There is a perpetual wave of migration underway in Asia, much of it through unauthorised channels and often with grave results for both migrants and the broader society of host countries. Human security issues, which relate to people rather than artificial borders created by nation states, merit serious consideration by policy-makers.

As discussed in parts 1 and 2 of this series, economic insecurity is driving many people out of their country of origin in search of better employment opportunities. This applies to both temporary and permanent, skilled and low-skilled migrants. Many skilled migrants to Australia are educated and globalised Asians. The top two source countries for Australia’s point-based (skilled) migration program are India and China, followed by other Asian nations including Pakistan, the Philippines, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Malaysia (see table below). These are mostly developing countries and Australia is in a global race for their talent.


While many skilled migrants come to Australia, others with less education and fewer skills seek employment in neighbouring countries in Asia. Not everyone is able to migrate, even if their economic security is in danger; many simply don’t have the means to leave their country. Education, although not the only factor, is considered most significant in migrants’ decision to move to another country. The more educated and self-empowered people are, the more likely they are to be able to migrate to an economically secure place. Skilled Asians from developing countries know, through education and social networks, that in Australia they are likely to find economic survival and prosperity.

However most low-skilled Asian migrant workers migrate within Asia. The list is a long one: Cambodian and Myanmar workers in Thailand; Bangladeshi workers in Japan; Philippines and Indonesian workers in Hong Kong; mainland Chinese and Malaysians in Singapore. Some of them breach immigration rules, knowingly or unknowingly, and put their personal security in danger. Cambodian seasonal workers, for example, cross the border to Thailand without travel documents. In 2014, more than 220,000 undocumented migrants reportedly migrated back to Cambodia in fear of the Thai military junta’s mass deportation of irregular migrants. In Malaysia around 1000 migrant workers were arrested in 2013 for their unlawful residential status. There are thought to be two million irregular migrants in Malaysia. These undocumented economic migrants live with a constant fear of being arbitrarily arrested, detained or deported.

Among these undocumented labour migrants, however, it's important to realise there are both victims and perpetrators. Many young women and children from poor rural areas in Asia are targets for sexual, labour and other types of exploitation by human traffickers. NGOs report that women from North Korea, Vietnam, Myanmar and Cambodia are sold to mainland China for sexual exploitation and domestic servitude. Women from the Philippines and Indonesia are going to Hong Kong and Singapore to work as domestic workers. As they work in private homes, it is difficult for authorities to monitor working conditions and domestic workers are often neglected.

People are also trafficked through commercially arranged marriages. South Korean men use online matchmaking agencies to arrange marriages with young Vietnamese or Cambodian women. Once married, the men often confiscate their wives' passports and confine them to home for domestic work. Some are physically abused and several young Vietnamese are known to have been killed by their mentally-ill husbands. Such acts lead to anger among migrants' compatriots and can create diplomatic tensions between sending and receiving countries.

Human trafficking in the fishing and seafood industry in Southeast Asia is another example of modern-day slavery. Fishermen are especially vulnerable to exploitation as their movements are restricted in boats at sea. Physical abuse, inadequate working and living conditions, unpaid salaries, and the lack of any avenue for complaint are widespread. Australia is connected to a degree to these exploitative practices in seafood industries as it is the fourth largest consumer of seafood from Thailand where forced labour by trafficked persons takes place.

There is little reliable data on human trafficking in Australia. Project Respect estimates up to 1000 victims are currently under debt bondage, mostly from China, South Korea and Thailand. The Australian government has been criticised as it does not offer aid unless the victims assist the investigation and subsequent prosecution processes. In 2010, the University of Queensland Human Trafficking Working Group undertook a comprehensive research project on child trafficking and inter-country adoptions in Australia and identified problems with forced marriages and international adoption.

Economic insecurity in home countries will continue to drive transnational migration. Migrants seek both regular and irregular routes to a safer place. When there is no alternative to dangerous illegal channels, the human security of not just the migrants themselves but also that of hosting populations can be in danger.

When they are not protected by respective states, irregular migrants can create human insecurities in all seven pillars, defined by the United Nations Development Programme in 1994 and explained in part 1 of this series. These are personal, community, political, economic, food, health and environment securities (see below for more details on human security).

ICCPR=International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; ICESCR=International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; CRC= Convention of the Rights of the Child; CEDAW=Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women; CERD=International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination; CAT=Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; MWC=International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families [United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, International Law, Online Database]

When not protected adequately by respective states and collectively by the international community, human insecurities through migration — both regular and irregular — can lead to racism, extremism, illicit economic activities, other criminal behaviour, and health and environmental problems. Such results, which would be of great concern to ordinary people, are overlooked when the migration debate is framed solely in terms of abstract ideas around national security.