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TIP Special Focus: Corruption and Trafficking
August 25, 2022

With high-profile cases like Jeffery Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell, it probably comes as no surprise that corruption facilitates trafficking. This year’s Trafficking in Persons Report expressly calls out corruption for its linkage to trafficking, going so far as to cite a UNODC report that argues trafficking in persons could not happen on a large scale if it weren’t for corruption. Further than that, the Report weighed concerns about official complicity in trafficking crimes heavily in its assessment of each country. It pressures governments to hold complicit officials accountable and strongly values robust assurances that state officials do not involve themselves in these crimes. In this final segment reviewing the report, we’ll discuss in more detail how corruption operates and some of the Report’s key recommendations. 

Where Corruption Occurs

A 2021 research report by UNODC and the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime was an important source of information, compiling evidence of corruption throughout all the stages of trafficking. According to this research paper, corruption is particularly prevalent in the recruitment of victims stage, the procurement of fraudulent documents, and during border crossings (whether by land, sea, or air). Bribery of public officials, especially to facilitate border crossings, is a large part of the modus operandi of trafficking and smuggling syndicates. Bribery can come in the form of cash, although it also comes in the form of gifts (cars, property, sexual services, etc.) to avoid detection. A secondary finding is that the more difficult it is to migrate–the more complex the bureaucratic process or the more costly the procedures for regular migration–the higher the likelihood for corruption to take root. When officials are caught, punishment is more likely to be suspension or transfer, not criminal prosecution.

At the recruitment stage
When people choose to migrate for work they often turn to recruitment agencies that facilitate the process. Those agencies that operate unlawfully often bribe officials to make this possible. According to the report, “payments are made to ‘a range of government officials in both origin and destination countries to fraudulently approve a host of applications or facilitate discretionary decisions including, but not limited to, foreign worker quotas […] visas, medical certificates, and work permits.’” Not only do these agencies develop ties to government officials, government officials often work second jobs as recruiters, raising potential conflicts of interest.

With the procurement of fraudulent documents
Corruption by public officials also frequently occurs with fraudulent documents, including falsifying, forging, or misusing documents to move victims out of the origin countries, into their destination countries, or to stay in a country. The study cites an example from the Philippines, in 2019, where a trafficker recruited a child through online chatrooms to leave the Philippines and travel to Dubai, where she was subjected to sexual exploitation. It was with the assistance of immigration officials that the trafficker was able to arrange fake documents for her to travel to Dubai. Fraudulent documents enable traffickers to move children who otherwise would be too young to travel unaccompanied by parents or guardians. 

At Border Crossing Points
The other major space for corruption is at border crossing points, whether by land, sea, or at airports. It can range from simply turning a blind eye to illegal crossings to actively tampering with security and immigration systems. For example, “in 2016, Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister revealed that 15 immigration officers were involved in sabotaging and disabling immigration systems (which verify the veracity of passports) at the airport. According to a Reuters report, ‘the airport’s passport-verification system was deliberately disrupted at certain times of the day, possibly since 2010, raising suspicion people were being smuggled through immigration when it was down’.”  Fifteen officers were directly implicated and fired, while 14 other officers were suspended from their duties, and even more were subjected to ongoing monitoring. In 2017, around 600 immigration officers from Kuala Lumpur International Airport (about 40% of the immigration staff working there) were transferred as a preventative action, as some of the officers were suspected of working with criminal syndicates to smuggle in workers from Bangladesh. 

Collusion can also be comprehensive
Traffickers also engage corrupt officials throughout the process to avoid detection, investigation, and arrest–including even from within anti-trafficking units, as a case in Cambodia showed, when a former Deputy Director of the Police Anti-Human Trafficking and Juvenile Protection Department and two of his subordinates were convicted for involvement in trafficking. And “between 2013 and 2017, the successful investigation and prosecution of corrupt law enforcement and military officials in Thailand helped dismantle a large smuggling and trafficking enterprise.” Rohingya migrants from Myanmar were reportedly trafficked into forced labor in the fishing industry and trafficking camps were discovered near the Thai border with Malaysia, including 36 bodies found in mass graves, and evidence of cages, watchtowers and a torture room. Over 50 police officers were relieved of their duties, 103 people were tried in the Thai courts for connections with the case. Of the 63 people found guilty, officials included an army general, police officers, and other government officials.

The TIP Report’s Recommendations

Tackling this problem requires a whole-of-government approach, identifying not only individual cases of corruption, but also examining holistically the factors that allow it to take root. This means not only developing robust legal frameworks to combat it and the training to enforce it, it also means:

  • Fostering international partnerships, inter-agency partnerships, and civil society partnerships to bolster existing anti-corruption architecture and eliminate safe havens
  • Encouraging the private sector to develop effective internal controls, ethical safeguards, and compliance measures in their supply chains
  • Providing support and protection for media reporting and whistleblowers, and
  • Working with banking systems to conduct financial investigations as a key red flag for trafficking crimes

With these recommendations and others, the TIP Report seeks to encourage governments to recognize that corruption undermines their efforts to combat trafficking and that trafficking exists on such a large scale because corruption allows it to.