Cambodia, China, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand,Vietnam

Unlike drug trafficking or human smuggling, revenues are ongoing and potentially long-term, as the benefits of another person’s ‘labour’ are appropriated indefinitely.  Rather than hinder the business, authorities often help, inadvertently or intentionally, through targeting not the owners but the victims themselves, as illegal migrants (and/or illegal sex workers), and/or the small-scale, ‘trafficker’ or people-mover.  The “people-movers”, mostly women, are generally poor, easily replaceable and sometimes even unknowing links in a larger process.  The owners – those who generally oversee the worst abuses and who stand to make the most profit – are often over-looked, some practitioners even suggesting that these owners fall outside the rubric of trafficking responses.  In a particularly perverse aspect of the business, even well-meaning members of the public, giving money to small children begging and selling flowers, are contributing to this trafficking ‘business’.  In the GMS, where estimates of trafficked victims range into the hundreds of thousands, there are few cases of any of these owners being brought to justice.


Definition: The United Nations defines trafficking as “… the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring, or receipt of persons, by means of threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments and benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person for the purposes of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation or the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.” 

In short, trafficking can be seen as the illegal trading of men, women and children for the purpose of exploiting their labour.


For those who stand to benefit from this crime, human trafficking remains almost the perfect business. Supply is constant, with large numbers of people crossing countries and borders in search of better opportunities, and intermediaries along the way willing to deliver them to factories, brothels, fishing boats and private homes, or onto the streets to beg. Costs are low, and mostly include an initial one-off investment to ‘buy’ the victim, or a loan to pay back the debt they have incurred in transit, to be recovered at extortionist rates – plus perhaps a small, regular ‘tax’ to law enforcement authorities. For those at the end of the trafficking chain, human trafficking - – is almost the perfect business.  Supply is constant, with large numbers of people crossing countries and borders in search of better opportunities, and lots of intermediaries willing to deliver them to factories, brothels, fishing boats and private homes, or onto the streets to beg.

Conceptually, trafficking – a crime against individuals - continues to be confused with smuggling – a crime against the state, rather than equated more accurately with slavery (the term ‘trafficking’ itself implying movement but not the exploitative aspects).  In some areas, trafficking is equated solely with prostitution, ignoring the range of other end points and dividing anti-trafficking efforts between those who seek to eradicate the sex trade and those who seek, to the extent possible, to reduce the harm within it.

 The global response to human trafficking is in a nascent stage and to date has been characterised more by lessons learnt than major success stories.  Although the GMS is widely regarded as a leader in terms of the developing world, progress in this region has also been limited to date in overall terms. Considerably more is now known, however, about this issue and what needs to be done to address it.

Trafficking in the Greater Mekong Sub-Region

Growing international focus and a growing number of projects in the GMS do not yet appear to have had a significant impact on the reduction of human trafficking.  Poor regulatory frameworks, poorly targeted law enforcement and limited recognition of the rights of many groups have put a large number of people in extremely vulnerable situations.  Poverty and economic disparities between countries, limited job prospects in many rural areas, and lack of safe migration channels have further contributed to increasing vulnerabilities and risks.  Despiteits horrendous consequences on victims (consequences which include rape, physical and emotional abuse, torture, severe health risks, discrimination, exploitation and even death), trafficking in the GMS remains by and large a profitable and almost risk-free business.

 While trafficking is always for the purpose of exploitation, exploitation takes many forms.  In the GMS, children are trafficked from Cambodia to beg or sell flowers on the streets of Thailand.  Adults and young people in search of better opportunities come to Thailand from Myanmar, Lao PDR and Cambodia and find themselves in factories, brothels, houses or fishing boats, in debt bondage or physically unable to escape.  Single Vietnamese women go to China in search of marriage, to find themselves sold as domestic slaves.  Newly married Vietnamese women go to Taiwan to find their husband is actually a pimp.  Chinese boys, and increasingly those on the other side of the Vietnamese and Myanmar borders, are stolen to be sold to those looking to adopt a son.  Cambodian babies are abducted and adopted to well-meaning couples from the United States, unsuspecting that their $20,000 adoption fee has fuelled demand for non-orphaned babies and can easily cover all necessary bribes.

 As the nature of trafficking varies, so too does the nature of traffickers, ranging from those in organised networks able to produce or buy fake documents, clear immigration requirements for their victims, and conduct trafficking operations spanning thousands of kilometres, to indviduals seizing an opportunity to cheat, sweet-talk or coerce their victim into a situation of exploitation.

 Most activities to date have tended to focus on supply-side interventions, helping communities to protect themselves against trafficking by offering choices and alternatives, supporting education of children and adults as well as improved protection mechanisms at community level. However, trafficking is a dynamic phenomenon and traffickers can quickly adjust to changing environments.  Research from several countries has indicated that some community-level trafficking interventions which appear successful on the surface may simply be shifting the problem from one community to another, leading to a displacement in trafficking rather than an overall reduction.  This is sometimes referred to as the ‘push-down, pop-up’ phenomenon.

 It is now clear that efforts to reduce trafficking must concentrate simultaneously on two other fronts:

 The demand side – reducing avenues for exploitation through improved law enforcement mechanisms, reduction of official corruption, increasing the risk faced by those involved in trafficking, and establishment of avenues for redress for victims.  In the longer-term, programmes must also look to combat prejudices in terms of race, gender and class which create an enabling environment in which the gross exploitation inherent in human trafficking is able to persist.

 The institutional side – creating channels for safe migration, improve the terms and conditions of employment.