Go to top of page

Trends and issues in east and south Asia

Regional trends and issues

Australia is a destination country for victims of trafficking who come mainly from Asia. A number of countries in this region have been rated as ‘high’ or ‘very high’ as both source and destination countries, reflecting wide-scale intraregional trafficking (UNODC 2006).

Alongside developing a domestic response, the Australian Government has a vested interest in building a picture of trafficking in the region and is working to address the problem through numerous offshore activities. For a number of operational purposes, DIAC and the AFP have liaison officers posted to key regional locations. They maintain strong links to local immigration and law enforcement by providing both operational assistance and relevant training.

In conjunction with these activities, the Australian Government provides funding through AusAID to various projects and organisations for development purposes. Some of the funded programs assist efforts to combat trafficking in persons and other transnational crimes in the region. In doing so, the Australian Government has a strong interest in the developments and emerging issues of neighbouring countries. This regional focus stems in part from the identification of Australia as a key destination country in the region.

In 2008, the second year of the AIC’s research program, there was a focus on key trends and issues regarding trafficking in persons in the south and east Asia regions. This included a scoping of migration trends in the region, the nature and manifestation of transnational organised crime, and related areas such as the use of international marriage as a tool for trafficking women. The results yielded distinct patterns in the nature and process of people trafficking:

  • Trafficking movement patterns—In both south and east Asia, trafficking generally flows from less developed to developing countries and onwards to the most developed areas in the region. India operates as a hub in the south Asia region because of its geographic location, large sex industry and level of corruption.
  • Offenders and facilitators—Making the transition from trafficked person to trafficker is known to occur in the Asia region as in others and one study of trafficked Nepalese girls in India found several instances in which trafficked Nepalese women whose period of slavery or debt bondage had ended were able to purchase their own tsukris (a person in slavery or debt bondage) and operate brothels (TDMIF 2005). Corruption is known to play a role in trafficking in several regions, and this is the case within south Asia, where police and politicians often work for traffickers.
  • Nature of offending—Language and cultural similarities among neighbouring areas, specifically Bangladesh and India, affect the control mechanisms exhibited by traffickers in the south Asia region. Because of their familiarity with the language. Bangladeshi women traffiicked into India are often controlled through physical confinement, social stigma and debt bondage as opposed to cultural and linguistic isolation which is common among other regions. In east Asia it is evident that traffickers use isolation resulting from language barriers, fear of prosecution, concern about immigration status and deportation, and threats against family members in the source country as a means to control their victims. It seems that the use of these methods is multiregional. Further, in east Asia there appears to be a link between the ethnicity of the trafficker and the victim. For example, North Korean refugees in China are exploited by ethnic Koreans with Chinese citizenship.
  • Response to trafficking—Government responses in countries within south Asia concentrate on the trafficking of women and children for sexual exploitation to the exclusion of trafficking in men or trafficking for forced labour, resulting in a gender bias where men are invariably ‘migrants’ and women in the sex industry are ‘trafficking victims’. This is also the focus in east Asia, even though there appears to be a larger degree of trafficking for forced labour in this region.

Trends and issues in the east Asia region

For the purposes of this report, the east Asia region includes the People’s Republic of China, including the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) and Macau SAR; Japan; Taiwan; Mongolia; the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea); and the Republic of Korea (South Korea).

A considerable proportion of known trafficking victims in Australia originate from the east Asia region. As at 30 June 2011, 20 percent (n=31 persons) of clients of Support for Victims of People Trafficking originated from the east Asia region. The majority were trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation.

People trafficking in the east Asia region is characterised by a large degree of intraregional trafficking from less developed to the more developed countries in the region (UNODC 2006; see Figure 4). Victims from the region are less commonly trafficked to Western countries such as Australia, Canada and the United States. While 20 percent of identified trafficked persons in Australia originated from east Asia, only 9.2 percent of reported trafficking cases in the US involved a victim of Asian background (US Department of State 2009).

There are various factors in the region relevant to people trafficking, including transnational organised crime networks, marriage arrangements and migration patterns.

Figure 4: Overview of intraregional trafficking patterns

 figure 4

Source: based on UNODC 2006

Transnational crime and organised criminal networks

The types of networks involved in trafficking migrants are said to exist on a spectrum from ‘cottage industry’ style (Marshall 2001) to the more sophisticated Chinese triad and Japanese yakuza organisations (Di Nicola 2005). The extent to which organised crime networks are involved in people trafficking remains unclear, although it has been surmised that the greater the number of countries through which a person must pass to reach the destination, the more sophisticated and organised the criminal network is required to be (Di Nicola 2005).

Similarly, the involvement of organised crime in people trafficking in east Asia is largely unknown. The matter of most concern to law enforcement officials, however, is the possible extension of the current activities of organised crime groups to include people trafficking. Current case reports indicate that the recruitment of victims in the source countries is mainly undertaken by nationals of those regions. These people then sell the victims on to organised groups who undertake to transport them to their destination country (see, for example, MGEC 2007). The victims are then sold to individual exploiters, who may purchase a number of victims to be used for marriage, sexual exploitation or forced labour. This would indicate that there are few instances of organised groups dominating the entire process of recruitment, transport and exploitation but that there are increasingly specialised groups undertaking discrete portions of the process.

An exception to this finding is Japan, where there are strong links between the boryokudan organised crime groups, including the indigenous Japanese yakuza, and people trafficking. This supports organisation theory, which states that the more developed the destination country, the more organised the traffickers must become. This in turn raises the costs of trafficking, forcing the traffickers to exploit their victims further to maintain the same degree of profit (Chisholm 2009). This can be seen in the increasing cost of trafficking women from developing to developed countries. A North Korean victim may be sold in Beijing to a brothel for CHN¥10,000–¥20,000 (A$1,625–A$3,250) (Kim et al. 2009). However, a victim sold in South Korea may cost ₩13.5m (A$13,006) (Choi 2006), while in Japan they may cost as much as ¥1m–¥3m (A$12,337–A$37,010) (SAP-FL 2004).

Marriage arrangements and trafficking

The role that marriage can play in the trafficking of women is an issue of concern in the east Asia region, as it is in other parts of the world (including south Asia). International marriage is part of a wider gendered migration process informed by cultural and societal norms about the institution of marriage. In general, there are a number of ways in which marriage may be used in the trafficking of persons. Fraudulent marriage, forced or servile marriage, international and online marriage brokering and arranged marriages have all been identified as enabling women to be trafficked into a variety of exploitative situations.

It should be noted, however, that arranged marriages, customary marriage practices or marriages that have been formed through online dating and introductory services are not in and of themselves trafficking or exploitative. These types of marriage arrangements can protect people from being trafficked and exploited. Conversely, in some cases such marriages have been found to increase vulnerability.

Fraudulent or sham marriage

A fraudulent marriage is one where there is no intention on the part of one or both of the spouses to participate in a genuine relationship as husband and wife. It is used primarily as a method for circumventing immigration controls in the destination country. For example, there are reports of Colombian women being trafficked to Japan after being ‘married’ to homeless Japanese men whose personal information has been collected by the yakuza (SAP-FL 2004). The victim may or may not be aware that the marriage is not genuine, or even that they are ‘married’. Once the woman has entered the destination country she is placed in a situation of exploitation in a range of possible commercial or private settings and industries, often involving slavery, domestic servitude, the abuse of sexual services and/or the abuse of labour.

Forced and servile marriage

Forced marriage occurs where full and free consent by both parties does not exist, often as the result of coercion or deceit. In east Asia, trafficking for forced marriage is known to occur when migrant women have been unwillingly married to men who are unable to find a wife locally. This situation is a familiar occurrence in China, where the one child policy has resulted in a large gender gap (US Department of State 2009; Zhao 2003). The women are sourced mainly from neighbouring developing countries, such as Mongolia, Burma and Cambodia. If defined as a servile marriage according to the UN Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery, forced marriage may be considered trafficking under Article 3 of the UN Trafficking Protocol (Bokhari 2008).

Servile marriage refers to situations in which a person is considered a chattel that can be sold, transferred or inherited into marriage. Article 1 of the UN supplementary convention defines servile marriage as a practice similar to slavery (Bokhari 2008; von Doussa 2007). Servile marriage is therefore trafficking in persons under Article 3 of the Trafficking Protocol.

Trafficking involving marriage: Barriers to exiting

A number of factors specific to trafficking involving marriage restrict the trafficked person’s capacity to leave a situation and seek help, particularly if the victim believes the marriage to be genuine. These include the possible private or domestic nature of the setting into which they are trafficked and exploited; the unwillingness of the victim to speak out against their spouse; cultural shame related to being divorced; and personal embarrassment as a result of being deceived, especially if the victim has formed an emotional attachment to the perpetrator over a significant period and has hopes for and expectations of a happily married life.

Migration in east Asia

While organised crime and the prevalence of international marriage are relevant factors, the trafficking of persons in the region also must be seen within the context of large-scale regional migration.

Migration in the region is growing at a phenomenal rate. The number of migrants in the region has grown by over 30 percent, from 4,985,700 persons in 1995 to 6,497,200 in 2005. This compares to a population increase in the region of only 7.4 percent. The major migrant exporters are China, with a net migration loss of 390,000 persons, and the Philippines, with a net loss of 130,000 persons. The primary destination for these migrants is Japan, with a net gain of 54,000 persons, followed by Hong Kong SAR, with a gain of 60,000 persons (Akaha 2009). According to Akaha this flow is due to:

… a culmination of wide-ranging demographic patterns, population trends, economic developments, and social changes, as well disparate policies of the countries in the region and beyond. As a result, the system is prone to produce sizeable irregular and illegal migration flows that remain outside of the legal channels and administrative protections of the region’s governments (Akaha 2009: 14).

The majority of this migration is economic, with migrants from less developed countries seeking employment opportunities in the more developed nations. They may be prompted to do so by a lack of job opportunities in their home country and reports from relatives or associates (Miller & Castles 2009) of good working conditions and pay rates overseas. The remittances that migrant workers send home are of increasing importance to the economies of the developing nations from which they originate. In 2006, the estimated value of remittances in the east and southeast Asia region was US$23.342m. In the Philippines it formed up to 10 percent of GDP (UNDESA 2006). This increasing supply of willing economic migrants stands in contrast to the restrictive immigration policies, even xenophobia, exhibited by some of the more developed countries in the region, such as Japan, Hong Kong SAR and Korea (Akaha 2009; Motoyama 2005).

Another notable trend is the ‘feminisation’ of migration (UNINSTRAW 2007). In 2006 there were 3,477,300 female migrants in the east and southeast Asia region compared with 3,019,900 males (UNDESA 2006). Traditionally, labour migration was dominated by men seeking employment in sectors considered ‘undesirable’ by nationals of destination countries (ADB 2006). However, as these figures indicate, recent labour migration patterns in the region are increasingly driven by women who are seeking overseas employment in areas such as factory and domestic work (Eversole 2006). This feminisation of migration is relevant to a discussion of people trafficking, as it can be both a risk factor and a protective factor. On the risk side it can lead to the increased vulnerability of women labour migrants, whereas on the protective side it may lead to the development of informal networks that allow women to migrate independently of traffickers (Kaur 2007).

Trafficking and migration

People trafficking is known to occur where there are high levels of people movement, usually within well-worn migratory pathways. More specifically, it occurs as part of a labour–migration continuum. That is, many trafficked people consent to the initial movement through a facilitator, or they move of their own accord, becoming aware only at the destination that they have been deceived and are being exploited. It is because trafficking is seen as a form of exploitative irregular migration that the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has increased its activities with regard to trafficking over recent years (IOM 2009).

Trafficking in persons, especially for forced labour, occurs not in discrete instances but along a sliding scale of exploitation and abuse, with an indeterminate line between trafficking and migration. Labour migrants can be charged excessive fees for being transported to a destination country, and can be subject to low wages and poor working conditions, often because the labour laws of the destination country do not extend to workers with undocumented immigration status (Akaha 2009). Whether or not these cases fall within the definition of trafficking is a matter for case-by-case analysis. In Australia, cases have emerged that have been prosecuted as breaches of the Workplace Relations Act 1996 (Cth) but whose elements could also form the basis of a trafficking prosecution. An example is the case of Inspector Robert John Hortle v Aprint (Aust) Pty Ltd & Anor [2007] FMCA 1547 (Unreported, O’Sullivan FM, 10 September 2007).

Data on trafficking in persons in the region

People trafficking in the east Asia region occurs within the larger scheme of both regular and irregular migration in the region (Miller & Castles 2009), making it difficult to identify the number of trafficking victims. This is compounded by inconsistent government reporting practices, methodologies and definitions—a common problem in the area of people trafficking and not one that is limited to the east Asia region. Available published data for countries in east Asia is summarised below.

China engaged in a specific program to combat trafficking in persons in April 2009. This resulted in the rescue of 10,820 trafficking victims, including 3,455 children (Lu 2010). The 2007 US Department of State’s Trafficking in persons report estimated that the number of new internal trafficking victims that year was between 10,000 and 20,000 persons.

A group of US-based researchers has estimated that between 28,000 and 63,000 North Korean women are currently being subjected to exploitation in China after having been trafficked (Kim et al. 2009). This is in addition to the 10,000–70,000 North Korean males who are possibly being trafficked by their own government for forced labour (US Department of State 2009).

Between 2004 and 2007 there were 21 confirmed cases of trafficking Mongolian citizens. Almost all of these victims were discovered in China, apart from two located in South Korea. The Mongolian Gender and Equality Centre was also able to make contact with 48 trafficking victims in the Chinese SARs Beijing, Macau and Hong Kong, as well as in Korea (MGEC 2007). Four of those victims were children aged between 16 and 17 years.

National Police figures from Japan indicate that 559 victims were rescued between 2000 and 2006 (104 victims were rescued in 2000, 65 in 2001, 55 in 2002, 83 in 2003, 77 in 2004, 117 in 2005 and 58 in 2006) (UNODC 2009b). In addition, immigration statistics from 2004 indicated the deportation of 53 confirmed victims from Japan.

This stands in contrast to the estimated 120,000 foreign women working in the entertainment industry in Japan, of whom up to 75,000 are working under some form of duress, according to estimates of the International Labour Organization’s Special Action Programme to Combat Forced Labour (SAP-FL 2004).


Trafficking in the east Asia region generally flows from less developed to developing countries and onwards to the most developed areas in the region, such as Beijing, Hong Kong and Japan. Consistent with this are the increasing prices attached to the victims of trafficking at each stage in the process. In addition, there is a large flow of women, specifically from the poorer southern areas of China, such as Yunnan and Guangxi provinces, into the burgeoning southeast Asian sex tourism industry (Singh & Hart 2007).

While some patterns of trafficker behaviour are unique to east Asia region, others are consistent with people trafficking in Australia. Trafficking involving international marriage is an area that has yet to be properly documented in Australia, although there have been records of a case involving fraudulent marriage (R v Kovacs [2008] QCA 417), and some arranged international marriages have raised concerns (Cameron & Tait 2009). The AIC has begun a project investigating this issue. Further, while trafficking for forced labour is more common in this region than in others, it has largely been overlooked in research and criminal justice responses as until recently the focus has been on trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation.

A pattern identified in east Asia that has been seen worldwide is an ethnic link between the trafficker and the victim, such as with the exploitation of North Korean refugees by ethnic Koreans with Chinese citizenship. This linkage is supported by the US Department of Justice, which recorded a 58 percent correlation between the ethnicity of trafficked persons and the offenders (US Department of State 2009). Similarly, in Australia, where most known victims are of Asian background, a large number of the traffickers have been either naturalised Australians of Asian background or foreign nationals.

It also appears that the methods used to control victims in east Asia are multiregional and similar to those known to be employed in Australian cases to date. Traffickers have used language barriers (and consequent isolation), fear of prosecution, concerns about immigration status and deportation, and threats against family members in the source country as methods of control.

Trends and issues in the south Asia region

For the purposes of this report, the south Asia region includes Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. These countries also comprise the regional representative body, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). South Asia is considered to have the second highest concentration of people trafficking in the world (UNODC 2006). This occurs within a context of very high levels of migration. An estimated 200 million people within the region migrate annually, driven mainly by poverty and differing development levels (UNODC 2007b).

Socio-religious customs still play a large role in the organisation of labour within the region, with large numbers of people still employed as bonded labourers as were their ancestors for hundreds of years (Bales 2000). While attention is now shifting to contemporary forms of trafficking, specifically the trafficking of women and children for sexual exploitation, the cultural context of labour practices in the south Asia region, as well as the gendered nature of trafficking, are areas that require further attention.

People trafficking and related issues in south Asia

The region is a source of victims for traffickers to bring to Australia—several Indian nationals have been assisted as part of the Support for Victims of People Trafficking program since its inception in June 2004. The region is also a source of both refugees and irregular economic migrants to Australia (DIAC 2010), with a number of routes and paths available for those wishing to transport either themselves or others to Australia. Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh were all among the top 10 source countries for asylum seekers arriving in Australia in 2009 (DIAC 2009).

Trafficking in persons in south Asia operates within a regional and cultural framework. This framework is important in understanding both the processes used by the traffickers and the government responses. There is a higher incidence of labour trafficking in south Asia than in other regions such as southeast and east Asia, and it is certainly substantially greater than has been seen in Australia to date.

Bonded labour has been identified as a concern in a number of countries in the region, including India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka (US Department of State 2011). However, as the trafficking of women and children for sexual exploitation has increased in recent years, the majority of government responses have focused on this form of trafficking to the exclusion of others.

Transnational crime, corruption, marriage arrangements, labour recruitment agencies, religious practices and patterns of migration are all factors in the nature and extent of people trafficking in the region.

Transnational crime

As is the case for east Asia, the precise involvement of organised crime in the trafficking of people in south Asia is largely unknown; however, the large flow of undocumented goods in the region indicates the existence of wide-scale goods-smuggling operations (UNODC 2007a; Ramachandran 2005). For example, Bangladeshi goods illegally crossing the Bangladesh–India border are estimated to be worth US$2b annually. There is also a large-scale narcotics trafficking industry centred on opium produced in Afghanistan (UNODC 2007a). This industry is estimated to produce 93 percent of the world’s supply of heroin and is worth US$4b annually, which is equivalent to 52 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). Cultivation is increasing despite only US$1b of this profit being returned to the producers. Local officials and warlords take a percentage fee, while drug traffickers and associated insurgents extract the bulk of the profits (UNODC 2007a).


Corruption is thought to exacerbate the risk of trafficking in persons (UNODC 2011). Bribery of public officials, including immigration staff and law enforcement and judicial officers, to facilitate the trafficking of an individual is thought to be common.

Corruption in south Asia has generally been identified as widespread and deeply entrenched. Transparency International (TI) has examined the endemic nature of corruption in the region, in both public and private spheres, in a number of its Global corruption reports (see TI 2009, 2008, 2004). Although it is unclear exactly what role corruption plays in trafficking in south Asia, given the prominence of corruption in the region it is a factor that warrants attention.

Marriage arrangements

As discussed earlier, trafficking for marriage is also an issue in south Asia (UNODC 2007b; UNFPA 2006a). Women are known to be trafficked under pretence of a promised marriage (fraudulent marriage) and sold to men seeking to buy a wife (forced marriage). Some research suggests that it is mostly Bangladeshi and Nepalese women who are trafficked through marriage arrangements (UNODC 2007b; UNFPA 2006a).

Box 7: Trafficking in the domestic service sector

It is widely acknowledged that migrants seeking domestic work are particularly vulnerable to trafficking for labour exploitation. Involuntary domestic servitude is a form of forced labour most commonly performed by women or children. Domestic service occurs in an informal work setting connected to the employee’s place of residence and is not often shared with other workers. As such, paid domestic work remains virtually invisible as a form of employment. Domestic work is undervalued and poorly regulated, and many countries do not offer protection to domestic workers under workplace legislation as this type of work is not perceived as regular employment (ILO 2010). The lack of legal protection, combined with the hidden and socially isolating environment inherent in live-in domestic service, is conducive to exploitation, since authorities are not able to scrutinise private working conditions as easily as they can inspect formal workplaces (US Department of State 2010). This renders domestic workers vulnerable to unequal, unfair and abusive treatment, including being overworked and underpaid.

This is a key area for future research within the AIC Trafficking in Persons Research Program.

Labour recruitment agencies and exploitation

There are increasing concerns about the relationship between people trafficking and the practices of labour recruitment agencies, particularly in Nepal, Bangladesh and the Maldives (US Department of State 2009, Ramachandran 2005). These agencies, operating within a weak regulatory environment, recruit poor or middle-class workers for work overseas. The agencies promise high wages and guaranteed employment, but migrants are often forced to perform dirty, dangerous or difficult work for low or no wages, while being housed in substandard accommodation. This may, on a case-by-case basis, fall within the definition of trafficking in persons as defined by Article 3a of the UN Trafficking Protocol (UN 2000b). A number of countries in the region are taking steps to regulate the practices of these agencies, with several introducing administrative and civil penalties for agencies involved in trafficking-like behaviour.

The majority of trafficking in south Asia occurs with the assistance of dalals. This is a Bengali term, used in Nepal, India and Bangladesh, for those who arrange the transportation of people to another location. The term is often translated as ‘broker’ and can be used to describe a financial stockbroker as well as a person involved in transporting people. It would appear that the term is used in the latter sense to refer to both people traffickers and migrant smugglers, indicating a degree of overlap in these industries (Siddiqui 2004).

The dalals have numerous methods of operation, but a composite typology compiled from numerous data sources indicates that they employ a number of ‘spotters’, or recruiters, to identify vulnerable people. These recruiters might be relatives of the dalal or previously trafficked persons who have returned home. Recruiters are paid on a commission basis to introduce the potential victim to the dalal. The dalal will often then gain the confidence of the individual they wish to exploit with promises of lucrative employment or marriage opportunities; force is rarely used (Nair 2003). The dalal arranges the transport of the person to the destination area using smuggling routes, corrupt border officials or fraudulent paperwork, and may involve a number of escorts or associates in the process. Individuals are then sold to the exploiter at the destination.

While some trafficking scenarios may involve organised crime groups, others are characterised by personal and family relationships, informal networks and independent actors (Sen & Nair 2004). From what is known, exploiters range from organised sexual service businesses, to factories seeking cheap labour, to families seeking a domestic servant. It is clear that the level of organisation can vary from one situation to the next, but there is still very little clarity about exactly who is involved in trafficking in the region (Sen & Nair 2004).

Cultural and religious practices

Certain traditional practices associated with culture and religion in the south Asia region have been identified as potentially risky. One example is the devadasi system in southern India—known by alternative names in other regions of India—a traditional practice that has existed for hundreds of years, mostly among the lower castes. Young girls (some as young as infants) are given up by their families to become ‘servants to god’. They are dedicated to protecting and maintaining a deity, object of worship or temple and perform at rituals and celebrations (Sen & Nair 2005; Black 2007). It is unclear how this tradition originated, but most of the theories are premised on the notion that the dedication of a daughter to god will secure good fortune or luck to her family and wider community (Sen & Nair 2005).

Women and girls dedicated to the devadasi system tend to have restricted freedom of movement, may be subject to severe exploitation—including physical, sexual and psychological abuse—and are socially isolated as a result of stigma associated with being a devadasi (Black 2007). In recent years the devadasi system has become strongly associated with the commercial sex trade as devadasi girls and women have become recruited as sex workers. Protection from the law is provided by the garb of religion. Girls who have been dedicated to the devadasi system suffer irreversible stigma, yet families living in extreme poverty are encouraged to dedicate their children in return for a significant monetary payment (Sen & Nair 2005). Alhough steps have been taken in some parts of India to prevent this, including by developing legislation, they have largely been unsuccessful (Sen & Nair 2005).

Migration in south Asia

People in the south Asia region are extremely mobile; it is estimated that there are 200 million migrants in the region every year (UNODC 2007b). The push factors (ie factors that may encourage migration) include unemployment, low wages, family obligations, poverty and limited social and economic opportunities (UNFPA 2006). For example, 23 percent of Bangladesh’s population, approximately 25 million people, live in extreme poverty, which results in a documented annual migration of 225,000. This is in addition to a large number of undocumented migrants. Pull factors (ie factors in the destination country that may encourage migration) include higher wages, employment opportunities and existing informal and formal migration structures (Siddiqui 2004).

Migration in the region exhibits a westward trend (Blanchet 2002). Middle-class Bangladeshis, Indians and Sri Lankans undertake migration (both documented and undocumented) in large numbers to the Middle East (US Department of State 2011). Since the Gulf wars there has been high demand for male construction workers and low-skilled labourers. In recent years there has also been an increasing demand for females to work in the domestic service sector (Wickramasekera 2002, 2003). This avenue, however, is open only to those either who can afford air travel or who enter considerable debt (as the recruitment agency often seeks to recover the costs of flights). Nepalese, Bhutanese and lower class Bangladeshis use cheaper land routes into India and Pakistan. A comparatively small number of migrants head to southeast Asia, mainly Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei (Blanchet 2002). The remittances sent by economic migrants provide a source of foreign capital to developing countries (UNFPA 2006); for example, economic migrant remittances constitute 9.6 percent of Sri Lanka’s GDP (Shaw 2007).

There is an increasingly negative perception of unskilled labour in some developed countries. Unskilled workers are considered to be a burden on social welfare structures, contribute to lower working conditions and fill jobs, leading to higher unemployment among the nationals of the developed country (UNFPA 2006). This has resulted in the criminalisation or stringent regulation of unskilled migration, which has in turn led to an increase in the use of irregular migratory pathways.

Irregular migrants are generally employed in jobs that are overlooked by the local population because they are perceived as degrading or dangerous. Because of their undocumented status, these migrants are paid in cash and are often not subject to domestic labour laws (UNFPA 2006). A great majority of these migrants are also poorly educated. Ninety percent of Bangladeshi migrants to the Middle East and India are illiterate (Blanchet 2002). It is not uncommon for migrants in the region to have their documents confiscated and their movement restricted. In Bangladesh it is a criminal offence, under section 24 of the 1982 Emigration Ordinance, to return without completing the employment contract initially undertaken, leaving workers in exploitative situations and open to threats of prosecution if they flee them. All of these factors act to increase the vulnerability of migrants to being trafficked, and indicate an overlap between the trafficking and smuggling industries in the region (Siddiqui 2004).

Further, an increasing number of women are undertaking documented migration in the region (Blanchet 2002; Weeramunda 2004). Estimates place the number of women working in the domestic service industry in the Middle East at one million (UNFPA 2006). While this may be indicative of the worldwide trend towards the feminisation of labour (UNINSTRAW 2007), it may also be in response to government policies facilitating increased unskilled female migration. In 2005, Bangladesh lifted a comprehensive ban on unskilled female migration (Asis 2006), while the Nepalese Supreme Court recently overturned a precedent that required women under 35 to have a male’s permission to obtain a passport (US Department of State 2006). These changes increase the opportunity for women to migrate legally, which helps lower the risk of exploitation.

Trafficking and migration

Research suggests that trafficking in the south Asia region occurs within the scope of regular migration patterns (Blanchet 2002; UNODC 2007b). Exploitative situations abound in economic migration within the region, and many of these would fall within the definition of trafficking. For this reason, trafficking must be seen as part of a sliding scale of exploitation (Siddiqui 2004). This pattern is global; however, particular to this region is the nature of female migration and its ties to labour exploitation.

Most female migration from south Asia is to the wealthy regions of the Middle East. In describing the visa arrangements of south Asian women employed in the Middle East, Blanchet (2002) notes that the vast majority of female migrants to the Middle East are engaged as private domestic servants under a sponsorship visa system. In Kuwait, for example, domestic workers enter the country under a no. 20 visa and are sponsored by their employer. Their visa is therefore tied to their employment. The employer can revoke the visa at any time, leaving the migrant susceptible to immediate deportation. As these migrants have either borrowed large sums of money from family or taken out a debt from a money lender, secured against their wages, the threat to cut off their only source of income and leave them stranded in an unfamiliar country with a large debt is an effective means of control over them. It is both permitted and quite common practice for employers also to confiscate the travel documents and passports of migrants (Sabban 2002). Further, domestic workers are specifically excluded from the labour laws of many Middle Eastern states (Sabban 2002; Kuwait Ministry 2009). All of these factors operate to place female migrants in an extremely vulnerable position. One report notes that up to 75 percent of female migrants to the Middle East reported having to perform sexual services, either commercially or for their male employers (Blanchet 2002).


Trafficking in the south Asia region follows the worldwide trend of flowing from less developed to more developed countries. India operates as a hub in the region due to its geographic location, large sex industry and level of corruption. Government responses concentrate on the trafficking of women and children for sexual exploitation, to the exclusion of the trafficking in men or trafficking for forced labour. This is largely the result of a widespread notion of women as ‘trafficking victims’ and men as ‘migrants’ (Gray-Barry & Joudo Larsen forthcoming; Blanchet 2002).

Another worldwide trend exhibited in the region is the transition from victim to trafficker. While this occurs elsewhere, it appears that female victim/traffickers in parts of south Asia take an active and direct role in the ownership and day to day management of new victims (TDHIF 2005).

The control mechanisms exhibited by traffickers in the region are affected by language and cultural similarities between neighbouring areas, specifically in Bangladesh and India, which make it harder for traffickers to isolate their victims from external influences and identification (Sen & Nair 2004, 2005; TDHIF 2005). As a result, traffickers operating between these regions therefore utilise debt bondage and physical confinement to a greater extent. Corruption is also endemic in the region: police and politicians often work for traffickers, who can afford large bribes because of the large profit margin in people trafficking (US Department of State 2009).

Another issue in the region is the social stigmatisation of trafficking victims. A perception of women as commodities, which exists through the region, means that victims who have been exposed, even involuntarily, to the sex industry are seen as ‘tainted’ (Siddiqui 2004; TDHIF 2005).

Data collection is difficult in the region, with the problems inherent in researching a criminal enterprise compounded by the different definitions of trafficking, as identified above, and inconsistent reporting practices (UNODC 2009b).

Last updated
3 November 2017