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Anti-Trafficking in Southeast Asia

Abstract and Keywords

The positioning of Southeast Asia (comprising Brunei, Cambodia, East Timor, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar or Burma, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam) as an anti-trafficking hub belies the global relevance of regional patterns. The configurations of anti-trafficking vary across countries; however, the specific trends and patterns hold relevance to the region as a whole. For instance, the research on anti-trafficking in Thailand examines the co-constitutive interactions between the illegibility of human trafficking and the growth of the anti-trafficking industry, particularly in relation to market-based interventions. Critical research on Vietnam offers an instructive analysis of the fusion between humanitarianism and punishment that characterizes “rehabilitation” efforts in anti-trafficking. Research on Singapore and Indonesia considers the function of co-constitutive interactions between the hyper-visibility of sex trafficking and the relative invisibility of labor trafficking. In Indonesia—as a country of origin, transit, and destination—the fractured contours of anti-trafficking responses have produced unexpected or unpredictable interactions, marked by competing understandings of what trafficking is and the accountability of differing governmental bodies. Recent research on the Philippines illustrates the use of gendered surveillance in barring the departure of Filipino nationals as a means of “preventing” human trafficking. These patterns demonstrate the uneasy fusions and alliances among humanitarianism, market economies, law enforcement, and border control that mark responses to human trafficking in Southeast Asia.

Keywords: anti-trafficking, counter-trafficking, human trafficking, migration, Southeast Asia, international criminology


The positioning of Southeast Asia as an anti-trafficking hub belies the global relevance of regional patterns. The academic research on anti-trafficking in Southeast Asia specifically is characterized by a few themes explored in this article. On the one hand, dissonance or asymmetry characterizes knowledge produced about human trafficking and anti-trafficking. On the other hand, there are documented parallels between human trafficking and anti-trafficking, particularly in the replication of harms for precarious migrants and women migrant workers (e.g., Empower Foundation, 2012). One could argue that, as fields of research, human trafficking and anti-trafficking are not necessarily on speaking terms, but their resemblance to each other grows stronger as research mounts about the consequences of anti-trafficking measures for migrants, particularly women migrant workers. There still remains an urgent need for more sound, reliable evidence on human trafficking, although this has not prevented the “exponential growth” (Ford, Lyons, & Van Schendel, 2012, p. 2) of the anti-trafficking industry. These dynamics have in some ways resulted in a slippery terrain for researchers. This article offers a useful map of the academic research literature to help scholars navigate what can be a confounding landscape.

First, a note about terminology. Human trafficking as defined in the United Nations 2000 “Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children” (more commonly referred to as the Human Trafficking Protocol or the Palermo Protocol) includes three components: (a) action, such as the recruitment, transportation, or receipt of persons; (b) means, including but not limited to threat or use of force, coercion or deception; for (c) the purpose of exploitation.1 Anti-trafficking refers to the continually expanding responses to human trafficking, including policies, interventions, programming, laws, and campaigns. It could be argued that that there is much more research on anti-trafficking rather than human trafficking, given the expanding growth of the former and the purported difficulties in researching the latter. For the purposes of this article, the regional parameters of Southeast Asia includes Brunei, Cambodia, East Timor, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar (Burma), Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Southeast Asia has attracted considerable attention in relation to human trafficking and anti-trafficking. The growth of the anti-trafficking industry in this region is well documented (e.g., Ford et al., 2012; Piper, 2005), although it remains uncertain how much of this growth is grounded in reliable evidence on the prevalence and nature of human trafficking. Anti-trafficking as an issue has garnered attention at local, national, and regional levels. The scope of anti-trafficking interventions in Southeast Asia is extensive and includes assistance services, policies, laws, guidelines, working groups, fora, and funding bodies. The anti-trafficking industry in Southeast Asia is marked by involvement or importation of anti-trafficking approaches from the West or the Global North. A key driver of the anti-trafficking industry remains the U.S. Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, in which national governments are designated a tier ranking (i.e., Tier 1, Tier 2, Tier 2 Watchlist, Tier 3) assessing their commitment to countering trafficking. A ranking of Tier 2 Watchlist or Tier 3 can result in consequences for the designated state, including jeopardized relations with the US and potential sanctions. The US TIP report has been critiqued for its methodology, its use as a political tool, and the “significant discrepancy between the numbers of observed and estimated victims” (Hoang & Parreñas, 2014, p. 5; also see Gallagher, 2006; Lee, 2014). Rather than providing a methodologically or empirically rigorous assessment of global human-trafficking trends, the US TIP report has been instrumental in producing a performative anti-trafficking practice or anti-trafficking theater. In response to US TIP tier rankings, Southeast Asian states (such as Cambodia, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam, to name a few examples) have hastily implemented anti-trafficking measures that have produced extensive consequences for working-class and precarious migrants, particularly women migrant workers (e.g., Bradley & Szablewska, 2016; Empower Foundation, 2012; Hoang, 2016; Hwang, 2017; Lindquist & Piper, 2007; Shih, 2017; Yea, 2015).

The extent to which the anti-trafficking literature dwarfs the available knowledge about human trafficking soon becomes apparent to any scholar engaging in this area. Critical questions have been raised about the reliability and validity of statistical information about the prevalence of human trafficking (Kempadoo, 2005; Hoang & Parreñas, 2014; Steinfatt, 2011; Wong, 2005), the reliance on anti-trafficking organizations as gatekeepers (Surtees, 2014), and the use of media as a proxy for knowledge (Lindquist, 2010). The still present need for solid research and knowledge about human trafficking has not slowed the “exponential growth” (Ford et al., 2012, p. 2) of anti-trafficking interventions, policies, laws, and other responses. This asymmetry is typically assigned to the inherent challenges in investigating any illicit or criminal activity, although a few scholars have challenged this assumption with in-depth analyses of human traffickers and trafficked persons (Keo, Bouhours, Broadhurst, & Bouhours,2014).

Human Trafficking and Anti-Trafficking

One such exception is Sverre Molland’s (2011, 2012, 2013) research along the Lao-Thai border, including the “material and imaginary realities of both traffickers and anti-traffickers” (Molland, 2013, p. 306). His work on both industries reveals the disjuncture between anti-trafficking imaginaries of human trafficking as a fraught, clandestine, sinister arena juxtaposed with what may more often be mundane, localized, small-scale operations in unassuming neighborhoods (also see Keo et al., 2014 in regards to human traffickers in Cambodia). The generally invisibilized but accessible operations of venues in which human trafficking was occurring presents a telling contrast with the relatively high-profile inaccessibility of anti-trafficking organizations: “One cannot ‘just enter’ a UN compound with the same ease as a seedy karaoke club along the Mekong river” (Molland, 2013, p. 314). His analysis also questions the distance between human trafficking and anti-trafficking. In terms of geographical proximity, he notes venues where human trafficking was occurring that “were located very close to the offices of several anti-trafficking operations. Yet, anti-trafficking programmes seemed oblivious to such proximity” (Molland, 2013, p. 309). In regards to operations, both human traffickers and anti-traffickers demonstrated acts of “bad faith” or self-deception in which both framed their actions in a rhetoric about “helping” migrants (Molland, 2011). These patterns on the Thai-Lao border are the result of a rapid growth of the anti-trafficking sector from the introduction of two anti-trafficking programs in 2000 to more than 30 in 2010 (Molland, 2012). During this period, anti-trafficking evolved from a sector situated within a traditional development framework focused on poverty reduction and rural development to an industry with closer ties to border control and law enforcement (Molland, 2019). As Molland (2019, p. 780) states: “The initiators of anti-trafficking activities who carried out microcredit programmes in the early 2000s would have been puzzled if they had known that, less than 20 years later, former army and police officers would replace them.”

The lack of reliable data about the prevalence of human trafficking in Thailand has not been a deterrent to the growth of the anti-trafficking industry but may actually help fuel it. In other words, an anti-trafficking industry may find greater space to expand in a context where human trafficking is not necessarily legible or discernable. Shih (2017, p. 778) argues that “amidst the plentiful commerce in anti-trafficking work, the actual sites and symptoms of human trafficking and exploitation are rarely legible to transnational voyeurs, rescuers, and humanitarians.” In their study of “reality tours” that purport to give tourists an “authentic” view of human trafficking and anti-trafficking, Bernstein and Shih (2014, p. 450) argue: “Enigmatically, it is the alleged invisibility of human trafficking that makes it an alluring object of consumption for tourists seeking to experience a meaningful alternative to mass tourism.” The presence of an illicit economy of commercial sexual exchange within a country that generally attracts a great deal of tourism, such as Thailand, is uniquely posed to offer anti-trafficking narratives that are tailored for Western consumption. The lack of human trafficking in particular industries and regions did not pose a significant obstacle for anti-trafficking “reality tours” in Thailand. Rather, the continual conflation of sex work and trafficking offered an alluring substitute that could approximate the same mix of “repulsion and attraction” (Bernstein & Shih, 2014, p. 441).

The work by Elena Shih (2017) on the anti-trafficking industry in Thailand provides an invaluable analysis in how Western notions of the East inform the development of anti-trafficking measures. Shih (2014, 2017) details and challenges the social construction of Thailand as a hub for human trafficking, and the foundations of this construction in ideas of the chaotic, erotic Global South. Shih (2017) outlines how the West’s fixation on Thailand has been leveraged by the Thai government to strategically position itself as one of the fastest-growing economies in Southeast Asia. The specific contours of the anti-trafficking industry in Thailand reflect Western notions of an eroticized East to produce interventions that have fused humanitarianism with market economies and tourism. An emblematic example is the development of “training” or “rehabilitation” programs in which purported trafficking victims (such as former sex workers) are trained in making jewelry for Western consumers (Shih, 2014). The emergence of these programs in Thailand speak to broader dynamics relevant to other contexts. Shih’s research goes beyond identifying the conflation of sex work and trafficking to analyze the necessity of this conflation in bolstering asymmetric relations between the East and the West, and the utility of this conflation in producing profitable forms of “reality tourism.”

The forms of market-based humanitarianism catering to Western tourists and consumers present a sharp contrast to research from the targets of anti-trafficking measures in Thailand, such as Thai sex workers. Groundbreaking research from Empower Foundation, a sex worker rights organization in Thailand, includes Hit and Run (2012), a report on the grievous consequences of anti-trafficking measures experienced by Thai sex workers. Due to punitive law-enforcement measures, such as “raid and rescue” operations, surveillance, criminalization, and invasive interventions from healthcare and social welfare systems, Empower Foundation (2012, p. vi) argues “there are more women in the Thai sex industry who are being abused by anti-trafficking practices than there are women being exploited by traffickers.” For example, sex workers reported their fear of a well-known, internationally lauded anti-trafficking shelter: “Sex workers joke about it but we are really scared of being sent to Ban Kred [the shelter] mainly because of its reputation as a ‘prison for prostitutes’” (Empower Foundation, 2012, p. 62). Shelter residents reported being infantilized or made to feel like criminals and experiencing an extensive system of punishments for not adhering to shelter rules and programming (Empower Foundation, 2012). Punishments included being cut off from communication with one’s family or having communication monitored by shelter staff, imposed isolation, and additional cleaning chores (Empower Foundation, 2012). Cancelling family visits was perceived to be a particularly effective punishment by shelter staff: “Seeing family is a reward we can take away if they break the rules—this makes them feel very bad because their families pay a lot of money to come and see them—so this is the most effective punishment for us” (Empower Foundation, 2012, p. 62). Research by organizations such as Empower Foundation offer a necessary and compelling counterforce to academic research that has more often positioned sex workers as the targets rather than the drivers of research. In documenting the harms experienced by sex workers in the name of anti-trafficking, Empower Foundation reveals the ongoing attempts by anti-trafficking stakeholders to refashion sex workers into trafficking victims in need of intervention from local, national, and international stakeholders.

Protection and Punishment

Anti-trafficking in Southeast Asia, as in other regions of the world, is marked by contradiction. One key contranym remains the fusion of protection and punishment of purported victims of human trafficking. The anti-trafficking industry is marked by measures that are, in principle, ostensibly meant to protect and support victims of trafficking, but in practice, may more likely resemble systems of punishment (e.g., Hoang, 2016; Lee, 2014; Segrave, Milivojevic, & Pickering,2009). This includes the use of restricting movement and autonomy in shelters for trafficking victims (Lee, 2014; Segrave et al., 2009); grooming women for downward mobility after forcible removal from the sex industry (Hoang, 2016; Shih, 2014); nonconsensual medical testing (Empower Foundation, 2012); and the use of “raid and rescue” techniques to apprehend suspected victims of trafficking (e.g., Busza, 2004; Empower Foundation, 2012; Segrave et al., 2009) and solicit bribes from detained women (Busza, 2004). The development of the anti-trafficking industry in Cambodia is a particularly stark example of the violations that are perpetuated by anti-traffickers, such as law enforcement and anti-trafficking organizations. In Cambodia, this has included police brutality and harassment, demands for bribes, detention for suspected trafficking victims, and compromised public health and HIV reduction efforts (e.g., Bradley & Szablewska, 2016; Busza, 2004; Maher et al., 2015).

Kimberly Kay Hoang (2016) termed this fusion between humanitarian intervention and law enforcement as “perverse humanitarianism” to describe the capture of sex workers as trafficking victims and the punitive mechanisms developed to “protect” victims of trafficking. In Vietnam, this has included the development of shelters where “victims” of trafficking are trained in manufacturing products to be marketed for ethical consumption in Western countries. As discussed earlier, Shih (2014) illustrates the foundation in market economies and tourism that underpin jewelry-making programs for purported victims of human trafficking and analyses the effect on Western consumers. Hoang (2016) contributes to this literature by unveiling the strategies or means used to maintain production of goods by “victims” for Western markets, and the discipline and surveillance imposed on those who are “rescued” and “retrained” for more moral industries. The presence of humanitarian interventions based on disciplining or refashioning the “moral” worker (i.e., a worker not in the sex industry) underpins market-based anti-trafficking interventions, notably the market for “rescue” products or products made by “rehabilitated” victims of trafficking. Hoang’s (2016, p. 24) analysis of the anti-trafficking industry in Vietnam revealed the choice presented to sex workers between identification as a criminal or as a victim:

Following their arrests, sex workers are either classified as criminals and sent to state-run “rehabilitation” centers where they are detained for up to 18 months without due process and required to take classes and receive vocational training; or they are classified as “victims” in need of rescue who are sent to local NGOs where they can stay for six months or longer and undergo a market-based (Shih, 2013) rehabilitation program before reintegrating into society without a criminal record. In effect, these two options only differ with respect to the length of detention and the mark of a criminal record.

Women perceived little difference between jail and the anti-trafficking shelter. Their reflections detail the surveillance and disciplining embedded in anti-trafficking shelter programming:

Their daily lives were structured by strict rules and routines. They were confined inside facilities with private guards who locked the doors and slept right outside at night to catch those who tried to escape. . . . The women were not allowed outside the facilities without being accompanied by one of the staff members because the director worried that women would try to escape from the NGO. They were socially isolated from their families and friends and limited to one short visit (with families able to travel to the NGO) or one 5-minute phone call per week on Sundays. The women were not allowed to have cell phones, boyfriends, or a social life outside of the NGO. Their daily lives followed a strict routine. Every morning, they were to wake up at 7:00 a.m., clean the house, cook breakfast with items purchased by one of the staff members, and begin a 10-hour workday that involved sewing clothes as “artisans.” They were taught to take pride in each piece they made by signing their name below the logo. These items would later be marketed abroad as fair trade products. Workers were reportedly paid $10 US per item, but the items were priced at $100 US or more for their foreign buyers. . . . They also never saw the accumulation of their earnings because all of the money was kept by the NGO director and sent directly to their hometowns.

(Hoang, 2016, pp. 28–29)

The use of disciplinary techniques to control and refashion a more suitable worker, one that is more suitable to factory work than sex work, has been noted in anti-trafficking shelters in other countries, including Thailand and Cambodia (e.g., Bradley & Szablewska, 2016; Empower Foundation, 2012). The following exchange between Empower Foundation (RATSW) representatives and the senior police of the Anti-trafficking Division in Northern Thailand (Chiang Rai) reveals contrasting views of factory work and sex work:

RATSW: If a woman agrees to go to work in a brothel but ends up sent to a factory and forced to sew, is that trafficking? Would you rescue her?

Police: No that is not trafficking. We wouldn’t rescue her. That is called an opportunity. If she really wanted to she would have to get out herself, come back to the border and start again.”

(Empower Foundation, 2012, p. vii; emphasis added.)

These objectives are ironic given that sex workers were more likely to perceive sex work as an escape from low-paid factory work. The fact that sex workers are captured in anti-trafficking shelters that mimic factory conditions, the same conditions that prompted women’s entry into sex work, speaks to the contradictions in anti-trafficking as well as the links among humanitarianism, law and punishment, and market-based production. As one sex worker detained in a shelter argued: “NGO workers need to leave us alone [and] go save factory workers!” (Hoang, 2016, p. 34).

Classifying Victims and Trafficking

The example discussed aboverefers to the centrality of identity in victim identification in countries of destination (such as Thailand), yet identifying potential victims of trafficking is also attempted in countries of origin before prospective migrants or travelers have left. In the Philippines, this has involved instituting a policy of “offloading” as a strategy to prevent the human trafficking of Filipino nationals before they have left by barring their departure (Hwang, 2018). In practice, this has resulted in institutionalizing surveillance of working-class women applying for tourist visas for other countries, as per emigration policy: “Filipino travelers intending to go to a foreign country with temporary visitor/tourist visas are assessed by the immigration officer on the totality of their circumstances, including their personal capacity to travel, such as appearance, demeanor, current employment, financial capability, etc.” (Philippine Consulate General in Hong Kong as cited in Hwang, 2018, p. 521). This surveillance is grounded in assessing stereotypical markers of class, such as clothing, demeanor, and appearance. Attempts at detecting the potential for human trafficking through scrutinizing women’s appearance, clothing, makeup, and luggage has also been found in countries of destination (e.g., Pickering & Ham, 2014).

The informal screening processes of immigration officers in the Philippines reveals the moral agendas around femininity that undergird state attempts to counter trafficking. Hwang (2018) includes anti-trafficking measures such as these as part of what she calls “gendered border regimes” or the use of gendered and classed assessments of femininity to assess, monitor, and manage movements across borders. The result for working-class women is a greater likelihood of forced immobility. As with other anti-trafficking measures, the restriction of working-class women’s mobility has had the effect of potentially increasing vulnerability to human trafficking. Women have attempted to circumvent such anti-trafficking efforts by seeking riskier travel routes; traveling with male escorts, under the assumption that traveling with a man is less likely to attract scrutiny; and grappling with demands for higher fees from facilitation agents and larger bribes from immigration officers.

The role of discretion in identifying victims of trafficking and the gendered assumptions that infuse the screening of suspected victims has also been in noted in Cambodia (Bradley & Szablewska, 2016) and Thailand (Ham, Segrave, & Pickering, 2013; Segrave et al., 2009), in which identification depends on adherence to a particular profile rather than actions or harm imposed on a person. Or in other words, classifying victimhood by who one is rather than what was done to a person. For instance, anti-trafficking efforts in Cambodia has included an executive decree (the Foreign Marriage Prakas) to prevent Cambodian women from marrying foreign men over the age of 50 who earn less than US$2,500 month (Bradley & Szablewska, 2016). The function of discretion in victim identification also speaks to the competing demands imposed on anti-trafficking stakeholders: “They [officers] are at once required to identify potential victims, while also ensuring they fulfil their obligations in removing illegal non-citizens and upholding the border regime” (Ham et al., 2013, p. 63). The use of discretion speaks to an attempt to manage the dissonance among administrative criteria, migrants’ lived realities, and officers’ observations in the course of their duties (Ham et al., 2013; Pickering & Ham, 2014; Segrave et al., 2009).

The “consequences of classifications” (Yea, 2015, p. 1080) holds true for travelers identified as potential victims of human trafficking (e.g., Ham et al., 2013; Hwang, 2018; Pickering & Ham, 2014) as well as for migrant workers in exploitative work environments (Yea, 2015). The popularity of sex trafficking as an issue or a site for intervention presents a sharp contrast to less recognized forms of human trafficking, notably labor trafficking. This contrast is a well-established pattern in anti-trafficking (e.g., Doezema, 2010; Hoang, 2016; Lindquist & Piper, 2007). Sex trafficking has demonstrated a stronger appeal for many donors compared with labor trafficking (Haynes, 2014; Hoang, 2016), but there may be a more active relationship between the hyper-visibility of sex trafficking and the relative invisibility of labor trafficking. For instance, in Vietnam and Cambodia, it is striking that the interventions for purported sex trafficking victims mimic oppressive factory working conditions that may actually facilitate labor trafficking (Bradley & Szablewska, 2016; Hoang, 2016).

In her analysis of the emergence of the anti-trafficking industry in Singapore, Yea (2015) delves further and argues that this is not a coincidental contrast between two detached phenomena but instead a symbiotic interaction. She argues that a commitment to anti-trafficking poses a dilemma for the Singapore state—that is, how to adhere to international norms about countering human trafficking while maintaining a steady supply of cheap, disposable labor. As she argues, “the location of human trafficking as a labour issue is potentially damaging not only to the reputation of the city-state, but also to one of the founding pillars of its economic ascendancy” (2015, p. 1082). In this context, the promotion of sex trafficking as an issue permits a convenient erasure or minimization of labor trafficking while still offering a site to express commitment to countering human trafficking. Managing this balance has produced a very strategic and selective definition of human trafficking which would exclude most migrant workers experiencing exploitation and therefore remain ineligible for government assistance (Clarke, 2013). Many migrant workers in Singapore may actually qualify as victims of human trafficking based on indicators determined by the International Labour Organization (ILO) (Clarke, 2013; Yea, 2015). However, this would potentially create “a pool of victims that may quickly overflow. This, ultimately, would threaten the migrant labour regime on which the city-state’s continued global aspirations in large part hinge” (Yea, 2015, p. 1086). The positioning of the Singaporean state also markedly differs in relation to sex trafficking and labor trafficking. Whereas the issue of sex trafficking permits the Singaporean state to present itself as a protector and committed to anti-trafficking, the prevalence of labor trafficking positions Singapore as a potential enabler or facilitator of human trafficking. This may in part explain the state’s enthusiasm to “tackle” sex trafficking (despite a lack of substantive evidence) compared with the political reluctance to address labor trafficking.

Indonesia presents a terrain in which to examine human trafficking and anti-trafficking as a country of origin, transit, and destination. Indonesian nationals, both men and women, have been trafficked in industries including construction, factories, agriculture, plantations, fishing, domestic work, cleaning services, and sexual exploitation (Surtees, 2003, 2018). Indonesian nationals have been trafficked to countries including Bahrain, Ghana, Jordan, Malaysia, Mauritius, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Africa, South Korea, Syria, Taiwan, Trinidad and Tobago, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Uruguay, and within Indonesia (Surtees, 2018; Surtees & Zulbahary, 2018). The viability of an isolated, siloed, anti-trafficking approach quickly proves untenable in the Indonesian context where, for example, the state and labor-migration industry may benefit from trafficking-related practices, while groups that are more commonly demonized, such as smugglers and “illegal migrants,” may have their vulnerabilities and exploitation made legible through an anti-trafficking lens.

Similar to Singapore, a genuine, comprehensive commitment to anti-trafficking in Indonesia would demand an unsettling examination of the trafficking-related practices embedded in the country’s labor-migration infrastructure. Indonesia is a key sending country for migrant domestic workers, and concerns have been raised about the trafficking-related practices embedded in the labor-migration infrastructure to facilitate the deployment of migrant domestic workers to other countries (e.g., Palmer, 2012; Surtees, 2003). These practices include the extensive and routine falsification of identification documents to increase the eligibility of migrant domestic workers for jobs abroad, the containment of women in “training centers” while they wait for deployment, excessive fees, debt bondage, and a tolerance of exploitative work environments (e.g., Palmer, 2012; Surtees, 2003). As Palmer (2012, p. 149) argues: “In the context of Indonesia’s labour migration programme, the state tolerates illegal practices that help to meet the formal objectives of documenting migrant workers and maximizing deployments.” Countering trafficking in this context would require a substantive reconfiguration of the labor-recruitment industry.

Anti-trafficking responses in Indonesia are noted for their fragmentation and disjunction. The fractured contours of anti-trafficking responses in Indonesia has produced some unexpected or unpredictable interactions, marked by competing understandings on what trafficking is and the accountability of differing governmental bodies. For example, this has resulted in the outsourcing of migration management to anti-trafficking NGOs (Lyons & Ford, 2013), including the processing of returnee undocumented migrants or Indonesian nationals returning through unauthorized channels from undocumented labor migration abroad (Ford & Lyons, 2013) and increasing competition among NGOs for “victims” (Lindquist, 2013; Lindquist & Piper, 2007). The anti-trafficking framework has also jeopardized HIV reduction efforts among sex workers in Indonesia through the enduring conflation of sex work and trafficking (Lindquist & Piper, 2007; Lyons & Ford, 2010).

The potential trafficking of Indonesian nationals or the role of Indonesia as a sending country has attracted considerable attention given the number of nationals that are deployed for labor migration, particularly domestic work. However, the role of Indonesia as a receiving country for precarious or forced migrants, particularly asylum seekers en route to other countries, such as Australia, reveals complex interactions among human trafficking, human smuggling, and illegal migration. This is perhaps most clearly illustrated in the trafficking of human smugglers (Missbach & Sinanu, 2014; Palmer & Missbach, 2017) as in the case of Hidayah, a male youth who was conscripted to assist in the human smuggling of asylum seekers in transit through Indonesia from 2012-2015 (Palmer & Missbach, 2017). In the course of his duties, he was deceived about the terms and conditions about his payment. As Palmer and Missbach (2017, p. 291) note: “Although they [underage human smugglers] do participate in migrant smuggling voyages, their recruitment often resembles trafficking, as it is characterized by deception and false promises, by a lack of comprehensive knowledge about the journeys and passengers, and by exploitation of their socio-economic precarity.” The reported prevalence of underage youth in assisting human smuggling operations and the vulnerabilities they experience during that process illustrate the interactions between trafficking and smuggling and raises questions about whether such individuals would be legally recognized as a victim of human trafficking or a human smuggling offender.

Envisioning an Ethical Approach to Anti-Trafficking

Although there is a global consensus of the harms produced by the anti-trafficking industry, the fact remains that responses are still required to counter human trafficking. This raises the question of what would an ethical anti-trafficking approach look like? The Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (2007) has called for an ethical anti-trafficking framework grounded in (a) an evidence-based approach and (b) a rights-based approach. The shift to evidence and rights speaks to two foci that have bedeviled anti-trafficking stakeholders: the prevalence of inaccurate and unreliable statistical information about human trafficking and the use of repressive anti-trafficking approaches to curtail rights for migrant workers and sex workers. As discussed in this article, research on human trafficking and anti-trafficking is characterized by asymmetry and dissonance. Reconfiguring anti-trafficking into a framework that is capable of responding to lived experiences of trafficking, and strengthening rights rather than jeopardizing them, would require greater recognition and inclusion of the knowledge produced by trafficked persons, sex workers, migrant workers, and other affected groups. This would include a move toward basing “policies on evidence collected from trafficked persons and other migrants who have experienced abuse and also from others who have first-hand experience of the counter-productive effects of anti-trafficking and anti-immigration measures” (Dottridge, 2007, p. 21). It would also include research produced by sex workers, migrant workers, and other affected groups, such as Empower Foundation’s (2012) Hit and Run, and feminist participatory action research on the process of reclaiming one’s identity after trafficking by Self-Empowerment Program for Migrant Women (SEPOM), an organization led by returnee migrant women in Thailand (Self-Empowerment Program for Migrant Women, 2010).

Positioning trafficked persons, sex workers, migrant workers, and migrants as stakeholders rather than targets of anti-trafficking also creates a space for other rights-based movements to counter trafficking. Given the growing harms produced by a criminal-justice-based anti-trafficking framework, it may be that the most effective responses to human trafficking are not necessarily through anti-trafficking but through a labor rights framework, a migrant rights framework, or a sex worker rights framework. Sex worker rights organizations have been at the forefront of documenting the harms of anti-trafficking for sex workers and the failure of anti-trafficking in reaching and assisting actual victims of trafficking (e.g., Empower Foundation, 2012, 2016; Overs & Hawkins, 2011). Transnational advocacy networks (TANs) centered on gender and migration also offer important vehicles for directly affected groups (Piper & Uhlin, 2002). The centering of directly affected groups in developing ethical anti-trafficking approaches would represent a profound shift for a sector in which efforts are still more likely to be driven by hasty state responses to low tier rankings in the US TIP report. The impact of the US TIP report in instigating or coercing national responses to human trafficking is undeniable. However, a review of anti-trafficking interventions in Southeast Asia strongly suggests that the US TIP report is much more likely to catalyze a performative anti-trafficking grounded in the control and containment of vulnerable populations, rather than an ethical approach to anti-trafficking, informed by the perspectives and experiences of those most affected by human trafficking and anti-trafficking.

Further Reading

Kempadoo, K., Sanghera, J., & Pattanaik, B. (Eds.). (2012). Trafficking and prostitution reconsidered (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Paradigm.Find this resource:

    Yea, S. (Ed.) (2014). Human trafficking in Asia: Forcing issues. Oxon, UK: Routledge.Find this resource:


      Bernstein, E., & Shih, E. (2014). The erotics of authenticity: Sex trafficking and “reality tourism” in Thailand. Social Politics, 21(3), 430.Find this resource:

        Bradley, C., & Szablewska, N. (2016). Anti-trafficking (ILL-)efforts: The legal regulation of women’s bodies and relationships in Cambodia. Social & Legal Studies, 25(4), 461–488.Find this resource:

          Busza, J. (2004). Sex work and migration: The dangers of oversimplification: A case study of Vietnamese women in Cambodia. Health and Human Rights,7(2), 231–249.Find this resource:

            Clarke, L. (2013). Behind closed doors: Trafficking into domestic servitude in Singapore. The Equal Rights Review, 10, 33–58.Find this resource:

              Doezema, J. (2010). Sex slaves and discourse masters: The construction of trafficking. London, UK: Zed Books.Find this resource:

                Dottridge, M. (2007). Introduction. In Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (Ed.), Collateral damage: The impact of anti-trafficking measures on human rights around the world (pp. 1–27). Bangkok, Thailand: GAATW.Find this resource:

                  Empower Foundation. (2012). Hit and run: The impact of anti-human trafficking policy and practice on sex workers human rights in Thailand. Bangkok, Thailand: Empower University Press.Find this resource:

                    Empower Foundation. (2016). Moving toward decent sex work: Sex worker community research, decent work and exploitation in Thailand. Bangkok, Thailand: Empower University Press.Find this resource:

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