Commonwealth countries in the Pacific and Caribbean are vulnerable to the illicit trafficking of drugs, arms, and people. Both regions are frequently used as transit points for trafficking, meaning that they are neither the origin (source) or destination of trafficked goods, but lie on the route through which these goods pass. This piece outlines the challenges facing Small Island Developing States (SIDs) in the Pacific and Caribbean, exploring current strategies and best practices for responding to trafficking, which includes encouraging greater cooperation between the two regions.
Parallel Challenges in Illicit Trafficking
Due to their location between Asia and the Americas, the Pacific Island nations are increasingly used as a transit point for drug trafficking.[i] Drugs are transported across the region by cartels from Latin America and Asia, often bound for lucrative markets in Australia and New Zealand. The Pacific is home to a significant amount of maritime trade, meaning that criminal syndicates are able to smuggle drugs in shipping containers.[ii] Transnational criminal networks also exploit the region’s porous borders and limited surveillance. Widespread use of the internet has compounded this issue, with cartels from either side of the Pacific able to communicate and exchange money online.[iii]
The rise in drug trafficking is having detrimental impacts on local communities in Pacific Island nations. Fiji and Tonga have both reported an increase in drug-related arrests over the past 5 years.[iv] In Tonga, the rise in drug use is associated with higher rates of domestic violence and in Fiji more women are entering sex work, both of which illustrate possible gendered implications of increased drug use in the region too. The upward trend in drug trafficking has also led to higher levels of corruption, with local law enforcement personnel being intimidated or bribed.[v]
Like the Pacific, Commonwealth SIDs in the Caribbean are used as a transit point for drug trafficking. The region experienced a slight decline in the illicit trade during the Covid-19 pandemic.[vi] Nonetheless, reports continue to surface about the large quantities of drugs being seized in the Caribbean Sea.[vii] The Caribbean is a major trafficking corridor due to its location between Latin America, the US and Europe.[viii] Cocaine is frequently transported through the region from neighbouring Colombia, the world’s largest cocaine producer. Some drugs are trafficked using narco-submarines, which are difficult to detect. Caribbean states tend to use the limited resources available to them to monitor their own shores, leading to gaps in surveillance across much of the wider Caribbean Sea and enabling the continued operation of illegal supply chains. Low rates of employment in the region have also prompted individuals to join the drug trade and undermined legitimate economies.[ix]
The Pacific is used as a transit hub – and sometimes destination point – for arms trafficking. Weapons are generally transported to the region from origin countries in Southeast Asia.[x] The recent rise in regional drug trafficking has been tied to an increase in arms trading, with the number of weapons seized in Tonga doubling over the last 5 years in line with drug-related arrests.[xi] Arms have also been trafficked to the Pacific during episodes of political unrest; authorities intercepted several large arms deliveries ahead of political instability in Fiji and illegal arms have been trafficked to Papua New Guinea and used in intercommunal conflicts.[xii]
The Caribbean has also faced challenges due to the trafficking of illicit arms in recent years. Arms are transported to the region from South America via shipping boats and in shipping containers from North America. Like in the Pacific, the rise in arms has been linked to the drug trade, with criminal networks purchasing weapons for self-defence. The increase in arms dealing is believed to have contributed to a rise in homicides in the Caribbean. For instance, Jamaica reported an uptick in homicides involving firearms in accordance with higher rates of arms trafficking.[xiii]
Human trafficking appears to be less common than other forms of illicit trafficking in the Pacific. However, it is becoming more prevalent in the region. Several reports have surfaced of individuals being trafficked from East and South Asia for forced labour on fisheries in the Solomon Islands, Samoa, and Fiji. Meanwhile, “dozens” of enslaved individuals from Bangladesh were identified in Vanuatu in June 2022. False documentation makes it difficult for victims to leave the country or report to authorities. According to the 2022 US Department of State “Trafficking in Persons Report,” the issue is compounded by the limited capacity for many Pacific states possess to address human trafficking.[xiv]
Caribbean countries appear to be a source, transit, and destination point for various forms of human trafficking. Women have been trafficked from Guyana and Jamaica to Antigua as part of the sex tourism industry, which is relatively popular in the Caribbean.[xv] Some Caribbean countries also serve as the origin point of trafficking; around 50,000 Dominican women were found to have been trafficked to the EU in 2009.[xvi] People from Saint Vincent and the Grenadines have also been abducted into criminal syndicates. This form of trafficking has seen women and girls forced into sexual servitude. In addition, reports show how people have been trafficked from the Bahamas and forced to serve on cruise ships. As in the Pacific, trafficking is difficult to tackle in the Caribbean due to underdeveloped anti-trafficking legislation and limited enforcement capacity.[xvii]
Possible Future Responses
Pacific Island nations and Caribbean SIDs should focus on strengthening intraregional coordination in order to improve surveillance and streamline the flow of information between different states, both of which are key to tackling maritime crime.[xviii] Through regional cooperation, countries can pool resources to monitor illicit trades. A number of existing regional mechanisms could be harnessed for regional cooperation, such as the Pacific Transnational Crime Coordination Centre and the CARICOM Implementation Agency for Crime and Security in the Caribbean.
Given the similarities between illicit trafficking in both regions, it would be beneficial for Commonwealth SIDs in the Pacific and Caribbean to work collaboratively and share information and best practices. For instance, both regions are primarily used as transit hubs rather than source or destination points and both are traffic corridors for Latin American cartels.
Countries in both regions should invest in domestic and regional initiatives to combat trafficking. Within the region and across the regions a wealth of business and policy innovation exists and should be inculcated, from local UAS providers to data analysis. Other domestic focuses could include investing in community initiatives, as communities can be the first line of defence for monitoring the use of illegal drugs, firearms, and human trafficking.
In targeting development funds, donor nations within the Commonwealth, should increase their assistance to Pacific Island and Caribbean SIDs. In particular, donors could help improve aerial and maritime surveillance through the provision of equipment and vessels and through joint operations. Donor nations should lead in providing training to security personnel from Commonwealth SIDs, which would be a tactic that is sustainable and of comparatively limited cost. Donor nations could also assist in the implementation of domestic initiatives designed to tackle the societal impacts of trafficking in the Pacific and Caribbean.
SIDs in the Pacific and Caribbean should bolster law enforcement strategies to combat trafficking. This includes the creation of drug taskforces, which can be highly effective. Tonga created its Drug Enforcement Taskforce in 2018, which made over 250 arrests in its first year of operation.[xix] Both regions should also improve anti-trafficking legislation and ensure it is properly enforced.
Finally, most available data on trafficking in the Pacific and Caribbean relates to drug trafficking, with limited research into arms dealing and human trafficking. It is critical to gather more data on all forms of trafficking taking place in these regions.
[i]Christine Rovoi, ‘Pacific Used as Transit Point for Organised Crime, UN Says’, Stuff, 12 August 2022, https://www.stuff.co.nz/pou-tiaki/129547000/pacific-used-as-transit-point-for-organised-crime-un-says. [ii]Jose Sousa-Santos, ‘Drug Trafficking in the Pacific Islands: The Impact of Transnational Crime’, 16 February 2022, https://www.lowyinstitute.org/publications/drug-trafficking-pacific-islands-impact-transnational-crime. [iii]Islands Business, ‘Pacific Islands Increasingly Used as Crime Transit Point, Experts Say’, Islands Business (blog), 26 October 2022, https://islandsbusiness.com/news-break/pacific-islands-increasingly-used-as-crime-transit-point-experts-say/. [iv]Islands Business. [v]Sousa-Santos, ‘Drug Trafficking in the Pacific Islands: The Impact of Transnational Crime’. [vi]Ian Ralby, ‘Maritime Crime During the Pandemic: Unmasking Trends in The Caribbean’, CIMSEC (blog), 2020, https://cimsec.org/maritime-crime-during-the-pandemic-unmasking-trends-in-the-caribbean/. [vii]‘Royal Navy Seizes £17m of Cocaine in Caribbean Drug Bust’, GOV.UK, 2021, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/royal-navy-seizes-17m-of-cocaine-in-caribbean-drug-bust. [viii]UN, ‘Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean’, United Nations : Office on Drugs and Crime (blog), accessed 20 December 2022, //www.unodc.org/unodc/en/drug-trafficking/mexico-central-america-and-the-caribbean.html. [ix]Laura Burroughs et al., ‘Stable Seas: Caribbean’ (Stable Seas, 2020), https://www.stableseas.org/post/stable-seas-caribbean. [x]Lauren Pinson, ‘Addressing the Linkages Between Illicit Arms, Organized Crime and Armed Conflict’ (UNODC, 2022), https://www.unidir.org/publication/addressing-linkages-between-illicit-arms-organized-crime-and-armed-conflict. [xi]Sousa-Santos, ‘Drug Trafficking in the Pacific Islands: The Impact of Transnational Crime’. [xii]Pinson, ‘Addressing the Linkages Between Illicit Arms, Organized Crime and Armed Conflict’. [xiii]Burroughs et al., ‘Stable Seas: Caribbean’. [xiv]Henrietta McNeill, ‘Building Knowledge about Human Trafficking in the Pacific’, East Asia Forum, 11 October 2022, https://www.eastasiaforum.org/2022/10/12/building-knowledge-about-human-trafficking-in-the-pacific/. [xv]Ebonie-March Jones, ‘Human Trafficking: The Silent Crime of The Caribbean’, MNI Alive, 2011, https://www.mnialive.com/articles/human-trafficking-the-silent-crime-of-the-caribbean/. [xvi]Burroughs et al., ‘Stable Seas: Caribbean’. [xvii]Kendra Morancy, ‘Globalization, Human Trafficking and Tourism in the Caribbean’, E-International Relations (blog), 4 February 2020, https://www.e-ir.info/2020/02/04/globalization-human-trafficking-and-tourism-in-the-caribbean/. [xviii]Anthony Bergin, David Brewster, and Aakriti Bachhawat, ‘Ocean Horizons: Strengthening Maritime Security in Indo-Pacific Island States’ (Australian Strategic Policy Institute, 2019). [xix]Sousa-Santos, ‘Drug Trafficking in the Pacific Islands: The Impact of Transnational Crime’.