Building Better Borders in Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia is one of the globe’s most diverse regions, home to varied natural landscapes, remarkable biodiversity, and dozens of peoples. Land, river, and maritime borders divide the region’s 650 million people into 11 countries with distinct social, political, and economic realities. From the megacities of Bangkok and Jakarta to villages in mountainous regions of Myanmar and Lao PDR, Southeast Asia’s aggregate GDP of more than US$3 trillion conceals disparities in economic development between and within countries. Following the violence and instability that plagued parts of the region in the mid-20th century, certain countries, notably Thailand, Viet Nam, and Malaysia, have experienced rapid economic growth, becoming middle-income countries by the 2000s. In neighboring Cambodia, Lao PDR, and Myanmar, meanwhile, economic development has come more recently, fueled by growing Chinese investment in the region. These gaps in political and economic development in Southeast Asia make the region vulnerable to emerging security risks that threaten the socioeconomic advancements made in the past quarter century.

Over the past decade, the security landscape in Southeast Asia has transformed. Historical patterns of transnational organized crime have accelerated and new illicit markets have emerged, together generating billions of dollars each year for criminal organizations. Southeast Asia is a global hub for illicit drug production, trafficking in persons, migrant smuggling, and wildlife and timber trafficking. The region is both a source of and destination for illicit goods, as well as a transhipment point connecting global criminal networks. Transnational organized crime presents a serious threat to security and stability in Southeast Asia and neighbouring regions, harming the health and wellbeing of individuals and communities, compromising the rule of law, and undermining legitimate economic development.

The region’s economic, social, and political conditions present criminal organizations with lucrative opportunities across multiple illicit markets. Easy access to the necessary inputs to manufacture narcotics—both synthetic and plant-based drugs—supports a rapidly growing market which generates more than US$60 billion per year for organized crime. Migrant smuggling networks prey on the region’s poorest communities, exploiting their desperate circumstances by smuggling unskilled workers to more developed countries with a high demand for cheap labour, often employing coercive tactics. Even the region’s natural splendour is affected by organized crime; many wild animals are poached or bred in captivity for their body parts and biproducts to be sold and consumed in Southeast Asia and neighbouring countries. These conditions have allowed criminals across illicit markets to establish complex operations spanning the region.

While each illicit market is shaped by unique dynamics, the region’s porous borders facilitate all types of organized crime. Illicit operations—whether engaged in drug trafficking or migrant smuggling—rely on value chains which span national borders in the region and connect Southeast Asia to global criminal networks. Within the region, most trafficking occurs along the region’s land and river borders where enforcement measures are limited. Historically, traffickers relied on remote trafficking routes crossing borders through mountainous terrain or jungle to evade detection. However, as investments in infrastructure and the growth of intra-regional trade have accelerated over the past two decades, smugglers have adopted new tactics, concealing ever-larger consignments of contraband among legitimate goods on trucks and river boats. Government policies intended to encourage trade and economic integration have not been met with similar investments in shared security, leaving border officials ill-equipped to effectively interdict growing trafficking activity.

The challenges authorities face at land borders in Southeast Asia are two-fold: the technical capacity of law enforcement agencies is limited, and mechanisms for coordinating investigations into transnational crime are underdeveloped. Frontline officers at land border crossings in the region often receive limited training prior to assuming their positions and lack the resources to conduct investigations into the complex criminal networks operating across borders. Furthermore, law enforcement institutions in the region remain nationalized; agencies that investigate trafficking activity seldom cooperate or share information with their cross-border counterparts. As a result of these shortcomings, trafficking frequently goes undetected and investigations often end at national borders, culminating in individual arrests and seizures instead of more significant disruptions to regional criminal networks.

Adding to these challenges, transnational organized crime in Southeast Asia is highly flexible to changing circumstances. Criminal operations able to adapt rapidly to increased law enforcement operations in certain border areas, diverting operations to neighbouring jurisdictions with weaker enforcement, often in the region’s poorest countries. Criminal organizations have also shown their resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic; despite restrictions on movement and the closure of most land borders in the region, illicit operations continue to move contraband across borders concealed among ongoing essential trade and exploiting weak enforcement along riverine borders in the Mekong region. To effectively dismantle the criminal organizations operating in Southeast Asia, frontline officers across all land borders in the region need tools to conduct sophisticated criminal investigations: modern equipment, advanced training, and institutional mechanisms which facilitate cross-border cooperation.

Recognizing these challenges, governments in the region are working to enhance multilateral cooperation on border management through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Addressing transnational organized crime is a growing priority of the ASEAN Political – Security Community. In 2019, Thailand, as ASEAN Chairman, hosted the High-Level Regional Conference on Enhancing Cooperation on Border Management, with support from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Delegates from across the region discussed the enforcement challenges the region faces and the importance of developing a coordinated response. Since the conference, UNODC has provided technical and policy support to Thailand, who is the lead shepherd of a new ASEAN Border Management Cooperation Roadmap. The roadmap, now in the final stages of development, is a comprehensive plan of action that outlines key steps governments should take in concert to effectively address and prevent illicit trafficking across borders.

UNODC has supported and promoted cross-border cooperation to counter illicit trafficking for more than 20 years through the establishment of a network of border liaison offices (BLOs), in partnership with governments in the region. The Regional BLO Network is an institutional mechanism that facilitates cooperation on issues related to transnational organized crime between domestic law enforcement agencies and cross-border counterparts. It is made up of over 100 offices at land or river border crossings throughout the region facing a heavy volume of illicit trafficking activity. At an operational BLO, officers from multiple law enforcement agencies with mandates related to transnational organized crime—anti-narcotic police, customs, immigration, border guards, forestry enforcement, etc.—work together to share intelligence, coordinate investigations, and collect information related to illicit activity.

By creating a mechanism for rapid information sharing and data collection at frontline border crossings—instead of through national agencies in faraway capital cities—BLOs provide officers with awareness of their counterparts’ activities. This enables authorities to quickly open investigations into criminal activity based on accurate intelligence, avoiding unnecessary delays. In 2019, officers stationed at BLOs coordinated in response to illicit activity or conducted joint operations more than 4000 times at land and river border crossings across the five countries in the Greater Mekong Subregion. Through these interactions, officers at BLOs supported nearly 10,000 criminal investigations into illicit trafficking activity, primarily related to drug trafficking (7085 cases) and human trafficking (2325 cases). The network also provides authorities with a framework for coordination in response to other cross-border challenges. In 2020, at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, UNODC and national governments mobilized the BLO Network to deliver essential information and personal protective equipment to frontline officers to prevent the spread of disease at and across land borders. As a platform for inter-agency coordination and cross-border cooperation, the Regional BLO Network offers a solution to a range of border management challenges.

UNODC supports law enforcement operations and the broader agenda of the ASEAN Political – Security Community through the framework of the Regional BLO Network. To assist frontline officers in their efforts to interdict cross-border trafficking, UNODC equips BLOs with equipment based on their operational needs and trains officers to support investigations into organized crime. UNODC also advances the policy dialogue on border management issues at the national and regional level by convening regular workshops and consultations for representatives from the network. At these meetings, delegates from BLOs and central authorities discuss challenges and share best practices to advance new policy solutions. By equipping officers with modern equipment and providing agencies with an interface for cooperation and information sharing, UNODC is helping law enforcement agencies in Southeast Asia address transnational organized crime more effectively.
A representative from UNODC presents new equipment to frontline officers during a National BLO Network Consultation in Luang Prabang, Lao PDR (UNODC 2019)

Although governments and law enforcement agencies play a central role in addressing illicit trafficking, they alone cannot extinguish transnational organized crime in the region. Criminal networks are deeply entrenched in the socio-economic fabric of Southeast Asia and a comprehensive approach to addressing organized crime in Southeast Asia must acknowledge the role communities play in countering cross-border trafficking. Residents of villages and towns in border areas are often exploited by criminals who make them lucrative offers to carry contraband across national borders. As a result, low level-traffickers—sometimes referred to as ‘mules’—are arrested for trafficking offences while regional criminal networks go unpunished. By engaging communities in efforts to improve border management, law enforcement and policy makers can conduct more effective investigations into transnational organized crime.

To assess the impact of trafficking on border communities and understand their role in addressing criminal activity, UNODC is conducting surveys with the support of local volunteers in villages and towns across Southeast Asia. The full findings of the project will be summarized in a forthcoming report; however, it has already uncovered promising findings. In North-eastern Thailand, communities on the banks of the Mekong River (which separates the kingdom from Lao PDR) have formed volunteer surveillance units, monitoring suspicious activity in their communities and alerting authorities to suspected smuggling activity. With community members as their eyes and ears, law enforcement are interdicting trafficking cases that would otherwise go undetected.

Criminal networks in Southeast Asia are extensive, resilient, and resourceful. Crimes committed by their agents have a detrimental effect on the economic development, good governance, and well-being of communities throughout the region. Although illicit activity varies considerably across the region, transnational crime invariably relies on cross-border trafficking. By working together—national governments, law enforcement agencies, border communities, and the international community—to ensure the region’s borders are protected from illicit trafficking, we can stop transnational organized crime in its tracks.

By Felipe De La Torre, Valentina Pancieri, and Liam Kirkpatrick, UNODC Regional Office for Southeast Asia and the Pacific