Asia and the Pacific is home to 56 per cent of the world’s population, including the two most populous countries, India and China, and experienced the greatest increase in international migrants from 2000 to 2020.1 The region hosts the largest number of people in modern slavery, with an estimated 15 million people in forced labour. This includes debt bondage among migrants exploited within the region, hereditary forms of bonded labour in South Asia, and state-imposed forced labour in China, North Korea, and other countries. The prevalence of forced marriage in Asia and the Pacific is second highest in the world, after the Arab States, impacting an estimated 4.5 females and 2.1 males per every thousand people.
Although the region is highly diverse in terms of geography, ethnicity, culture, religion, and wealth, modern slavery occurs in every country. Discrimination on the basis of gender, race, caste, and ethnicity drives vulnerability to modern slavery. This vulnerability is compounded by conflict, as seen with the mass displacement of the Rohingya population in Myanmar, political instability, as shown by the seizure of power by the Taliban in Afghanistan, and economic insecurity, as illustrated by the economic crisis and humanitarian emergency in Sri Lanka. To varying extents, the effects of climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic have exacerbated vulnerability across the region — driving increased unemployment, poverty, and gender inequality.
Australia took the most action to combat modern slavery in the region, followed by the Philippines and Thailand, while North Korea and Iran took the least. Across most countries, governments should address significant gaps including raising the age of marriage to 18 for girls and boys with no exemptions and ensuring that labour rights are extended to all workers, including migrants.
What is the extent and nature of modern slavery in the region?
On any given day in 2021, an estimated 29.3 million people were living in modern slavery in Asia and the Pacific. This accounts for 59 per cent of the global total. When population size is taken into account, Asia and the Pacific had the third highest prevalence of modern slavery in the world with 6.8 per thousand people in the region forced to work or marry. Among the five regions, Asia and the Pacific had the second highest prevalence of forced marriage (3.3 per thousand) and the third highest prevalence of forced labour (3.5 per thousand).2
The country with by far the highest prevalence in Asia and the Pacific, and, indeed, the world, is North Korea, where the population is forced to work by the state or risk being penalised with hard labour in prison camps.3 In North Korea, an estimated one in every 10 people are in situations of modern slavery.
Following North Korea, Afghanistan, and Myanmar had the second and third highest prevalence of modern slavery in the region. India, China, and North Korea had the highest number — and together accounting for two-thirds of all people in modern slavery in the region. Instability continues to shape experiences of modern slavery across high prevalence countries in Asia and the Pacific. For example, the worsening humanitarian situation caused by the political and economic turmoil drives modern slavery practices in Afghanistan and Myanmar.4 In these contexts, families may resort to negative coping mechanisms, such as marrying their young daughters, to deal with economic stress.5 In other countries with a high prevalence of modern slavery, such as Pakistan and India, economic insecurity drives workers to take on risky jobs or loans from unscrupulous employers. Employers then exploit these workers by forcing them into labour-intensive jobs to repay their debts.6
Although these regional figures of modern slavery are the most reliable to date, they are conservative estimates given the gaps and limitations of data in key regions and subregions. For example, difficulties in conducting surveys in countries that are experiencing conflict means that our estimates for these countries likely understate the problem, despite our efforts to address data gaps. These estimates also do not include the recruitment of child soldiers or organ trafficking, which other sources note occur in parts of the region.7 The true number of people living in situations of modern slavery in Asia and the Pacific is likely much higher.
Table 1: Estimated prevalence and number of people in modern slavery, by country
|Regional rank||Country||Est. prevalence of modern slavery (per 1,000 population)||Est. number of people in modern slavery||Population|
|5||Papua New Guinea||10.3||93,000||8,947,000|
What drives vulnerability to modern slavery in the region?
Figure 1: Level of vulnerability to modern slavery, by dimension
Asia and the Pacific is the third most vulnerable region in the world to modern slavery. The drivers most influencing this risk include widespread discriminatory social norms, political inequality and instability, and economic insecurity. While conflict-induced displacement and disruption widened gaps in wealth and social capital in some countries, vulnerability was compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic and climate-related disasters. Overall, Afghanistan had the highest levels of vulnerability (86 per cent) and Australia the lowest (7 per cent).
Discriminatory social norms that devalue marginalised groups on the basis of their migration status, race, ethnicity, and/or sexual orientation are the greatest driver of vulnerability in the region. In Myanmar, the Rohingya minority continue to face mass displacement, abductions, sexual violence, and murder,8 driving many to seek protection in Bangladesh. Once in Bangladesh, Rohingya refugees face increased risks of modern slavery as offenders prey on their extreme vulnerability,9 while families living in camps struggle to cope with food and economic insecurity,10 which, coupled with gender discrimination, has led to increased rates of child marriage.11 The persecution of religious and ethnic minorities occurs in China, including the use of state-imposed forced labour to control the Uyghur population and other Turkic and Muslim majority groups in the Uyghur region.12 The extent of arbitrary and discriminatory detention of Uyghur and other predominately Muslim groups has been called a crime against humanity by the UN Human Rights Commissioner.13
Political inequality and instability pervade many countries in the region, driving vulnerability to modern slavery. Notably, Afghanistan is considered the least peaceful country in the world.14 In August 2021, after four decades of war, the Taliban seized control, triggering political, economic, and social shocks and worsening the humanitarian situation.15 The crisis has caused many civilians to turn to smugglers to flee the country, often to countries with measures in place to actively deter Afghan refugees,16 which compounds their vulnerability to exploitation. Afghan women and girls have reportedly been forced into marriages by their families to escape the country.17 In Iran, physical and sexual violence is perpetrated by security forces as a means to repress women’s rights and stifle political dissent, which has attracted coordinated sanctions from 30 countries in March 2023.18 Hundreds of activists have been unfairly imprisoned and subject to torture and sexual assault or killed since protests erupted in September 2022, following the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini — who was arrested for wearing her hijab incorrectly.19 Personal status laws that deny women equal rights in matters of marriage, divorce, inheritance, and children further entrench gender inequality and vulnerability to exploitation.20
Economic instability and increasing poverty limit access to essential needs for survival such as shelter, food, and water, and increase vulnerability to all forms of modern slavery in Asia and the Pacific. This is underpinned by widening wealth gaps: in 2021, an additional 80 million people were forced into poverty due to pandemic-related disruptions in economic activity.21 This risk is compounded for disenfranchised groups who were already living in precarious conditions. In India, for example, a sudden lockdown in early 2020 left many migrant workers, who were largely employed as day labourers, stranded and without support from the government or their employers.22 Many had no alternative but to make the journey home on foot, often walking hundreds of kilometres,23 while others took out loans to meet their basic needs.24 After a devastating second wave of COVID-19 buckled the Indian health system in 202125 and caused many deaths from the disease,26 thousands of newly orphaned children were exposed to higher risks of abuse and trafficking.27
Climate change and climate-related disasters exacerbate risks to modern slavery by reducing access to essential needs and increasing existing disparities in wealth and social capital levels. These burdens were not evenly shared across the region. Many people in low-lying countries in the Pacific Islands expect to be displaced from their homes due to the effects of climate change,28 if they have not been already.29 Intensifying weather events and rising sea levels contribute to food and water insecurity through crop loss, loss of arable land, overcrowding, poor health and sanitation, and increased competition for limited jobs.30 These conditions create opportunities for traffickers to exploit vulnerable individuals,31 particularly where avenues for regular migration are not readily available.32 Risk of modern slavery also increases through reliance on negative coping mechanisms. For instance, in Bangladesh, one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change,33 extreme weather has been linked to child marriage to both minimise household expenses and protect daughters from the heightened risk of sexual violence.34
Table 2: Level of vulnerability to modern slavery, by country
|Papua New Guinea||79|
What are governments in the region doing to address modern slavery?
Walk Free assessed government responses to modern slavery across 32 countries in the region. Asia and the Pacific scored an average 40 per cent rating on government response, the second lowest score of the five regions. Overall, governments did not have sufficient measures to support survivors or the criminal justice process, coordinate the response, address underlying risk factors, or eradicate modern slavery from supply chains — though responses vary significantly across the region.
Within Asia and the Pacific, there are stark differences in GDP per capita PPP (current international $),35 meaning certain economies have far more resources available to dedicate to responding to modern slavery than others. However, on overall government response scores, countries with a higher level of wealth, particularly Brunei Darussalam, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Japan are taking relatively little action to respond to modern slavery. In comparison, Bangladesh, Fiji, Lao PDR, the Philippines, and Thailand are all taking positive steps to respond to this issue relative to their level of wealth.
Australia took the most action to combat modern slavery in the Asia and the Pacific region, followed by the Philippines, Thailand, and New Zealand. For the first time, Australia allocated a budget to support implementation of its National Action Plan.36 In December 2021, the President of the Philippines signed Republic Act (R.A.) No. 11596 into law, which effectively criminalises child marriage, setting the minimum age of marriage at 18.37 The Philippines is only the eighth country in our assessment of the region to do so. However, the Philippines has not yet criminalised forced marriage, which remains a critical gap across the region, with only 10 countries having done so.38 Thailand, New Zealand, Australia, Bangladesh, and Malaysia recently joined Sri Lanka as the only countries in the region to have brought the Protocol of 2014 to the Forced Labour Convention, 1930 into force.39
North Korea and Iran still demonstrate the weakest response to modern slavery, reflecting a lack of political will to address modern slavery and, in the case of North Korea, the active use of state-imposed forced labour. For many Pacific Island countries, the challenge of operating in resource constrained environments largely accounts for existing gaps in the response to modern slavery.40
Many countries in the region took further action to combat modern slavery since the last edition of the Global Slavery Index in 2018. For example, since then, Palau, Bangladesh, Brunei Darussalam, Nepal, and Pakistan41 acceded to the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children.42 Brunei Darussalam finalised a National Action Plan on human trafficking43 and established a National Committee on Trafficking in Persons.44 Palau, which was not included in the previous edition of the GSI, has also made significant strides in improving the modern slavery response over the last four years, during which it set up a coordinating body and adopted a National Action Plan,45 ratified the ILO Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999 (No. 182),46 and established a trafficking hotline.47
“Once they are rescued and back in their communities, the victims needed to be connected with services within their community. They need services so that there is no re-trafficking.” Female survivor of modern slavery, India, 2019
There are significant gaps in legislative frameworks to combat modern slavery across the region. Nine countries in Asia and the Pacific have stated in legislation that survivors are not to be treated as criminals for conduct that occurred while under the control of criminals. However, even where this protection exists, it is not always implemented in practice. A total of 19 countries in the region treated survivors of modern slavery as criminals. For example, in 2020, 81 returned migrant workers who had been exploited in Viet Nam were jailed in Bangladesh.48
This is not the only gap between policy and practice. While almost all countries have criminalised corruption, there were reports that official complicity in modern slavery cases were not investigated in 19 countries. In India, officials allegedly received bribes from traffickers in exchange for protection against prosecution, while in the state of Tamil Nadu, local politicians allegedly benefitted from the commercial sexual exploitation of children and forced begging rings.49 Further, despite National Action Plans in 28 countries, only 11 governments routinely reviewed their modern slavery response and just two countries monitored the government response to modern slavery through an independent entity, such as the Office of the Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons in Nepal, which is tasked with monitoring human trafficking in the country and making recommendations to government.50 More recently, Australia announced funding to establish an Anti-Slavery Commissioner.51 Of 26 countries that have a legal framework that supports compensation or restitution for modern slavery crimes, only 15 awarded compensation or restitution to survivors in practice.
“If governments are not able to prevent trafficking, it is at least their responsibility to give compensation to victims. Every government is responsible to give compensation to victims of human trafficking.” Female survivor of modern slavery, India, 2019
Labour laws in 18 countries prevented certain groups, such as migrant workers or domestic workers, from exercising their rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining, and only the Philippines has ratified the ILO Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189).52 Despite significant levels of regular and irregular migration — largely intra-regional but also to destinations such as North America, Europe, and the Middle East53 — only six countries had ratified the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, 199054 and fewer than half have ratified the Protocol Against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air.55 Further, recruitment agencies were registered and monitored by governments in only 13 countries, and even fewer countries in the region had laws or policies stating that recruitment fees — a known driver of risk among migrants — are to be paid by employers.
“Holding company owners directly liable for what happens in their business or supply chains.” Female survivor of modern slavery, India, 2019
Only six countries took any steps to eradicate modern slavery from supply chains. This includes Australia’s 2018 Modern Slavery Act, which requires businesses with an annual consolidated revenue of at least AU$100 million (approximately US$67 million) to report on their efforts to address modern slavery within their operations and supply chains.56 In 2022, New Zealand also proposed legislation to prevent modern slavery within business supply chains.57
Table 3: Government response score, by country and milestone
|Country||Survivors identified and supported (%)||Criminal justice mechanisms (%)||National and regional level coordination (%)||Risk factors are addressed (%)||Government and business supply chains (%)||Total (%)|
|Papua New Guinea||23||42||50||29||0||31|
Recommendations for governments
Ensure survivor support services, including shelters, crisis support centres, and community-based protection, cover all populations — including males, adults, and migrants — and make specialised support available for children.
Strengthen legislation to protect survivors of exploitation by ensuring they are not treated as criminals for conduct that occurred while under the control of traffickers. Ensure legislation supports compensation and restitution for survivors of modern slavery and that this occurs in practice, including by setting up a compensation fund for survivors.
Raise the minimum age of marriage to 18 for girls and boys with no exemptions.
Extend labour laws to ensure that all groups are covered without exception and ensure that labour inspections are regularly conducted across all sectors, including the informal sector. Introduce and enforce laws to prohibit charging of recruitment fees to employees and register and monitor local recruitment agencies for deceptive practices, ensuring contracts are made available in a language migrants can understand.
Introduce mandatory human rights due diligence to stop governments and businesses sourcing goods or services linked to modern slavery