An alarming rise in people trafficking has emerged in Pacific Island states, often linked to transnational crime groups also involved in narcotics and other major crimes.
The islands have also become a transit point for other people trafficking operations as crime groups take advantage of weak laws, corruption, and inadequate border controls and documentation, a new report from the Australian Institute of Criminology warns.
It says crime groups are using natural disasters, poverty and migration to boost their operations, and are importing and entrapping workers from outside the region to work in industries from logging and mining to tourism.
Young women are used as currency in sex-for-fish trading deals and prostitution is on the increase, with an increasing risk of exposure to people smugglers, the institute's report, Vulnerabilities to Trafficking in the Pacific, said.
The report's authors, institute researchers Jade Lindley and Laura Beacroft, said that in the six years to 2009 Fiji, Guam, Marshall Islands, New Caledonia, Northern Mariana Islands, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu reported their belief that people had been trafficked into their countries.
The report said people trafficking targeted both legal industries and illegal operations run by organised crime in the region.
"Some members of Asian crime syndicates have migrated to the Pacific, gained citizenship and set up legitimate businesses to act as a cover for illegal activities, such as money laundering and large-scale drug transshipments," it said.
"Gambling and prostitution have been highlighted as forming part of a larger, more organised, syndicate of criminal activity in the Pacific region."
In one case the Australian Federal Police's Pacific Transnational Crime Co-ordination Centre was involved in the investigation of an incident of trafficking of persons from China into the Pacific for sex work and the use of fishing vessels to transport them.
In February last year a joint police and immigration raid in Fiji found nine Chinese nationals in breach of their visas, seven of whom were vulnerable women engaging in prostitution.
Transnational syndicates are not the only organised crime groups operating in the Pacific.
The report described the rise of local "cottage industry" groups, small-time operators at times linked to larger criminal syndicates based outside the region, creating chains that complicate the task of investigators and prosecutors.
The region is also being used as temporary transit points for people smuggling and a range of other organised transnational criminal activities, such as drug smuggling and exploitation of resources through illegal fishing and logging.
And the increasing movement of people into and out of the Pacific - in part driven by the need to find work abroad - adds to the dangers of both people trafficking and the vulnerability of migrants in their new countries.
The departure of Islanders also potentially increases the risk of people being trafficked into their former homes for work already increasing in fishing, yachting, cruise and cargo shipping, logging, mining and non-traditional agriculture such as coffee, and in tourism.
"Demand for workers in these industries is high and exploitative work environments are common, such as those identified by Fiji's United Nations Development Fund for Women, which then presents risks for labour trafficking," the report said.
"For example, Fijian authorities became aware of employers in sugar mills seizing passports and other documentation belonging to migrant workers to prevent them from leaving the mills, while exposing the workers to harsh treatment."
And while small, cohesive communities can help counter traffickers, they can also offer them opportunities.
The report said patriarchal social systems dominated by male attitudes could allow "unchecked" abuse against women and girls, increasing their vulnerability to other harm, including trafficking. Combined with poverty, this hit education and employment prospects for women, contributing to an observed rise in prostitution.
"All of the factors described here may be contributing to the reported exposure of young women to a system where sex is traded for fish and fresh produce," the report said. "Such a system has been identified as widespread in the Pacific among local and international fishing trawlers."
The report also warned that natural disasters raised further dangers.
Rape, sexual abuse, kidnapping and people trafficking followed the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, with similar concerns reported after the October 2009 earthquake that devastated Samoa, American Samoa and Tonga.
TRADE IN BLOOD, SWEAT AND TEARS
How the traffickers operate:
* The case of 15 Indian families came to light in 2006. They had sold their land to pay between A$20,000 ($26,290) and A$38,000 for work and entitlement to New Zealand citizenship after five years. Instead, they spent five years in Niue, their passports were confiscated by their employers and they were forced to work for low wages and repay the costs of their travel from India.
* Also in 2006, seven Filipina and nine Chinese women were allegedly trafficked into Palau by four Chinese nationals. The Filipinas paid US$900 ($1210) for waitress work that would supposedly pay US$250 a month, and the Chinese women US$5000 for an expected US$2000-a-month job. Instead they were handed packets of condoms, their passports were confiscated and they were forced into prostitution, working seven days a week.
* In 2009, 13 Indians were lured to non-existent jobs in Fiji, allegedly by Indian and Fijian nationals aided by corrupt immigration officials.
* Last year an Indian national was convicted and sentenced to six years in jail for deceiving seven Indian nationals about work in New Zealand and taking them to Fiji instead. An immigration official identified them as possible victims of trafficking.