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Anti-trafficking: whitewash for anti-immigration programmes

Anti-trafficking programmes give a humanitarian gloss to national anti-immigration controls, but the citizenship and immigration policies of nation-states are still the biggest danger facing many migrants today.

National immigration policies and their enforcement constitute the greatest dangers to people trying to cross national borders. Moreover, the categories into which nation-states slot most migrating people—‘illegal’ or ‘temporary foreign worker’ being two of the largest—are the greatest threats to their liberty. Being categorised as ‘illegal’ or ‘temporary’ is what entraps a growing number (and proportion) of migrating people into substandard work while severely limiting their rights and mobility. In short, national immigration policies legislate the conditions that make some people ‘cheap’ or ‘disposable.’ Quite simply put: without national immigration policies, there would no ‘migrants’ to subordinate, scapegoat and abuse.

We learn none of these real-life dangers and exploitations from the ever-multiplying accounts of ‘human trafficking’ and ‘modern-day slavery.’ I’ve long been curious about why that is. I suspect it has something to do with how anti-trafficking campaigns cast nation-states as the ‘rescuers’ of ‘victims of trafficking’ instead of showing nation-states to be the source of much of their woes. For those people whose mobility is seriously imperilled by immigration and border controls; who have resorted to paying someone to help them across increasingly militarised borders; who are forced to work for poverty wages in substandard conditions; who are ever more frequently detained and deported; and for those who care about the people who have drowned at sea or died of thirst in deserts while attempting to reach somewhere else, the idea that the nation-state is a friend to ‘migrants’ is, well, galling.

Anti-trafficking policies do a great disservice to migrating people, especially the most vulnerable. By diverting our attention away from the practices of nation-states and employers, they channel our energies to support a law-and-order agenda of ‘getting tough’ with ‘traffickers.’ In this way, anti-trafficking measures are ideological: they render the plethora of immigration and border controls as unproblematic and place them outside of the bounds of politics. The reasons why it is increasingly difficult and dangerous for people to move safely or live securely in new places are brushed aside while nation states rush to criminalise ‘traffickers’ and (largely) deport ‘victims of trafficking.’

To have a useful discussion about ‘trafficking’ and ‘modern-day slavery,’ we need to take seriously how national and international governance regimes and legislation shape the experiences of people trying to exit, move across, or live and work in various nationalised societies. The United Nations estimates there were 232 million international migrants in 2013, 57 million more than there were in 2000. Today, much (but not all) of human migration is shaped by the enormous spatial disparities in prosperity, peace and power. In contrast to the “great age of mass migration” of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when migration was mainly out of Europe, most cross-border migrants today originate from the ‘poor world.’ This is not a surprise given that one’s nationality is a key factor in predicting global income disparity. Branko Milanovic demonstrates in his 2005 book Worlds Apart: Measuring International and Global Inequality that citizens of ‘rich world’ nation-states enjoy an enormous “citizenship premium.” For example, a citizen of the United States with “the average income of the bottom US decile is better off than 2/3 of world population” (Milanovic 2005, p. 50, emphasis added).

How have nation-states, especially in the ‘rich world,’ responded to this growth in international migration and the growth in global disparities? Not by helping people move or by making their migration routes safe but by implementing more restrictive and punitive immigration and border controls than ever. However, this has not stopped people from moving and, arguably, this is not the states’ goal. While more and more people are moving, they have access to less and less rights and entitlements. For example, in the United States, the largest category of ‘migrants’—by a ratio of about 15:1—are those denied state permission to either enter or stay in the country. In Canada, the largest group of “migrants” are categorised as “temporary foreign workers” who are not free to choose either their employer, occupation or geographical residence.

Thus, far from eliminating or even severely restricting the movement of people, what neoliberal reformulations of immigration and refugee policy have done is to prevent the vast majority of migrating people from making claims on the state (in terms of social services) or on employers (in terms of minimum wages and standards of work). That is how a ‘cheap’ and ‘disposable’ labour force is created. This is the real story of international migration in the age of neo-liberalism (late 1960s onward): the creation of a legally subordinated group of people cast as ‘migrants.’

It is precisely in this same period that the narratives of ‘modern-day slavery’ and ‘victims of trafficking’ have arisen. This is not a coincidence. Just when nation-states have made it next to impossible to legally live and work in their territories as rights-bearing persons, anti-trafficking measures have been adopted into national laws. Tales of ‘trafficking’ (or ‘smuggling’), which have led to calls for heightened state intervention at the border and more punitive measures for traffickers and/or smugglers, do the crucial work of legitimising further controls on global human mobility, all in the name of ‘helping’ victims of trafficking. By ideologically filtering their efforts through the politics of rescue, anti-trafficking campaigns provide a crucial veneer of humanitarianism to the exploitative and repressive practices of states and employers. It is because of its ideological character that anti-trafficking campaigns articulate so well with official anti-migrant agendas.

In particular, anti-trafficking measures fail to acknowledge that in the face of ever-more restrictive immigration and border controls, it is virtually impossible today for many people to move without the assistance of people ready and able to help them in one way or another. They might need forged papers (visas, passports, etc.) for travel. They might need help in navigating clandestine migration routes. They might need help in gaining paid employment. It is true that many, but certainly not all, migrants experience coercion and even abuse during their journeys. They may also experience some form of deception if the jobs, wages or working conditions they expected do not materialise. Does this mean that they are ‘victims of trafficking’ as some NGOs, almost all national governments, and the United Nations would have us believe?

They are not. Instead, most people who migrate, especially those cast as ‘illegals’ or ‘temporary foreign workers,’ are victims of the daily, banal operation of global capitalist labour markets that are governed by nation-states. These practices make migration a survival strategy. People are further victimised by border control practices and the ideologies of racism, sexism, and nationalism that render unspectacular their everyday experiences of oppression and exploitation, which are rarely considered worthy of our attention. By vilifying the ‘trafficker,’ anti-trafficking crusaders further depoliticize state immigration policies, border controls and the capitalist market.

To address the needs and desires of people who move—and to acknowledge extant global disparities in power, wealth and peace—we need to re-politicize nation-states and their immigration and border controls. This requires that we jettison the framework of anti-trafficking and its supporting legislation. Only a very small number of migrants have received temporary legal status as a result of being positioned as victims of trafficking. For the vast majority of people migrating, however, the focus on ‘traffickers’ has made people’s clandestine journeys more expensive and more dangerous, as avoiding detection and arrest has become increasingly difficult. Instead of objectifying people who migrate as ‘trafficked victims,’ we need to re-centre how state immigration and border controls have forced them into dangerous migration routes. We also need to be aware of how the intersection of criminal law and immigration law creates the conditions for the exploitation of people who need to earn a living and form new homes across borders. Doing so leads to the recognition that only by mobilising to end practices of displacement, while simultaneously ensuring that people are able to move according to their own self-determined, wilful needs and desires, will we be able to contest globally operative practices of exploitation and abuse. We need to eliminate all immigration controls and eradicate those sets of social relations organised through global capitalism and the equally global system of nation-states.

About the author

Nandita Sharma is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoā and Director of its International Cultural Studies Graduate Certificate Program. She supports No Borders movements and those struggling for a global commons.


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