Can Immigration Officers Predict Trafficking by Looking at Women’s Underwear?



Time to read

3 Minutes

In this guest post, Julie Ham, PhD student in Criminology at Monash University, Australia and member of the Border Crossing Observatory, discusses the role of immigration officers in identifying female victims of trafficking in Australia. Part of an on-going research project at the Border Crossing Observatory, this paper summarises some of the emerging findings.

In a research project led by Sharon Pickering, Director of the Border Crossing Observatory, 15 immigration officers at two metropolitan Australian airports were interviewed in 2012 about how they identify, or more often try to predict, trafficking at the airport border. The findings were both surprising and, in some ways, depressingly familiar. Airport immigration officers largely perceived human trafficking as a ‘woman’s issue’ and still almost exclusively link trafficking with the sex work industry.

For all but one of the immigration officers interviewed, sex workers were identified as the main example of the problem women traveler. The suspected sex worker at the airport border was perceived to represent two risks – the risk of victimization through trafficking and/or the risk of illegal activity by breaching tourist visa conditions that prohibit working.

Despite the prevalence and sophistication of surveillance technologies at the airport, identifying ‘risky’ women still comes down to what women wear and assessing what women’s clothing supposedly signifies about their sexual risk. Identifying suspected or potential sex workers involved searching women’s luggage for sexy clothing and contemplating the rationale for travelling with sexy underwear. Using an intersectional approach to analysing risk, we found that certain ethnicities and certain passports made the presence of lingerie more suspicious.

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Overwhelmingly, sexuality connotes risk at Australian airports when women are Asian and carry passports from Asian countries. The groups mentioned most often are Koreans, Thais, and Chinese-born, Hong Kong passport holders. In Western countries, public perceptions of trafficking still largely revolve around images of racialised women being forcibly moved across borders for sex work. Despite the myriad realities of trafficking, we found that the imagery of Asian women being forced into sex work still dominates at Australian airport borders.

These findings mirror online commentary and accounts of women’s experiences of being profiled at borders. In discussing these findings at conferences and most recently, at FIRST’s community forum in Vancouver, it’s been interesting to hear women’s stories of their friends or acquaintances experiencing similar suspicions at airport borders. This research also brought to mind experiences in my previous work with an international women’s rights and anti-trafficking network. Part of this work routinely involved bringing women’s rights activists from the Global South to our office, and to our meetings, conferences and events. There were a few instances where I recalled immigration officials’ pre-occupation and suspicion of sex workers which resulted in refused visa applications and suspicions that the activists we were trying to arrange travel for were sex workers or travelers intending to become undocumented migrants in transiting countries.

So what do we do with this? When we were analyzing the findings, my first impulse was to share the information informally with women I knew from the countries that are heavily profiled by Australian airport immigration officers (that is, South Korea, Thailand and Hong Kong) and tell them to be careful about what they pack, the messages they save on their phone and their online profiles (all information sources accessed by Australian airport immigration officials), whether they’re sex workers or not!

But more broadly, these findings raise questions about accountability in anti-trafficking, which the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women is working to strengthen. There’s a lot of international political pressure to ‘do something’ about trafficking even as proposed solutions to stop trafficking are often met with political resistance, such as providing more legal channels for labour migration.

Australian anti-trafficking policy is grounded in the UN Human Trafficking Protocol, which defines trafficking as the recruitment or movement of persons through deceptive or coercive means for the purposes of exploitation. However, attempts to identify or predict trafficking at the airport border appears to duplicating the blind spots and limitations of an anti-prostitution understanding of trafficking – a framework in which all migration for sex work is perceived as trafficking and where trafficking is defined by who one is assumed to be (Asian, sexualized, unknowing) rather than human rights violations in migration and labour (as in the international definition of trafficking).

So what is it that we’re getting for our anti-trafficking dollars? And, in terms of border security, how is it that the range of complex surveillance technologies, that are supposed to ensure greater precision and accuracy in detecting risk, instead continue to result in crude assessments of women’s sexuality?

For more on this project, please see:

Pickering, S. & Ham, J. (2014). Hot pants at the border: Sorting sex work from trafficking. British Journal of Criminology. 54(1): 2 - 19.

Ham, J., Segrave, M., & Pickering, S. (2013). 'In the eyes of the beholder: Border enforcement, suspect travellers and trafficking victims. Anti-trafficking Review, 2: 51 - 66.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Ham J (2013) Can immigration officers predict trafficking by looking at women’s underwear? Available at: (Accessed [date]).

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