Discovery Grant (Australian Research Council), 2016-2018 (3 years)

Project Summary 

Over the last few years, some non-governmental organisations (NGOs), International Organisations (IOs) and Governments have moved attention away from anti-trafficking and launched “safe migration” programmes in the Mekong region. Safe migration denotes a conceptual shift in policy as it targets migrants moving through space, as opposed to being confined by it. Yet, there has been no independent study into how such emergent policies and programmes are operationalised or the ways in which they affect migrants. 


This is a limited and targeted research project which aims to: 


• examine the policy and migratory contexts in which the shift from anti-trafficking programs to safe migration program is taking place; 


• investigate how these changes, framed in policy as “safety”, are operationalised by implementers and experienced by migrants; 


• advance anthropological theorising of migration governance by examining shifting modes of policy making which places mobility at the centre of the governing of social life;


• enrich ethnographic methodological approaches to the study of migration and its governance; 


• inform future policy responses, including those relating to Australia's role in the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime, bilateral funding of migration management in the region, as well as policies on seasonal workers and the 457 visa scheme in Australia. 


Despite the considerable resources devoted to managing labour migration to Australia, the Asia-Pacific Region and beyond, significant knowledge gaps remain regarding policy implementation and its impact on migrants. The focus on border control and policing of labour migrants has eclipsed scholarly attention on “safe migration” programmes. This project investigates the emergence and operationalisation of “safe migration” as a specific policy modality which seeks to enhance governments and aid programmes targeting of labour mobility in the Mekong region.




In recent decades the world has witnessed unprecedented people movements and large-scale restructuring of labour markets. Labour forces in the developing world are often characterised by oscillation of migrants between rural peripheries and urban centres. Labour migration into goods and service industries often involves various forms of restrictive and coercive practices generating global concerns regarding labour exploitation and deplorable working conditions. Many governments have responded by attempting to deter migration and strengthening border control. In contrast, UN bodies, IOs and academics have criticised border-control policies for creating a market for dubious migration recruitment and increasing dependency on traffickers. Consequently, from the 1990s onwards numerous anti-trafficking projects have been launched to address the human cost of restrictive labour migration; in particular the trafficking of women into the sex trade.


More recently, critics have pointed out that anti-trafficking programmes ignore broader structural reasons for migrants' alleged poor working conditions. In response there has been an increasing focus not only on the need for protection of victims and prosecution of traffickers, but also on the intersection of legal regimes of mobility and labour and its relation to migrants' vulnerability. Hence the perceived weaknesses of anti-trafficking interventions have given rise to the notion of instilled safe migration modalities.


“Safe migration” gradually evolved during the 2000s amongst anti-trafficking programmes in the Mekong region and beyond. It refers specifically to economic migrants as opposed to refugees. Aid programmes rarely provide clear expositions of what they mean by “safe migration”, but it usually refers to a combination of four things:


1) legal status of migrants,

2) progressive awareness raising,

3) social capital  and trust (brokers vs. social networks vs. licensed recruitment firms), and

4) institutional support mechanisms in the migration process (such as hotline phone numbers for migrants).


In the Mekong region, the phrase was first used in the context of awareness-raising campaigns by the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) and other NGOs in 2004. It was coupled with efforts to provide legal avenues for migrant labourers in the Mekong region, demonstrated by various Memorandums of Understandings (MOUs) between several Mekong governments, including Laos, Myanmar and Thailand, on the regulation of migrant labour, as well as by technical support from organisations such as the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM).  Although several anti-trafficking programmes include safe migration activities within their remit, other agencies have undertaken a shift from anti-trafficking to safe migration. 


Although “safe migration” refers to efforts to legalise migration, it goes beyond a strict focus on the law. Inspired by institutional migration theory, activists and scholars alike argue that by providing legal avenues for labour migrants the risk of exploitative practices in labour supply chains is reduced. This view is closely linked to debate on the role of mobility and remittances from migrants in poverty reduction. The 2009 Human Development Report explicitly argues that legalising labour migration contributes positively to both the well-being of migrants (including reduced risk of trafficking) and to development.   This viewpoint places safe migration in a broader social context. Donor organisations go beyond merely advocating legalising migration; they also work towards making migration safer by emphasising the importance of social networks and progressive awareness amongst migrant populations. As with efforts to legalise labour migration, a key assumption is that empowering migrants will curtail the market for traffickers and other unscrupulous facilitators of mobility. Within this framework, either officially sanctioned modes of recruitment (licensed recruitment companies/brokers) or informal migration networks of friends and acquaintances are assumed to result in better (“safer”) conditions for labour migrants. Hence, in policy terms, implicit assumptions are made about vulnerability, risk and safety in relation to different modes of recruitment and brokering in the light of legal context and migration policy, and are evident in programmes in the Mekong region and elsewhere.   

Significance and Innovation


Safe migration programmes raise important theoretical, methodological and policy questions regarding how labour migrants are governed through aid programmes. Anti-trafficking programmes are often demarcated in territorial terms. For example, awareness raising programmes commonly take place in village compounds, services for victims are offered in shelters and reintegration programmes are premised on the spatial return of victims to their place of origin. On a conceptual level, safe migration constitutes a radical departure as it does not aim to “re-territorialise” labour migrants but targets migrants as the move through space with the aim of safeguarding their mobility.   Yet, there are very limited anthropological investigations which examine how such emergent forms of governance unfold in practice. It is precisely this novel form of migration governance this study seeks to investigate. How do aid programmes translate “safety” into specific activities and services for migrants? How are migrants targeted in spatial terms given that programmes are premised on enabling migration flows? We know very little of how migrants are engaged through these programmes, whether is being in the forms of awareness raising programmes (how is “safety” constructed and communicated?), hotline phone numbers for migrants (who calls them? how is information acted upon?) or pre-departure training (what form of safety can be ensured through training?). This research will answer these conundrums by placing specific focus on how implementers operationalise “safety” as well as allowing migrants themselves to evidence policy claims by focusing on how migrant networks engage risk through their migration journeys. As such, placing focus on “safety” is a key strategy to provide insights into how new forms of migration governance emerge in the Mekong region.


This project builds on three strands of theorising: the “mobility turn” in the social sciences, post-panopticism as well as network and institutional migration theory.

What is safe about “safe migration”? Migration management in the Mekong