In this essay I will critically examine the claim that state intervention and stricter border controls offer a solution in the ‘fight against trafficking’. This line of argument, which has been adopted my most states and international bodies, forms the current mainstream discourse and approach to ‘trafficking’. Initially I will outline how this hard-lined approach is justified through the conflation of ‘trafficking’ with organised crime, illegal immigration and sex work; therefore proposing border controls and state intervention as necessary to ‘protect’ migrants and intercept and imprison ‘traffickers’. I will then look at the problems with this rhetoric, arguing that the focus on criminalization and prosecution sidelines the needs of those who have been ‘trafficked’, and furthermore, through blaming ‘evil traffickers’ this discourse hides the violence of states, its policies and the current capitalist global order in creating the vulnerability of migrants to ‘trafficking’ and exploitation in the first place.
Before I begin I would like to present the mainstream definition of ‘trafficking’ as “the forced, illegal movement of people across national and international borders and enslavement of those individuals in their destination country.” (Kempadoo, 2007, p.57). However I want to draw attention to the contested nature of this definition, which due to the highly complex nature of ‘trafficking’ (which I hope to demonstrate in this essay), often fails to account for the realities of cross-border migration.
Within the mainstream discourse, trafficking has become increasingly conflated with illegality and international organized crime. This is demonstrated in the UN’s recent conventions and protocols on trafficking and smuggling which have become supplements to their ‘Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime’ (Lobasz, 2009, p. 326) which mandates “the criminalization of trafficking, repatriation of victims, strengthened border controls, and more secure travel and identity documents” (ibid). Under this convention -and others like it- anti-trafficking measures have become part of the global war on international crime and the focus becomes on prosecution and criminalization. By explicitly linking trafficking with crime, states justify stricter border controls in the name of preventing criminal activity and trafficking across their borders. This approach is exemplified in a recent quote from the EU president stating that “better management of the Union’s external border controls will help in the fight against terrorism, illegal immigration networks and the trafficking in human beings.” (Sharma, 2003, p.58). As well as being linked with organized crime, the mainstream trafficking discourse often presents trafficking as the main driver of ‘illegal migration’ (Anderson and Andrijasevic, 2008, p. 137) seen in a statement from the European Commission claiming that the prevention of human trafficking is an “essential element” in the “fight against illegal immigration.” (Lobasz, 2009, p.327). This further enables the criminalization of anyone who aids clandestine movement of migrants, and shows how anti trafficking efforts fit in neatly with national and international anti-immigration agendas.
In addition trafficking is often also seen as synonymous with prostitution and sex work. Women who migrate to work in the sex industry are presented as helpless ‘victims’, who are forced into it by ‘evil traffickers’ (often presented as foreign men) and international crime rings (Kempadoo, 2007, p.65). Therefore actors such as the US promote state intervention in the form of ‘rescuing’ women from these situations as a key tool in their fight against trafficking. By posing themselves as protectors, international bodies and states are able to further legitimize the implementation of border controls and state interception along the lines of preventing harm, an argument that becomes difficult to disagree with within liberal discourses (Anderson, 2012, p.246).
However this current discourse surrounding the so-called ‘protection’ of migrants- especially women and those in the sex industry- needs to be critically examined. Due to the focus on law enforcement and immigration control, those defined as ‘trafficked victims’ who are ‘rescued’ are in-fact more often than not arrested, detained, and deported for “breaking immigration laws” which is backed up by claims of ‘protection’ and a rhetoric that if they were ‘forced’ into migration then it is perfectly fair to ‘send them back home’ (Kempadoo, 2005, p.40). A study by Anti-Slavery International found that 10 different countries claiming to be ‘protecting victims’ were actually deporting them, thus re-exposing them to the conditions that enabled their ‘trafficking’ in the first place (ibid, p.41). Although the US, for example, does offer some ‘victims of trafficking’ special visas and the possibility of legal status, these are conditional and depend on whether they can ‘prove’ have been trafficked which adds an extra burden and also creates the idea that there are deserving