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‘Foreign criminals’ and victims of trafficking—fantasies, categories and control

Casting migrants and smugglers as 'victims and villains' allows states to play saviour and legitimates immigration enforcement as the sole appropriate response.

Some people who live outside of their country of origin don’t really count as migrants. They might be expats; they might not be named at all. But Australian backpackers, French nannies, and international bankers are not really what we mean when we talk about migrants. If, however, you are the kind of person we mean when we talk about migrants—i.e. you are racialised and/or poor—then you are generally portrayed as either a victim or a villain. Migrants are constructed as victims and villains by a range of actors, including the state, journalists, politicians, judges, migrant advocates, and academics.

Gender and race are central to determining who goes where within this framework. In my work on ‘foreign criminals’, I examine the mechanics of gender and race in producing villains. ‘Foreign criminals’ have attracted much media and political interest in recent years. They are discursively constructed as racialised men who commit acts of hypermasculinist violence, often sexual, thus imperilling ‘our’ streets and, importantly, ‘our’ women. This construction of the ‘foreign criminal’ as a monstrous villain works to justify, on moral grounds, policies of imprisonment, indefinite detention, and deportation. This narrative is a gross simplification that relies on imaginaries familiar to those who work on issues surrounding ‘trafficking.

The Victim of Trafficking (VoT for short) is not a human type. It’s an administrative category produced by immigration controls. This is not to deny that some migrant sex workers—women, men and trans people—find themselves in truly awful situations. Rather, it is to suggest that such administrative constructs do not necessarily reflect meaningful distinctions, from the perspective of the individuals concerned.

The anti-trafficking narrative rests on a conception of the world in which nasty individuals force vulnerable people into servitude. Border controls have nothing to do with it whatsoever. The narrative further relies on crude images of suffering victims, images that marginalise those who don’t fit the mould. Not every migrant sex worker fits the image of the ideal victim (see e.g. Mai on non-heteronormative migrant sex workers), but most—dare I say all?—would still benefit greatly from substantive human and labour rights.

The images of the VoT and the ‘foreign criminal’, both entangled in a twisted fairy-tale of caricatured weakness and barbarism, simplify and distort much messier realities. Casting non-citizens in these roles helps to rationalise immigration controls.

When VoTs are constructed as helpless victims, held captive by unscrupulous (foreign) traffickers, enforcement becomes the appropriate response. As such, states are able to attest to the morality of immigration controls; victims are saved as the authorities work valiantly to eradicate ‘sexual slavery’. The role of immigration controls in ‘holding people captive’ is effaced in this narrative. The vulnerabilities of migrant sex workers are reduced to individual and extreme forms of abuse; the state disappears only to reappear as saviour. Put simply, if traffickers are evil and VoTs helpless, then the state needs to act through aggressive forms of crime and immigration control.

Likewise, if non-citizen offenders are portrayed as violent, savage outsiders then their expulsion becomes the only suitable response. This has wider implications for the legitimation of detention and deportation policies. Images of ‘foreign criminals’ as killers, rapists and paedophiles work to justify and celebrate the detention and deportation of any non-citizen with a criminal conviction, and, increasingly, any non-citizen who is even associated with or accused of criminal conduct.  Again, the narrative invokes victims and villains, with immigration controls working to protect the former and punish the latter.

Importantly, the VoT and the ‘foreign criminal’ only become intelligible in relation to problematic ideas about race and gender. According to Rutvica Andrijasevic, the anti-trafficking narrative relies on images of “wounded and inanimate female bodies”. In other words, the women that need saving are usually racialised in problematic ways. Similarly, the figure of the ‘foreign criminal’ preys upon deeply entrenched fears about the dangerous sexuality of racialised men. Both of these sets of racialised and gendered stereotypes justify draconian forms of immigration control and construct the state as a (masculine) saviour.

I have become wary of this economy of suffering that undergirds most debates on migration. As Julia O’Connell Davidson notes:

Because suffering is not raw datum, it can be selectively recognised…unfortunately, it is perfectly possible for states simultaneously to recognise some kinds of suffering as a qualification for community inclusion, but continue to operate the lethal immigration regimes and border controls that both deny and generate other kinds of suffering.

Arguing that rights should not be fastened onto suffering is not to deny that certain migrants have specific vulnerabilities. It is not to suggest that all migrant sex workers have it easy. Nor is it to ignore or underplay the pervasiveness of male sexual violence (sometimes non-citizens are guilty of hypermasculinist acts of sexual violence). However, we must remain fiercely critical of any conception of the state as protector.

Migrant sex workers often don’t look like VoTs, and policies instituted under the anti-trafficking rubric tend to bolster the forms of control directed at non-citizens who sell sex. Likewise, non-citizen ex-offenders usually don’t look like the caricatured ‘foreign criminal’. Instead, their complex biographies might include experiences of racism, poverty, irregularity and exclusion. Finding room to speak about these migrants requires us to resist buying into black and white notions of victims and villains, or into any such fantasy that casts the state as a saviour of VoTs. We must, instead, attempt the much harder task of critically thinking about how race and gender play into our preconceptions of who needs saving from whom.


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