargis humanitarian crisis and the Thailand-Cambodia conflict over the Preah Vihear temple in 2011. This positive record gives Indonesia the potential to be a leader in countertrafficking efforts.

Second, becoming an initiator or agent of change is not a new thing for Indonesia. Indonesia has actively led Asean’s institutional and normative development since its inception. Examples include the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, the Bali Concord I and the “Towards an Asean Security Community” document that became the embryo of the 2003 Bali Concord II. Indonesia also led the effort to institutionalize human rights norms in Asean through the establishment of the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights and the Asean Human Rights Declaration. As such, Indonesia can also initiate more robust and viable efforts in dealing with trafficking in the region.

And third, Indonesia is a maritime country with 33,400 miles of coastline and 17,000 islands. This makes Indonesia vulnerable as an area for irregular and illegal maritime movements, but also gives it the operational experience to secure its borders by actively controlling and managing sea movements. Indonesian President Joko Widodo has announced an ambitious vision of Indonesia as a “global maritime axis,” showing a willingness to take maritime security issues seriously.

It’s logical for Indonesia to strengthen its maritime security, increasing efforts against piracy, illegal fishing, people smuggling and, of course, human trafficking. Indonesia can certainly make a significant contribution to, and be a shining example of, reinvigorating the fight against human trafficking in Southeast Asia.



Atin Prabandari is a lecturer at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta and a researcher at the Center for Southeast Asian Social Studies.

AAI Diah Tricesaria is a junior information and advocacy officer for the Jesuit Refugee Service, based in Cisarua, West Java.  

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