What do we mean when we talk about trafficking?

What do we mean when we talk about trafficking?

Participants at the Bangkok convening on trafficking, January 2019.

By Ishita Dutta


In January 2019 in Bangkok, I had the privilege of meeting with and learning from the experiences of 40 experts invested in ending trafficking in women. They represented over 25 countries but, as happens often in ‘global’ advocacy spaces, we had one expert carrying all of Latin America on their back and three experts carrying all of Africa. They represented equivalent breadth in their personal and work experiences concerning trafficking. Some were on the frontlines of organising workers like themselves to seek better labour rights protections, including from trafficking; some had pioneered trafficking prevention methods in their communities. Some provided legal counsel and legal aid, frontline services including shelters to persons affected by trafficking. And some had unpacked time and time again, for various audiences including governments, the legal and conceptual complexities that exist in the context of trafficking, and what human rights-based responses to trafficking should look like.

They came at the invitation of IWRAW Asia Pacific and our partner GAATW as we redouble our efforts to ensure that we work purposively across different social movements – women’s rights, labour rights and migrant rights – to address the challenge of trafficking structurally and create an avowedly feminist response to it. In the process, they also sought to inform, through their lived experiences, the development of the upcoming CEDAW general recommendation on trafficking in women and girls in the context of global migration.

These experts put into context women’s experiences of migration. Women have always moved – some out of necessity for money and some out of a desire for adventure. It is ahistorical and myopic to call migration the ‘mega trend’ of the 21st century. Attempts to ‘regularise’ it are based on a notion of nation states that is a byproduct of the past centuries of colonial projects.

The participants traced the evolution of international legal frameworks on trafficking, especially the 1949 Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others that aimed to counter ‘white slavery’. This convention is referenced in the concept note prepared by the CEDAW Committee setting out the scope of the general recommendation, begging the question of how far our understanding of the human rights violation of trafficking has progressed in the last half-century if the guidance for a modern women’s rights framework on trafficking comes from racist underpinnings. Beyond this, it is also unclear how international and truly representative of global realities such a framework could be – primarily because it privileges Eurocentric perspectives by dogmatically using Europol data as its basis.

The experts talked about the acute gaps in current law and policy frameworks on trafficking. Acknowledging the considerable overlap and complexity in distinct areas of international human rights law, international criminal law and international humanitarian law that could be made applicable to instances of trafficking, they cautioned against the creation of overbroad and practically untenable definitions of trafficking. They highlighted the real-life harms resulting from the conflation of trafficking and sex work in existing laws and policies, clearly stating that the rights of a whole group of people – sex workers – must not be made disposable on the basis of ideologies.

They talked about the severe limitations of employing a solely criminal law-based approach to trafficking, and the need to expand notions of accountability and justice to be redistributive. They raised concerns about the schism between the apolitical and exclusionary processes by which human rights standards are being set and the ground realities of repression and closed civic spaces in which their everyday human rights activism takes place. They questioned why we have become so desensitised to the everyday reality of rightslessness all around us. Why is it that responses to trafficking are often called for or developed only in egregious cases of sexual exploitation or organ removal? Why is trafficking for other seemingly banal purposes not deemed worthy of an international human rights response, even if it is the lived reality of millions of women in the Global South? How do we ensure that human rights standard-setting processes and bodies respond to these lived realities? If they do not, where do we take our struggle?

More than they provided answers, the discussions raised questions for me – questions that I believe we need to continue asking of policy makers and of ourselves. However, they also provided much-needed guidance for our work going forward. Representatives from the women’s rights, labour rights and migrant rights movements identified certain collective strategies, including:

  • creating spaces to continue inter-movement dialogues to address trafficking, and striving to be intersectional while recognising the intersectionality that already exists within our movements and communities;
  • understanding and analysing, as a priority in the context of addressing trafficking, issues including:
    • elements of the state obligation to address trafficking;
    • challenges with respect to data collection and trafficking, specifically challenging hierarchies of knowledge and exploring alternative methods of data collection; and
    • impact of solely criminal justice-based responses to trafficking;
  • collecting and disseminating data relating to trafficking that is not biased;
  • amplifying support and solidarity for our individual and collective actions to address trafficking, including through information sharing; and
  • highlighting the dangers of anti-migration policies in all our work to address trafficking.


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