Combating migrant smuggling in Southeast Asia

15 December 2019

UQ researchers are promoting regional approaches to make migration safer and criminalise the smuggling of migrants in Southeast Asia.

The smuggling of migrants is a major concern in Southeast Asia. Every country in the region is affected as a source, transit region, or destination for migrants seeking protection or prosperity abroad. Many countries play more than one role in the complex web of irregular migration that connects Southeast Asian countries.

“Legislation, along with practical measures to criminalise the smuggling of migrants, prevent irregular migration, and protect the rights of smuggled migrants, is not evenly developed in the ten countries that constitute the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN),” UQ School of Law Professor Andreas Schloenhardt said.

“Some ASEAN Member States have enacted very sophisticated statutes to address the myriad issues associated with the smuggling of migrants; others do not have basic laws to penalise those who seek to profit from facilitating the illegal entry of migrants and who prey on the vulnerabilities of those desperate to flee persecution and poverty.”

The United Nations’ Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air supplementing the Convention against Transnational Organized Crime provides a universal template for national laws to systematically address the complex issues associated with the smuggling of migrants. In addition, ASEAN is starting to give greater attention to the causes and impacts of the smuggling of migrants in its Member States, and is developing new initiatives to enhance cooperation and information exchange on this important issue.

Research conducted by Professor Schloenhardt for UNODC (the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime) from 2017 to 2019 identifies, outlines, and examines criminal offences pertaining to the smuggling of migrants in the 10 ASEAN Member States. UQ law students Colin Craig and Liam O’Shaughnessy, and Dr Gian Ege from the University of Zurich supported this research, examining the legislative framework relating to the criminalisation of smuggling of migrants in Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR), Malaysia, the Union of Myanmar (Myanmar), the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

The research found that although the smuggling of migrants has been a known and sizeable issue throughout Southeast Asia for many years, policies, laws, and practical measures to prevent and combat smuggling of migrants have emerged slowly and unevenly across the region.

“To this day, some States completely lack specific strategies, provisions, and other mechanisms to respond to this problem,” said Professor Schloenhardt.

“Our research revealed that great disparities exist between the ways in which individual countries design, express, and enforce their offences relating to the smuggling of migrants, and that some States have yet to legislate on this issue.”

“Other research has to follow, which examines national and regional policies, laws, and practical measures to prevent the smuggling of migrants and protect the rights of smuggled migrants.”

The research conducted by the UQ researchers was particularly timely, not only because several Southeast Asian nations are presently developing their national laws, including offences, against the smuggling of migrants, but also because ASEAN has started a three-year work program to further explore this topic and examine avenues for regional cooperation to prevent and combat the smuggling of migrants.

“While cooperation on this issue is long overdue and only in its early infancy, recent developments show that there is greater recognition of the scale of, and challenges posed by, smuggling of migrants in Southeast Asia and that new initiatives are emerging to examine this phenomenon and develop coordinated strategies against it,” Professor Schloenhardt said.

Researchers hope that these emerging developments will lead to more thorough analyses of the causes and consequences of smuggling of migrants, of the responses to the problem, to frank conversations about irregular migration and human mobility in all its forms, and ultimately to a more integrated and effective response to the smuggling of migrants in the region. ASEAN has an integral role to play in this context and the present circumstances provide a unique opportunity to take leadership and assume a coordinating role on this important issue.

Research funding

Commissioned by the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Regional Office for Southeast Asia and the Pacific in Bangkok, Thailand


This project partnered with the University of Zurich.