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On freedom and (im)mobility: how states create vulnerability by controlling human movement

Beyond Slavery introduces its next issue on trafficking, smuggling and migration, arguing that mobility is central to life and that state restrictions on movement are the true threat to human wellbeing.

Slipping through the fence at Imperial Beach, San Diego, California. Brian Auer/Flickr. Creative Commons.

Mobility is widely understood as integral to human freedom, so much so that when injury, illness or old age restrict our capacity to move we are commonly referred to as ‘dis-abled’. This is also what makes imprisonment, or even house arrest, such a profound and terrifying punishment. Whether nipping to the shops, commuting for work, or travelling for leisure, mobility is and always has been an essential part of humankind’s economic, social, cultural and political life. To be able to move freely is a good. Yet in an unjust world, it is also an unearned and unequally distributed privilege.

Historically, the mobility of those who lack social and political power has been heavily restricted by those who don’t. Slaves, servants, the poor, women, children—all these groups have had their mobility, at one point or another, restricted by those in charge. The reasons why are obvious: freedom to move allows the subordinate a chance to escape from domination, to evade control, or to subvert the social order. Controlling mobility is controlling people.

Modern liberal states are no less keen to exercise this control than their illiberal forbears. Across the West, governments routinely criminalise the homeless, tie domestic workers to their employers, and force families on welfare to move to where the housing is cheaper. These are all policies designed to discipline ‘undesirable’ populations, and to subordinate them to the dominant social, economic and racial orders.

Nowhere is the naked injustice of all this made clearer than in contemporary immigration policies. Wealthy states literally sell citizenship to the highest and richest foreign bidders while spending billions to keep the poor and the unwanted at bay. As we saw last month in the Mediterranean, and as we will likely continue to see there over the summer, this comes at an immense cost to human life. These deaths are no anomaly. The International Organisation for Migration has estimated that more than 40,000 people died between 2000 and 2013 in the course of ‘irregular’ crossings, including 22,000 at the borders of the EU. Under any other circumstances, this would be called a crime against humanity.

Importantly, the violence that states visit on would-be immigrants does not stop at the border. Those who survive hazardous journeys, or who become ‘illegal’ as a result of overstaying visas, failing in asylum claims, or simply failing to navigate Kafkaesque bureaucracy, often find themselves in situations that echo features of historical enslavement. Stripped of their dignity and rights, they are held in for-profit immigration detention centres, violently coerced across borders during deportation, and forcibly separated from family and loved ones.

For those ‘lucky’ individuals who manage to evade the authorities and enter the West, and even for those who acquire work visas and arrive through legal channels, what awaits is often a life of exclusion and exploitation in the most abusive sectors of the economy. They are frequently either denied or prevented from accessing basic social protection. If their presence is illegalised, they are forbidden from contributing to the economy. If present legally, work visas frequently deny them freedom of movement within labour markets. Either way, they can be driven into capital’s ever-needy reserve army of labour.

All of this is hidden by mainstream political discourse on ‘human trafficking’ and ‘migrant smuggling’, a distinction drawn between what are supposedly two different kinds of unauthorised movement. ‘Smuggling’, we are told, is voluntary and consensual, ‘trafficking’ is coerced and is the contemporary equivalent of the transatlantic slave trade. But the terms are also used interchangeably. Whenever bodies wash up on shore, or are found decomposing in the desert, politicians leap to blame ‘the smugglers’ who are ‘trafficking in human misery’. They do the same every time we find gangs of unpaid migrant labourers harvesting our fields. This framing allows people to be seen as ‘vulnerable to traffickers’ or ‘at the risk of enslavement’ when they move without the state’s blessing. It’s also why ‘protecting people’ translates into deterring them from moving, or rescuing and returning them once they have done so. It’s what allows the use of lethal force to be presented as a moral necessity, as in the EU’s proposals for military action to smash ‘smuggling/trafficking networks’ operating out of Libya, even when it is acknowledged that the ‘collateral damage’ will be loss of human life. And yet in the vast majority of cases, these migrants and workers left home willingly in search of a better future. The fact that they’ve been denied this future is a consequence of policy, not criminality.

The articles we feature this month counter mainstream ideas about trafficking, smuggling, and migration. They begin from the premise that mobility is central to human life and flourishing, and that state restrictions on the freedom of movement are the true threat to human wellbeing.

In Week 1, we open with contributions from Laura Brace, Nicolas De Genova, Patrizia Testai and Harald Bauder, all of which explore the ways in which differential restraints on human mobility have been politically constructed and justified. Next, we feature articles by Luke De Noronha, Lucrecia Rubio-Grundell and Sverre Molland, questioning the meaning and utility of the concepts of ‘trafficking’ and ‘smuggling’. These pieces lay bare the gulf between the rhetoric surrounding these concepts and the lived realities of those labeled by them.

In Week 2, the violence and dehumanising consequences of state controls on mobility are explored in articles by Roxanne Doty, Lucy Williams, Rhian Benyon, Roda Madziva, and Stephanie Silverman. These draw attention to the ways in which asylum and immigration policies make temporary migrant workers vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. These policies destroy family life, prevent torture survivors from reaching safety or accessing the services they need, and humiliate, demean and make destitute those deemed ‘illegal’.

Finally, in Week 3, we draw lessons from the past and imagine an alternative future. To begin, Edlie Wong and Julia O’Connell Davidson consider the legal edifice historically constructed by slave states to immobilise the enslaved. They reflect on what this means for talk of ‘trafficking’ as a modern slave trade. Then, articles by Kyungee Kook and Inka Stock reveal forced immobility as a moral and political problem of the same order as forced migration, as indeed it always has been.

For his part, Mark Johnson reminds us that mobility can and does constitute a form of political resistance, while the Alarmphone’s piece ‘Ferries not Frontex!’ shows precisely why policies that facilitate mobility would represent an appropriate response to migrant deaths in the Mediterranean.

Our month concludes with two resounding calls for open borders, by Joseph Carens and Antoine Pécoud. The case they make is one that features far too infrequently in campaigns against migrant deaths, ‘trafficking’ or ‘modern slavery’. But it is absolutely essential, and should be endorsed by anyone who is genuinely concerned to see greater freedom in the contemporary world.

About the authors

Julia O’Connell Davidson is a professor in social research at the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies, University of Bristol. She has a longstanding research interest in work and economic life, which she has explored through studies of employment relations in the privatized utilities, as well as through research on prostitution and on sex tourism. Julia is most recently the author of Modern Slavery: The Margins of Freedomnow out from Palgrave (2015). She has published extensively on prostitution, ‘trafficking’, and ‘modern slavery’, and is also the author of Prostitution, Power and Freedom (1998, Polity) and Children in the Global Sex Trade (2005, Polity).

Neil Howard is an academic activist based at the Institute of Development Policy and Management at the University of Antwerp. His research focuses on unfree labour, and on the workings of the policy establishment as it seeks to respond. Follow him on twitter @NeilPHoward.


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