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 effect 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.


I am an anthropologist specialising in the intersection between migration, aid and security in mainland Southeast Asia. Initially trained in social anthropology at University of Oslo and Macquarie University in Australia, I worked for the United Nations Development Programme in the Mekong region before returning to the social sciences. After completing my PhD and a Postdoctoral Fellowship in Anthropology at Macquarie University, I was in 2012 appointed lecturer in Anthropology (Development Studies) at the Australian National University. I am the current co-editor of the Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology (TAPJA) and have served in several leadership roles, including the Discipline Head of Anthropology and Research Convenor within the School or Archaeology and Anthropology, The Australian National University.

I have two decades research and programme experience on human trafficking, development and mobility in the Mekong region. In my PhD fieldwork I carried out research on migration and anti-trafficking interventions along the Lao-Thai border. My recent  research examines how “safe migration” has become an important modality of migration governance in the Mekong region. My current research examines anti-trafficking, modern slavery and safe migration aid modalities in a comparative perspective.

My overarching research agenda advances the study of the securitisation of aid and mobility in a comparative perspective. Its theoretical contribution is to illuminate how relations and structures of power permeate through development and humanitarian practices as well as how such efforts are mobilised, enacted, and legitimated. I extend my academic research through collaborations with UN agencies and other external partners through consultancies, commissioned research, and other forms of engagements.

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

Slavery, trafficking or safety? shifting migration governance regimes

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 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. Expected outcomes include a new theoretical framework for analysing migration intervention models which can be used to inform future approaches, and the development of a series of international policy recommendations.

The project aims to:

  1. chart the comparative, ethnographic analysis of modern slavery, human trafficking and safe migration intervention modalities.
  2. craft migration policy futures by building an inter-disciplinary community of scholars that articulate new theoretical frameworks for analysing migration intervention modalities.
  3. translating research findings into policy and programme recommendations.


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:  28 January 2023 / Responsible Officer:  Director (Research Services Division) / Page Contact:  Researchers