The dark side of reopening borders in the Pacific

Theo Rouby / AFP

As the Pacific reopens to the world after COVID-19, it faces serious risks from transnational crime, Jose Sousa-Santos writes.

When Fijian Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama announced Fiji would open its borders to international travellers on 1 December 2021, much of the focus was inevitably on the revival of the tourist sector, which comprises 40 per cent of the country’s economy. However, there is a dark side to the reopening of borders across the Pacific.

As discussed last month at the Australia Pacific Security College’s webinar talanoa, of particular concern are the risks associated with reopening Pacific borders to the world, including the risks posed by transnational criminal actors once national borders open. Of particular concern are trends in human trafficking.

One of the major features of the Pacific security environment is the rising sophistication, range and number of transnational and local organised crime actors operating within the region. These illicit shadow economies have adapted to the pandemic in order to exploit the situation. These same actors will also predictably seek to benefit from the post-pandemic recovery.

Criminal groups have long used the aftermath of humanitarian emergencies, and the security vacuum that frequently exists, to strengthen ties with communities and leverage governments.

These risks are particularly acute in the Pacific region where the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on health, livelihoods, and food security.

The pandemic has created a vulnerable landscape in the Pacific which transnational criminal organisations and local criminals have been quick to capitalise on. As economies faltered, criminal actors have – and will continue to – take advantage of communities under duress with significant implications for security.

To combat this, it’s useful to consider trends witnessed in other regions. The relationship between COVID-19 and illicit activity was captured in the recent ASEAN declaration on combating transnational crime post pandemic. The declaration emphasised the importance of strengthening border management cooperation as states reopened in order to prevent a rise in illicit trafficking and smuggling, as well as forgeries of identification, health certificates and travel documents.

Borders are likely to be under similar pressures in the Pacific. First, there is an increased risk of human trafficking – both domestic and cross-border – as those who have experienced economic hardship due to the pandemic seek economic opportunities. The region is already vulnerable to human trafficking, although the extent of it is unknown due to the lack of data and research on the issue.

In response to these growing concerns, in 2020 the International Organization for Migration launched a European Union-funded project with Fijian non-governmental organisation Homes of Hope to deliver a two-year project to counter human trafficking.

Fiji, as a major regional hub, has become a source, transit, and destination country for cross-border trafficking and domestic human trafficking. In 2020, Homes of Hope, the only organisation of its kind in Fiji, revealed that incidences of sexual exploitation and human trafficking recorded locally were increasing every year, with the youngest known victim being only 11-years-old.

Moreover, in 2020, global slavery organisation Walk Free’s report highlighted how climate-induced displacement was leading to increased vulnerability of key groups – especially migrant workers, women and children. The report argued there are significant gaps in the response to modern slavery in the Pacific and called for regional governments to implement a coordinated and focused response to successfully combat the issue.

Unfortunately, regional responses to human trafficking appear to have stalled. In 2010, the Pacific Immigration Development Community (PIDC) noted that the issue remained one of significant concern for the region. As a result PIDC has begun developing a regional framework to combat human trafficking and people smuggling.

As we emerge from the pandemic, there is a window of opportunity to put in place mechanisms to combat the risks posed by reopening the Pacific’s borders. But this is dependent on two factors. The first is strengthening trust, both within the region and with partners. The second factor is that initiatives need to be locally owned – this means Pacific-led and partner-supported.

The Chair of the Pacific Immigration Development Community, Tuvalu, stated in August this year that adopting a region-oriented approach was critical to addressing the immigration issues Pacific island nationals face abroad. This is equally important when addressing the risks posed by criminal actors at the borders.

Collective solutions are essential. This starts with strengthening the regional architecture – for example, by enhancing cooperation, information exchange, training, and data collection, as well as developing new modalities to promote practical cooperation between Pacific law enforcement agencies.

A major challenge across many sectors in the Pacific is the lack of data. This is particularly true in the context of illicit activities – where data-driven responses are critical. Data on new methods and modi operandi of transnational criminal actors is needed. So too is analysis of the connection between transnational crime and the pandemic in the Pacific, with a view to assist the region in its efforts to address short-term and long-term risks.

Transnational criminal actors and organisations have adapted to the pandemic in inventive ways and faster than law enforcement has been able to respond. This simply reinforces the need to strengthen the capabilities of Pacific agencies and deepen cooperation and collaboration.

Jose Sousa-Santos

This piece was first published on Policy Forum.

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