What We Talk About When We Talk About Trafficking: part two.

” … she chooses not to identify herself as a ‘victim of trafficking’ – in order not to become a victim of anti-trafficking“. – From the introduction to GAATW’s Collateral Damage.

The first part of this post is here, and deals with – as I’m sure you remember – definitions and numbers (very excitingly. No, really). Note Wendy’s useful comment, which I was too shy to reply to, because blogging about serious stuff is apparently just like being a bit awed by the cool girls at school.

People who advocate for sex workers’ rights are often called to have “an opinion” on trafficking. This seems to me to be a classic derail that anyone who has ever talked about feminism with an unsympathetic (in both senses) opponent will be familiar with: “why are you talking to me about abortion rights when female genital mutilation exists?! Why are you talking about rape when FALSE RAPE ACCUSATIONS?!” Feminists en masse are generally opposed to both FGM and false rape accusations, but by introducing RANDOM OTHER BAD THING and demanding that you condemn it (entirely on your opponent’s terms: no room for the nuance of taking colonialism into account with regards to ending FGM, or the extreme rarity of false rape accusations – no no, the rest of the conversation must consist entirely of you thanking your non-feminist opponent for showing you the light, ‘the light’ in this context meaning ‘some other bad things that have happened somewhere in the world, please tell me, authoritative man’), the person you’re arguing with is attempting to make you shut up about feminism.

This derail makes you grapple with the unfair and fallacious libel that you can only possibly care about one thing at a time: it’s either abortion rights or FGM, and since FGM is self-evidently terrible, you are a bad person for even worrying about abortion rights. The trafficking/sex work derail works in exactly the same way, but is even more insidiously and provocatively unfair: it runs on the fallacy (psst, I’ve found a perpetual energy resource!) that human rights are a zero sum game, and if you’re advocating human rights for one marginalised demographic, you must explain why you want to take them away from another. As with my analogy above, your sex worker rights perspective must be immediately abandoned in favour of wholehearted condemnation of the somewhat-unconnected Bad Thing (trafficking) which your opponent has just introduced, and your condemnation must be entirely in their terms: no room for post-colonial nuance or statistics. (Ooh. That analogy worked out rather more neatly than I intended … )

In the course of this series of posts (at the moment I’m envisioning, um, four), I want to demonstrate the serious harms that anti-trafficking discourse and policy inflicts on three key populations: migrants (including trafficked persons), migrant sex workers, and sex workers, in both the UK and in a global context. Sex worker rights as a necessity is integral to this analysis of harms, as in many instances sex worker-lead organisations and insights can play an important role in mitigating the damage done by these policies (if only people would listen to us). The most important thing is obviously that the human rights of migrants and non-migrants alike are protected, and that’s not currently the case. As an adjunct to that primary issue, though, I’d quite like you to get a sense of how outrageous this derail truly is: the only people who need to explain at length their opinions on trafficking are – no, not sex workers! – those “anti-trafficking” campaigners who use the issue to shut up sex workers, and whose rhetoric then fuels policies that harm migrants, sex workers, and migrant sex workers.

Veronica Magar notes in her article ‘Rescue and Rehabilitation‘ that “the anti-sex work feminist position has become institutionalised as the dominant anti-trafficking paradigm adopted by governments worldwide” (p.3), and that seems to be borne out in a UK context: for instance, there’s the anti-trafficking name-check in Rhoda’s ‘feminist’ Bill. Or – at the level of service provision – key anti-trafficking NGOs like the Poppy Project or Eaves, which both have a prohibitionist-feminist analysis. So unless I state otherwise, when I talk about anti-trafficking campaigns and policies, I’m talking about the stuff that is orthodox, dominant and institutionalised: anti-trafficking analysis that is situated in (feminist!) prohibitionism with regards to sex work.

This stuff is difficult to talk about, though, because I mean – it’s not as if I think all these prohibitionist feminists are rubbing their hands with glee as another migrant is sent back to Bangladesh or Nigeria; I don’t think they’re all literally plotting together – possibly on the moon, with Elvis – how to do the most damage to the greatest number of people. (Although, they do all sometimes get together to talk rubbish to each other. This “anti-trafficking” conference certainly seems to feature a large number of people who want to punish sex workers end prostitution. Trafficking, eh? You’d almost think they had some other agenda. Scot-Pep, incidentally, was prevented from attending.) So it’s not some Big Conspiracy – though, I genuinely don’t understand what it is that motivates hardcore prohibitionists, so what do I really know (it surely isn’t a desire to end violence against women. Gunilla Ekberg, key speaker at that anti-trafficking conference I linked to above, was publicly disgraced in Sweden after threatening a female journalist). But politics – even the delicate, slightly nebulous politics of discourse, where there’s not a straight line of culpability – has consequences, and if you’re contributing to the debate through the sometimes seemingly deliberate propagation of untruths, then I think its at least time to start questioning your self-image as the good guy. Or womyn.

So, okay, let’s try to get a handle on this.

i. Migrants.

Anti-trafficking policies are used to limit freedom of movement and justify policies “[which] prevent the migration of people, …” – which, as I don’t need to tell you, violates Article 13 of the UN declaration of human rights – “… especially women”. (Action Aid Asia, 2006.) Oh. If I inexplicably thought it was great when feminist campaigning ended up seriously infringing the rights of women, I’d presumably love this outcome.

Action Aid Asia aren’t alone in this view. The Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW) also identifies young women and adolescent girls as “prime target[s]” for policies that restrict their freedom of movement, and details how, “after almost a decade of such measures in Nepal, an evaluator called in to review the anti-trafficking programmes financed by a US NGO concluded that the measures taken to stop young women crossing Nepal’s border into India were generally abusive” [emphasis mine]. (Collateral Damage, p.13.) Note that those are the policies of an American NGO: no one elected these people; they’re not, y’know, from Nepal – this would have troubling implications in terms of neo-colonialism and paternalism even if the measures they were enacting hadn’t been described as “abusive”. Interesting how it took “almost a decade” before anyone thought to ask the young Nepalese women what they thought about this service that was supposed to be protecting their best interests – but I guess forgetting to listen to the experiences of your client group will be the kind of mistake you make, if you figure your client group as passive victims in need of rescue by heroic Americans.

Both GAATW and a report titled, ‘The Use Of Raids to Fight Trafficking in Persons‘ from the   Sex Work Project (SWP) found that the focus on sex trafficking was counter-productive in terms of identifying and supporting trafficked persons. From the SWP: “US law enforcement agencies have been criticized for continuing to focus on trafficking into sex work to the exclusion of other widespread forms of trafficking. Indeed, the word ‘trafficking’ primarily evokes images of women and children forced into sexual servitude in the popular imagination [ …] In reality, trafficking occurs in a far broader range of sectors and types of work, including domestic work, agricultural labor, manufacturing and the service industries, and affects men as well as women and children”. (p.6. This stuff isn’t exactly hard to find, you guys. If you’re “anti-trafficking” and you’ve not reached page six of this very readable report, I can only assume you’re happy being ignorant. It undeniably offers you a certain rhetorical advantage, as sex worker rights advocates have to deal with your ignorance as well as their own arguments.)

That bit about “… the word ‘trafficking’ primarily evokes images of women and children forced into sexual servitude in the popular imagination” – that bit? Any thoughts how we might have reached this point, hmm? Every time you shut up a sex worker by shouting “but TRAFFICKING!”, you’re contributing to a climate whereby a substantial number of trafficked persons – the people you’re out to help, remember? – are missed or mis-identified.

This belief that trafficking and sexual servitude are synonymous allows governments breathing space to screw over other migrant workers, making them more vulnerable to trafficking (which we can all then ignore, because it’s not sexy). For example, the UK government in 2006 removed the right of migrant workers to change employer, leaving exploited employees with the choice of remaining in exploitative conditions, or … being deported. (Collateral Damage, p.217) GAATW also argues that by situating exploitation of migrant labour in the trafficking paradigm, the State renders the issues ones of criminality and immigration, rather than labour rights violations – which cuts migrant workers off from potential support and advocacy that they might find within trade unions, thus limiting the access that exploited migrant workers have to justice.

Last point about migrants. ” … the [UK] current policy and practice [ … ] serves only to encourage the division of migrants who have experienced human rights violations into two groups: an extremely small number of deserving ‘victims’ (of traffickers) who are entitled to various (limited) forms of protection and assistance, and a vastly bigger group of people who are considered to be ‘undeserving’ and who are not provided with any protection or assistance … “. Convenient, huh? Additionally to handily dividing people in (minority) deserving and (majority) undeserving, this discourse enables everyone to be summarily deported: if you’ve been trafficked, then of course you don’t even want to be in this country, and if you haven’t – why then, you’re a criminal! Sympathy’s cheap when it’s just the next plane ticket home.

Part three looks at migrant sex workers.

2 thoughts on “What We Talk About When We Talk About Trafficking: part two.

  1. Great stuff! One glitch: the link when you reference the ‘anti-trafficking’ conference seems to need fixing.

    Also, what I’m meant to be doing at the moment is editing stuff about migrant sex workers, but instead I’ve gotten SUCKED INTO YOUR BLOG … Well, let’s call it research.

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