The World Day against Trafficking in Persons was designated as 30 July, to “raise awareness of the situation of victims of human trafficking and for the promotion and protection of their rights.” The United Nations Global Plan of Action to Combat Trafficking in Persons approaches the issue from numerous angles, recognising that multiple factors make people vulnerable to trafficking in persons. And yet, despite the crucial recommendations that it makes, it fails to adequately tackle the ways in which states remain complicit.
The global conversation about trafficking tends to be dominated – and diluted – by certain recurring themes. Harrowing experiences are often condensed into single-issue narratives that leave no room for nuance, instead brushing aside the complicated circumstances in which people find themselves. Words like ‘evil’, ‘monsters’ and ‘menace’ pepper descriptions of individuals and crime syndicates committing horrific acts, while the inhumane systems put in place by governments, and the brutality with which authority figures enforce them, tend to escape similarly emotive scrutiny. ‘Raising awareness’ becomes a meaningless term when, within these parameters, we have already been directed to overlook certain key issues.
We need to go beyond emphatic pronouncements about the harms of trafficking: we need to be critical of how it is framed and ensure that the ‘solutions’ put forward do not cause further harm. We need to be aware of what trafficking actually means, and how its definition is being expanded and distorted.
We must look at the conditions that allow trafficking to thrive, and acknowledge the role and accountability of governments in keeping traffickers in business. A prominent driver of trafficking is the exclusionary nature of legal migration routes: if these were available to all, the potential for abuse and exploitation would be sharply reduced. But despite all the hand-wringing, there is little political will to offer safe options to those at greatest risk. Obscuring this part of the picture gives the false impression that existing bureaucratic structures are a neutral presence in the lives of trafficking victims, as if border controls were inconsequential. Legislation which imposes heavy penalties on traffickers but fails to address this reality does not constitute a genuine attempt to solve the problem; it merely sidesteps responsibility. Borders, ultimately, are seen to be more deserving of protection than people.
UNODC states, “Human trafficking is a crime that strips people of their rights, ruins their dreams, and robs them of their dignity.” We agree. But we also see how the enforcement of borders does exactly these things, too; the only difference is that borders are legal, even if some of the acts carried out in their defence are not. As long as borders serve to penalise those with inadequate papers – the wrong passport, no passport, or not enough cash – people will look to unauthorised intermediaries for solutions, and take their chances. As long as the global architecture continues to restrict opportunities based on the lottery of birth, governments will be complicit in a preventable crime.
For many people, it is not only why trafficking occurs, but what trafficking entails, that is blurry. News media tell countless stories of women who are enticed overseas for lucrative jobs and then forced to pay their debts by working in the sex industry. Far less publicised are the stories of women who knowingly migrate to engage in sex work, but, on reaching their destinations, find that the terms and conditions have changed. These women, one presumes, aren’t expected to elicit the same sympathy from the public, even if they too end up handing over all of their earnings to a controller. Campaigns tend to rely on public understanding of the sex industry as a uniformly intolerable hellhole; to acknowledge its nuances, the reasons why people enter it consensually, and the role of criminalisation in exposing sex workers to abuse, would disrupt a conveniently simple narrative. Things become even blurrier when raids and ‘rescues’ end up harming both consensual sex workers and victims of trafficking.
A disproportionate focus on sex trafficking also ensures that the trafficking of persons into other labour sectors – agriculture, commercial fishing, or domestic work, for example – is sidelined. It is harder to engage the public on the abuse – including sexual abuse – taking place in such mundane fields; easier to win support by promoting, intentionally or not, the notion that trafficking equals sex trafficking equals sex work. There is a sense that the exploitation of manual labour is not so interesting or worthy of outrage; all the more so when the profile of a typical victim has been so distorted. And as well as restricting the public’s capacity to identify signs of trafficking, this marginalisation translates to less pressure on governments and businesses to ensure that immigration and employment laws and policies don’t put people at risk.
Whether or not trafficking takes place across national borders, a significant concern is the approach taken by law enforcement towards victims. The overreliance on carceral responses in mainstream discourse about trafficking suggests that the conversation is being led by people who, by virtue of class or race, have never experienced the police as anything other than a benign and helpful presence. This overlooks the reality that for many people, particularly people of colour, poor people, sex workers and undocumented migrants, police presence means a heightened risk of physical and sexual violence, along with deprivation of their freedom, denial of their rights, and deportation.
Post-‘rescue’, trafficking survivors may be detained ‘for their own safety’; they may be given an all-too-brief ‘reflection period’ to decide whether they are willing to testify against their traffickers; and they may be deported even if they cooperate. Their original reasons for migrating remain unaddressed, and repatriation can put them at risk of being re-trafficked. But in the public consciousness, the story ends with the heroic arrival of the law. Governments get to look tough on crime, winning public support for helping defenceless victims even as they engage in their further victimisation. Baseless expectations of justice and fair trials help to keep the charade going.
International resistance to meaningful change informs the options made available to those who have been ‘rescued’ from traffickers. And given the frequency with which anti-trafficking advocates position themselves as a ‘voice for the voiceless’, we must question whether the so-called voiceless have even been consulted, and whether the loudest voices in the conversation are speaking for them or over them. As governments continue to push anti-trafficking legislation which hurts rather than helps, we must be vigilant, we must amplify the concerns of impacted populations, and we must challenge scripts that simplify trafficking, its causes and its solutions.