Australia’s national security is greatly affected by that of its surrounding regions, and a large percentage of its illicit drug market originates from Southeast Asia. It is therefore in Australia’s interests to assist in combating transnational organised crime in the Southeast Asia region.
This is demonstrated by a significant financial contribution from the Australian government to enable research, that has resulted in the recently released report on Transnational Organized Crime in Southeast Asia by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
The findings of the report will help to strengthen policies, border management and law enforcement to increase security within the Southeast Asia region, as well as that of surrounding countries.
What is an organised crime group?
Transnational organised crime groups are highly organised and sophisticated operations, driven by market forces just like legitimate businesses. These groups are prevalent in Southeast Asia and have demonstrated a great ability to adapt to change and expand their operations, posing an increasing transnational threat.
The report shows that recently outlaw motorcycle gangs from Australia and New Zealand have established a number of chapters in Southeast Asia and are involved in drug trafficking, extortion, money laundering and other crimes.
Key transnational crime types in Southeast Asia
The four most active transnational organised crime markets in the Southeast Asia region are:
- Illicit drugs
- Human trafficking and migrant smuggling
- Environmental crimes
- Counterfeit goods and medicines
Whilst all these crime types have a devastating impact on the Southeast Asia region, the illicit drug market has the greatest impact on Australia.
The illicit drug market: a truly global problem
The trafficking of illicit drugs has become increasingly transnational in nature due to a number of factors such as the use of technologies that allow illicit drugs to be sold online and payments to be made in anonymous crypto-currencies.
The report focuses on two key illicit drug markets: methamphetamine and heroin.
The illicit drug market in Southeast Asia has seen a heavy increase in methamphetamine production, particularly in northern Myanmar. One significant contributing factor is that due to heavy law enforcement efforts in China, drug syndicates have been displaced and forced to migrate production.
The borders of Myanmar-Thailand and Thailand-Malaysia have also become trafficking hot spots, facilitating the flow of methamphetamine from Myanmar throughout these countries as well as to nearby countries, including Australia.
The report states that “the illicit methamphetamine market of Southeast Asia and neighbouring East Asia, Australia, New Zealand and Bangladesh are inter-connected and now estimated to be worth between US$ 30.3 and US$ 61.4 billion annually.”
Despite having relatively small populations, Australia and New Zealand’s combined retail methamphetamine market value is estimated at US$ 11.1 billion. This is a result of disproportionately high wholesale and retail prices for methamphetamine in Australia and New Zealand.
Whilst the methamphetamine market continues to expand in Southeast Asia, the region has also seen a decreased demand for heroin in recent years.
This may explain an increase in the trafficking of heroin to countries outside of the region such as Australia, where recent forensic analysis and profiling of heroin seized at the border indicates the predominance of Southeast Asian heroin in its domestic market.
Human trafficking and migrant smuggling
Human trafficking is a major problem in countries throughout Southeast Asia, particularly relating to the trafficking of women and girls for sexual exploitation. This type of activity is typically contained within Southeast Asia and neighbouring East Asia, with victims being trafficked from less developed countries such as Cambodia, Myanmar and the Philippines to more developed countries including China, Malaysia and Thailand.
Migrant smuggling is another widespread and profitable criminal activity for organised crime groups in Southeast Asia, with the smuggling of migrants also being dispersed across parts of Australia, Europe, North America, the Middle East, and other regions. This activity typically involves large transnational smuggling networks, some of which have been linked to established diaspora communities in destination countries.
Other transnational crimes
Other key transnational crime types in Southeast Asia include environmental crimes (such as wildlife and timber trafficking), and the trafficking of counterfeit goods and medicines. Whilst the report does not go into detail about the direct impact on Australia, it is clear that due to the transnational nature of these crimes, the global market (including Australia) is susceptible to infiltration by these types of illicit products. For example, Vietnam has been identified as a major source of counterfeit cigarettes in Australia.
Australia’s national security is directly affected by the security of its surrounding regions. With the increasingly transnational nature of crime and flows of illicit drugs from Southeast Asia to Australia, there is the need for a coordinated global response and international law enforcement cooperation in stopping crimes before they cross borders.