Associate Professor Sverre Molland

PhD, Anthropology
ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences
T: +61 2 6125 1382

Areas of expertise

  • Anthropology Of Development 160101
  • Social And Cultural Anthropology 160104
  • Migration 160303
  • Social Policy 160512
  • Government And Politics Of Asia And The Pacific 160606
  • Social Theory 160806
  • Studies Of Asian Society 169903
  • Labour, Migration And Development 440403

Research interests

My research examines the intersections between migration, development and security in a comparative perspective, with specific focus on governance regimes and intervention modalities in mainland Southeast Asia.  

There are four analytical domains that are of particular importance:

  • Space-governance relations: how do spatial (and temporal) dimensions of migration policy come into being, and how do they affect interventions?
  • Biolegitimacy: How does life legitimise interventions and how is life legitimated within aid and migration discourses?
  • Development aid  and migration governance networks: what accounts for continuity and change within trans-institutional networks of aid and migration governance, and how can they be accounted for ethnographically?
  • Intervention modalities in a comparative perspective.


As an anthropologist specialising in the intersection between migration, aid, and security in mainland Southeast Asia, I bring over two decades of research and program experience on human trafficking, development, and mobility in the Mekong region. I completed my initial training in social anthropology at the University of Oslo and Macquarie University in Australia before working for the United Nations Development Programme in the region. After completing a PhD and a Postdoctoral Fellowship in Anthropology at Macquarie University, I was appointed Lecturer in Anthropology at the Australian National University in 2012.

Currently, I serve as the Editor-in-Chief of the Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology (TAPJA) and have held various leadership roles, including Discipline Head of Anthropology and Research Convenor within the School of Archaeology and Anthropology at the Australian National University. My research focuses on the securitisation of aid and mobility in a comparative perspective, exploring how power is embedded in development and humanitarian practices and how they are mobilised, enacted, and legitimated.

In my PhD fieldwork, I researched migration and anti-trafficking interventions along the Lao-Thai border. Most recently, I have focused on the increasing significance of “safe migration” as a modality of migration governance in the Mekong region. My current research compares anti-trafficking, modern slavery, and safe migration aid modalities. Additionally, I collaborate with UN agencies and external partners through consultancies, commissioned research, and other forms of engagement to extend my academic research.

I am the author of Safe Migration and the Politics of Brokered Safety in Southeast Asia and  The Perfect Business? Anti-Trafficking and the Sex Trade along the Mekong (University of Hawaii Press).

Researcher's projects

Crises of unfreedom: traffickers, slaves and safety

This project aims to investigate why exploitation of labour migrants persists despite two decades of human trafficking, modern slavery and safe migration policy interventions. Focusing on the Mekong region, it expects to generate new knowledge of the comparative salience and impacts of these shifting policy responses. An important analytical concern in this ongoing research is to go beyond merely critiquing these discourses to interrogate why they come into being and how they are mobilised. 

What is safe about “safe migration”? Migration management in the Mekong (complete)

Over the last few years, some non-governmental organisations (NGOs), International Organisations (IOs) and Governments have moved attention away from anti-trafficking and launched “safe migration” programmes in the Mekong region. Safe migration denotes a conceptual shift in policy as it targets migrants moving through space, as opposed to being confined by it. Yet, there has been no independent study into how such emergent policies and programmes are operationalised or the ways in which they affect migrants. 

This research project aims to:

  1. examine the policy and migratory contexts in which the shift from anti-trafficking programs to safe migration program is taking place; 
  2. investigate how these changes, framed in policy as “safety”, are operationalised by implementers and experienced by migrants; 
  3. advance anthropological theorising of migration governance by examining shifting modes of policy making which places mobility at the centre of the governing of social life;
  4. enrich ethnographic methodological approaches to the study of migration and its governance; 
  5. inform future policy responses, including those relating to Australia's role in the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime, bilateral funding of migration management in the region, as well as policies on seasonal workers and the 457 visa scheme in Australia. 

This research project has culminated in a range of research outputs including my book Safe Migration and the Politics of Brokered Safety in Southeast Asia (Routledge)

Anti-trafficking, trafficking and migration along the Mekong (complete)

My book The Perfect Business? Anti-Trafficking and the Sex Trade along the Mekong (University of Hawaii Press) is one of the first ethnographies that examines how trafficking and anti-trafficking worlds interrelate. Focusing on the Lao-Thai border, this project cricially interrogates both how labour migration unfolds as well as how anit-trafficking praxis of reproduces socially, institutionally and discursively.

Available student projects

I am keen to supervise PhD, MA and Honours theses on the broad topic of development and mobility. I have specific interests in human trafficking and forced migration, securitisation of aid as well as contemporary discourses of humanitarian exception. Although my geographical focus is on mainland Southeast Asia I maintain a keen interest in other geographical areas for comparative purposes.

Current student projects

  • Climate, code, and culture: The social worlds of smart energy technology projects in the Pacific
  • Migrant? Refugee? Neither? Both?  Human Mobility in a time of Managed Migration (PhD), Chair

Past student projects

  • Translating Solidarity: Effects of translation on solidarity economics policy in Ecuador (PhD)
  • Wartime labour migration in Sudan: An ethnography of Nuba mobility (PhD)
  • People’s development aspirations and the state’s policy imperatives: An anthropology of happiness and policy planning with specific reference to Bongo village in Southwest Bhutan (PhD), Chair
  • Babysitter or Mbak? : Unpacking a new type of work in Indonesia (PhD)
  • The Transnational Governance of Human Trafficking in Japan (PhD)
  • Australia and policy responses to refugees (MA)
  • Cross-border humanitarian aid in Myanmar (PhD)
  • Education policy  & nation building in Rwanda (Honours)
  • Humanitarianism and development in East Timor (Honours)
  • Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and UNRWA (PhD)
  • Human trafficking and policy responses in a comparative perspective
  • The post-MDG agenda (Honours)
  • Forced Migration and Vigilantism in Malaysia (PhD)
  • Development and mental health (Honours)
  • Emerging Industrial Elites in Pakistan (PhD)
  • Policy Entrepreneurs and Labour Migration in Indonesia (PhD)
  • Learning to be Refugees : The Bhutanese in Nepal and Australia  (PhD)
  • Street Children and Development in Jakarta (MA)


Projects and Grants

Grants information is drawn from ARIES. To add or update Projects or Grants information please contact your College Research Office.

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Updated:  14 July 2024 / Responsible Officer:  Director (Research Services Division) / Page Contact:  Researchers