Recent Research on Human Trafficking in Mainland Southeast Asia

Supang Chantavanich


Human trafficking from mainland Southeast Asia in the modern period started in the 1960s in connection with the presence of United States troops in Indochina. The foreign male clients of the sex trade at that time were American soldiers using Thailand as a rest and relaxation area, with some also seeking temporary partners or “rental wives.” After the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Indochina in 1975, some women remained in the sex trade in Thailand, serving male tourists who came on “sex tours.” Others began working abroad, especially in Germany, Scandinavia, Hong Kong, and Japan. Agents facilitated the migration and employment of women through “international human trafficking networks.” A key problem has been the inability of women migrants to anticipate and control the conditions of their labor. “Some women entered the trade willingly. Others were deceived into believing they would have work and/or opportunities abroad unrelated to the sex trade” (Chantavanich et al. 2001:7-8). Further, although some women knew that they would become sex workers, they were not aware of the working conditions they would encounter.

Six recent research reports on human trafficking will be summarized below to illustrate current trends and problems faced by migrants. 

book_review_icon_smallThe Migration of Thai Women to Germany: Causes, Living Conditions and Impacts for Thailand and Germany
Supang Chantavanich, Suteera Nittayananta, Prapairat Ratanaolan-Mix, Pataya Ruenkaew and Anchalee Khemkrut
Bangkok / Asian Research Center for Migration, Chulalongkorn University / 2001

[This study was conducted in 1997-98; the English version of the report was published in 2001. Findings are mainly from 1997-1998.]

Thai women migrants to Germany draw upon five main sources of assistance in their migration process: friends and immediate relatives; husbands; boyfriends; marriage agencies; and Thai and international employment agents. Women being assisted by their friends and family are less likely to be cheated, and the assistance seems to be much safer than that received from husbands and boyfriends. Unfortunately, many of the women who receive help from sources other than close family or friends are often deceived in some aspects of the migration.

The free flow of Thai women migrants to Germany is enhanced by the lack of efficient control over trafficking within Thailand and internationally, together with lack of government policies to regulate the migration of women who are not laborers. Women migrate for both marriage and for employment, the latter including commercial sex work and other jobs.

Thai women can be decision-makers in the migration process: they understand the implications of their decisions and make them independently. However, some women are also victims of economic and social exploitation. Women therefore often fall partly into two categories: they exercise some decision-making power, but are also exploited and cheated. Those who migrate to Germany for marriage are usually in a stronger decision-making position; the women who migrate for employment often lack information and are deceived from the start.

Until recently, Germany has had relatively relaxed immigration laws which has made it easy for Thai women to enter the country. Recent changes have made the process of migration to Germany much more complex. The costs of migration have also risen, resulting in larger numbers of illegal Thai migrants. In Thailand itself there are few regulatory systems and procedures for administering the migration process, especially for Thais who migrate independently rather than through employment recruitment agencies.

book_review_icon_smallChinese Women in the Thai Sex Trade
Vorasakdi Mahatdhanobol. Translated by Aaron Stern, edited by Pornpimon Trichot
Bangkok / Chinese Studies Center, Asian Research Center for Migration, Institute of Asian Studies, Chulalongkorn University / 1998

Thailand is a major destination for Chinese women both deceived and willingly entering the Thai sex trade. It has been well-known for some time that Thailand has a large commercial sex market and that a variety of services are available. Women are the market’s most important commodity, and Chinese women are one of the market’s offerings. The methods used by underworld groups or gangs to lure women into the sex trade differ little from those used to deceive northern Thai women roughly thirty years ago, when Thailand was in a era similar to China’s current stage of economic change.

The ease with which people can pass across borders creates the opportunity for criminal activity and makes trafficking Chinese women easy, despite differences in language and culture. These same differences make it more difficult for women to flee. It is possible to describe the ways the gangs moved women from place to place:

  • First, the gangs used one of two methods. Either an intermediary known by the women or a gang member contacted the woman directly. Second, they convinced the woman to leave her home, and third, led her across the border. Fourth, the woman was swapped between the Chinese, Burmese, and Thai gangs, and fifth, the woman was handed over to a person in Thailand before being taken to the sex establishment. The gangs had clear procedures for deceiving and transporting the women.
  • The gangs had a strong network of people. At each of the different points along the routes used to transport women, the gangs had connections with people of various nationalities. When the women arrived in Thailand, the network was evident from the way they were delivered to the sex establishments. The persons delivering the women knew how many women each establishment desired.
  • The gangs had a single objective, to deceive Chinese women into the Thai sex trade. The gangs focused on this goal and showed little interest in the women’s appearance or backgrounds. Under the gangs’ practices, there were no detailed conditions for choosing which women to traffic.
  • Though illegal, the gangs’ activities were very systematic, well-organized, and well-coordinated. Further, they were coordinated horizontally, not vertically, i.e. not conducting their activities as a single organization. If such an organization existed, it had a very loose structure.

 book_review_icon_small“Pitfalls and Problems in the Search for a Better Life: Thai Migrant Workers in Japan”
Phannee Chunjitkaruna
In Thai Migrant Workers in East and Southeast Asia 1996-1997
Supang Chantavanich, Andreas Germershausen, and Allan Beesey, editors 
Bangkok / The Asian Research Center for Migration, Institute of Asian Studies, Chulalongkorn University / 2000

In 1996-1997, the author found that the prime reason for Thai women to migrate to Japan was to earn fast money in order to have a more comfortable lifestyle. This was a reflection of change in village value systems following the Thai government’s adoption of the western ideology of development and capitalism. Japanese border controls were regarded as a barrier both by Japanese employers and the foreign workers themselves. Therefore in order to enter Japan, Thai workers may have to pose as tourists and overstay their visas. But to guarantee entry, most Thai workers depended on high-cost brokers and the criminal underworld (the Japanese yakuza or the Chinese Snake Head gang).

The smuggling of unskilled foreign workers across borders has become an international business. Brokers and organized crime work closely within transnational networks to arrange each stage of the smuggling operation, from preparing travel documents and taking workers to Japan, to finding them jobs and extracting payment after arrival. Most Thai workers borrow a lot of money from relatives or loan sharks to pay the brokerage fees and, once they arrive in Japan, face years of work to pay off this debt. Some unscrupulous brokers have also seduced and taken Thai women to Japan, where they are detained and forced to work as prostitutes in “snack bars” or brothels. These underworld groups keep the women’s passports and air tickets and watch them at all times so they cannot escape. If the women refuse to cooperate, the yakuza may increase their debt or sell them to a brothel.

Because ordinary Thais are often ignorant of the immigration rules of both Japan and Thailand and the brokers are purely concerned with profit, a considerable number of Thai workers with illegal status have encountered problems in Japan. These include deportation by Japanese authorities, communication difficulties, hospital treatment, exploitation and discrimination by employers or native Japanese, liabilities, fraudulent practice, and poor accommodation.

However, despite the difficulties many illegal Thai workers have coping with life in Japan, they are likely to continue working and living there. The reasons they prolong their stay affirm that their main purpose in coming to Japan was to earn money. Failure to earn enough money to buy consumer goods upon returning to Thailand would be considered a “loss of face” which could be damaging to the social standing of themselves and their families.

Moreover, female Thai workers who have engaged in prostitution find it difficult to go back to their villages since all values have not changed; prostitution is still regarded as shameful. According to these traditional values, “good women” must be virgins before marriage. Thus women who have been employed in the sex industry – whether deliberately or under duress – will usually face criticism from their community and may be unable to marry. Other female workers stay because they wish to marry Japanese men or have children of Japanese nationality in the hope of gaining legal status and social welfare benefits.

But most Thais working in Japan remain to pay off the debt and bondage incurred when they received assistance from the brokers. Initially hoping to earn fast money to pay off their debts and save enough to return to Thailand, many Thai workers chose to put up with demanding work, unfair payment, and no provision of welfare. Consequently, these workers are voluntarily turning themselves into a segregated, marginalized, and discriminated against ethnic group.

In order to continue working and living in Japan, they adapt by using a Japanese name at their workplace and tend to stay inside their apartments for fear of deportation. Simultaneously, they maintain contacts within their ethnic groups and networks as well as their families in Thailand. As a marginalized people in Japan, illegal Thai workers are likely to retain their identity and depend on their ethnic group. Despite the fact that their lives in Japan are tough, they manage by depending on friends, relatives, brokers, the underworld, and NGOs when encountering problems.

book_review_icon_smallThailand-Lao People’s Democratic Republic and Thailand-Myanmar Border Areas: Trafficking in Children into the Worst Forms of Child Labour. A Rapid Assessment
Christina Wille
Geneva / International Labour Organization / 2001
Read online at:

Although trafficking is often considered a single process of transportation from place of origin to place of work, this study found that it occurred in only about one third of the cases. Recruitment directly from a child’s village was most common for girls and Laotians. In the majority of these cases, however, foreign children were recruited for labor exploitation within Thailand after having made separate arrangement to enter the country. It was not uncommon for minors to know about a particular workplace in Thailand and approach an employer or recruiter upon entering the country.

In most cases the minor or minor’s family took the initiative to obtain details on work opportunities outside their village. Fellow villagers and friends were the most common sources of information about particular jobs and general work opportunities, and in the majority of cases minors or their families knew someone who could arrange their transportation and/or recruitment. Parents rarely appeared to be the main driving force behind the decision for a minor to leave for work. In over one-third of the cases, the decision was taken jointly by the parents and child. But the most common decision-making process reported by minors was that they had made the decision to leave on their own; many did not even inform their parents because they expected them to disapprove. Minors expressed a wish to see the world outside their village, and still others left to escape an unhappy or difficult home life or family situation. The majority of the parents of the children had no information or only partial information on their child’s situation.

In cases where the minors arrived in Thailand before they began to work, it was most common for them to arrange the travel themselves. This was particularly common for boys and Laotians. For girls and ethnic minorities, it was more common to be accompanied by a family member who made most of the arrangements. In the less frequent situation, where the minor travelled to Thailand having already been recruited for a particular job, different types of actors organized the transportation. Most commonly these were trusted friends of the family. In almost half of the cases, the transporters were linked to an organized network of transporters, recruiters, and employers. It was less common for these minors to arrange their own transportation or for family members to be the main transporters, and strangers accounted for only about a quarter of the transporters.

 In most cases minors were recruited into the worst forms of child labor in the town where the work was located, and most minors made their own way to these localities. Some had been recruited to a particular job before entering Thailand and children recruited at the border site for transportation to work elsewhere in Thailand were rare. The majority of minors had entered the worst forms of child labor within one month of arriving in Thailand. In some cases children had carried out some other kind of work before entering the worst forms of child labor. Some children carried out temporary work in agriculture or helping Thai families with odd jobs such as food preparation, dishwashing, or babysitting.

In over half of the cases where recruitment took place, no profit was made in the transportation or recruitment process. In the small number of case where a profit was made upon the recruitment of a child for work, usually the child became the possession of the employer at least until a certain amount of profit was made. In other cases, the family paid a fee for the transportation and job placement of the child.

Although the majority of the minors believed they had not been tricked or coerced into work, many children said they had only been told part of the truth and half of the children said that they knew almost nothing about the nature of the work they would be doing or the conditions under which they would be working. More specifically, the children reported very low levels of awareness about working hours, working conditions, living conditions, and the degree of freedom they would have while living and working in Thailand.

book_review_icon_smallSmall Dreams Beyond Reach: The Lives of Migrant Children and Youth Along the Borders of China, Myanmar and Thailand
Therese M. Caouette
A Participatory Action Research Project of Save the Children (UK) and the UK Department for International Development / 2001
Read online at:

 The majority of cross-border migrants from China and Myanma into Thailand were young, came from rural areas, and had little or no formal education. Along all the borders, young people began migrating on their own at about the age of thirteen. Some children under that age also migrate on their own, though most are accompanied by parents or relatives.

The decision to migrate is complex and usually involves numerous overlapping factors. Children and youth did not give one reason exclusively, but an explanation that included economic survival, war, refuge, government policies, personal problems, and envisioned opportunities abroad. The majority of migrants first explained their move to find work as necessary for their daily survival.

Migrants travelled a number of routes that changed frequently according to their political and economic situation. The vast majority crossed without documentation and even those with travel permits often stayed beyond their expiration or did not abide by the restrictions placed on their visit, with the ultimate result of being identified as illegal immigrants.

Generally, migrants leave their homes not knowing what kind of job they will find abroad and even when they think they know, they often find it is not what they expected. The actual jobs available to migrants were very gender specific. Migrant girls and women sought jobs in factories, shops and restaurants, sex work (direct or indirect), the entertainment industry, or as domestic workers (cleaning and care taking). Male migrants found jobs in the fishing and agricultural industries or as manual day laborers or construction workers.

Though the living and working conditions of cross-border migrants vary according to the place, job, and employer, nearly all study participants noted their vulnerability to exploitation and abuse without protection or redress. The study revealed extensive debt-bondage, sexual abuse, illegal confinement, confiscation of documents, arrest and extortion, forced overtime, few basic resources, and poor accommodations that were overcrowded, insecure, and often violent. Sexual abuse was commonly reported among girls and young women, particularly among those involved in sex work and domestic service.

Trafficking of persons, predominantly children and youth, was common at all sites. The majority of young women and children were trafficked into sex work, marriage, domestic work, or begging. It was found that the majority of girls from migrant communities along the Thai-Myanmar border left their border villages for jobs further inside Thailand. Typically, girls were recruited during the fifth and sixth grade. Trafficking into marriage was also frequently reported by girls and young women from minority communities in Northern Shan State, who often were forced into marriages deeper in China. Many domestic workers from Myanmar also reported being trafficked into domestic work and forced into arrangements and conditions without their knowledge or agreement. Trafficking of young children and babies was reported from Myanmar into China.

Migrants frequently considered their options and opportunities to return home. For many, the decision to return revolved around issues of security and logistics. Discriminatory attitudes towards those who have migrated, especially girls and young women, made the reintegration process extremely difficult, often resulting in further migration.

Though many acknowledge that growing numbers of children and youth migrate with or without their families, there is little awareness of their concerns and needs and extremely few interventions undertaken to reach them. 

book_review_icon_small“Return and Reintegration: Female Migrations from Yunnan to Thailand”
Allan Beesey
In Female Labour Migration in South-East Asia: Change and Continuity
Supang Chantavanich, Christina Wille, Kannika Angsuthanasombat, Maruja MB Asis, Allan Beesey, and Sukamdi, editors
Bangkok / Asian Research Center for Migration, Institute of Asian Studies, Chulalongkorn University / 2001

 This study depicts the movement of women from selected villages in one county of Yunnan into Thailand. It shows that many have traveled to Thailand to work wherever there was a demand. The service industry is a major employer, especially the sex industry, although other work is available. Some women have journeyed just to the north of Thailand, an area of traditional trading networks with kin and cultural networks.

There is limited research in Thailand which can track or quantify the movement of Yunnanese into the country. Women in sex work constitute a visible migratory movement which has attracted publicity and some research. This is some evidence that men are migrating as well, but villages in this study area did not provide much evidence of this. Other border villages in other counties and prefectures may provide a different picture.

When the political situation in the area became more stable in the late 1980s, traffickers were quick to take advantage of people wanting to travel to Myanmar and Thailand. The migration of women from the southern prefectures of Yunnan began through traffickers assisting individual women and often cheating or luring them through fake offers. Since the mid-1990s women appear to be making more informed choices. Through their own experience or the experience of others, they are more autonomous and less dependent on traffickers or other assistance, and they may be working in less exploitative working conditions. For some, however, the monetary rewards in compensation for migration are limited, so they may be disappointed. The opportunity to earn a good income has declined since the financial crisis in Thailand. However, if they learn something from the experience, as many say they do, then the monetary rewards are an added bonus or part of the realization of two goals.

It may appear remarkable that since the early 1990’s, trafficking through deception and violence has been transformed into a voluntary movement of women who are often fully aware of the nature of the work they are accepting. Despite the highly stigmatized nature of the occupation, women can rise above the stigma by sharing their earnings and gaining prestige in their village. This shift from trafficking to voluntary movement and to the work gaining acceptability is well documented for northern Thailand. There also appears to be a reduction in negative attitudes toward returning women as it becomes increasingly common in certain villages. This represents a dramatic change since the early 1990s. 



Evidence from research on human trafficking and irregular migration in Southeast Asia illustrates some “shift” in the notion of trafficking. The shift can be observed in three aspects of the definition: the nature of recruiters and transporters; the process of trafficking; and exploitation in place of destination.

It is found that there are certain safe recruiters – siblings and close friends – whose service will not result in human trafficking. Those are cases of fortunate predecessors who want their sisters or best friends to have the same opportunities, such as marriage to a good foreign husband or work with a kind employer. The use of force, kidnapping, coercion, and abduction are becoming less common in recruitment. Only trafficked babies are clearly kidnapped. The use of false information about employment, working conditions, and difficult situations which victims may encounter are more frequently identified. Travel agencies and mail-order bride services are a disguised form of recruitment which legally operate internationally. With regard to transporters, they are facilitators for crossborder migrants who want to circumvent restrictive and complicated immigration regulations. Human smuggling is the relevant term for these transporters. The case of human smuggling has become more frequent because many migrants are voluntarily trafficked. In many cases, trafficked persons approach recruiters to seek information about migration. Ethnic minorities are new targets of recruiters and transporters.

There are many steps in the trafficking process, especially if the trafficked person originates in a remote area. It seems that the type of carrier or means of travel is less significant, while the border crossing or passing of immigration control is more important in the transporter’s role. Trafficking networks coordinate horizontally across borders in their operation. The use of fraudulent travel documents is commonly found. Popular destinations for trafficking are locations where immigration control is lax and few migrants disembark.

The nature of exploitative conditions in Southeast Asia differs from that described in the Trafficking Protocol. Apart from slavery or debt bondage and sexual exploitation, trafficked persons encounter illegal confinement, confiscation of documents, arrest and extortion, forced overtime, and poor, overcrowded, insecure, and violent living conditions. Servitude and the removal of human organs are not found. Trafficking of girls and young women into marriage and domestic work are identified, as is that of babies and young children. It is vital to note the increasing cases of women voluntarily and knowingly migrating into the sex trade and becoming revictimized. Identified victims do not want to be assisted and sent back home.

The realities of human trafficking in Southeast Asia indicate new characterizations of the phenomenon. Shifts are reflected in the act of recruitment (from coercion to deception), in the trafficking process (from forced to voluntary and from being approached to approaching recruiters themselves), in the targeted victims (from girls and young women to boys and men too), in transportation (from abduction to facilitation across borders), in the type of recruiters (from professional agents to villagers, distant relatives, and friends), and, finally, in exploitation (from mainly sex work to various worst forms of labor). Such shifts will contribute to redefining the concept of trafficking to reach better characterizations and to confirm that the definition of trafficking can continue to develop into a more inclusive stage.

Supang Chantavanich
Supang Chantanivich is founding director of the Asian Research Center for Migration and director of the Institute of Asian Studies, Chulalongkorn University.

Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia. Issue 4 (October 2003). Regional Economic Integration