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Safe migration as an emerging anti-trafficking agenda?

Safe migration has become a way for anti-trafficking organisations to re-articulate how a concern with labour exploitation relates to migration, yet it remains unclear how ‘safety’ can be ensured.

Undocumented Cambodian migrants in Thailand are transported to the border by train. Joe Lowry for IOM/Flickr. Creative Commons.

Current efforts to combat ‘modern slavery’ must be understood within the wider context of discourses, programmes and policies that target migrant labour. Since the 1990s, the dominant political focus has been on ‘human trafficking’. Although anti-trafficking remains popular, it has been subject to considerable criticism, even within the anti-trafficking sector itself. A key point of contestation regards the ways in which anti-trafficking relates to migration policies.

For example, it is well known how anti-trafficking discourses easily lend themselves to anti-immigration agendas. Deporting a migrant under the auspices of anti-trafficking efforts makes deportation sound almost heartwarming: the poor victim gets to be re-united with their loved ones ‘at home’. The language of ‘modern slavery’ unsurprisingly emerged out of these anti-trafficking discourses. However in recent times we have also seen other related approaches come to prominence. One example is ‘safe migration’, a concept that allows aid programmes, activists and moral entrepreneurs to advocate for migrants in ways that attempt to evade a focus on repressive border control regimes.

The concept of ‘safe migration’ is not entirely new, but it has been gaining prevalence ever since organisations began to notice donor fatigue regarding human trafficking. As one senior IOM official in the Mekong region recently told me, “the human trafficking candle is burning down”. In response, programmes referring to ‘safe migration’ are now becoming more common.

So, what it ‘safe migration’?

‘Safe migration’ is related to, but not synonymous with ‘legal’ migration. Activists and scholars alike argue that providing legal avenues for labour migrants reduces the risk of exploitative practices in labour supply chains. The 2009 Human Development Report explicitly argues that legalising labour migration contributes positively to both the well-being of migrants (including reduced risk of trafficking) and to development. ‘Safe migration’ programmes however go beyond this to usually include four elements: the legal status of migrants, progressive awareness raising, trust building (brokers vs. social networks vs. licensed recruitment firms), and institutional support mechanisms in the migration process (such as hotline phone numbers for migrants).

 Thus, aid organisations move beyond a strict focus on the law when they talk of ‘safe migration’. They do not merely advocate legalising migration; they also work towards making migration safer by emphasising the importance of social networks and progressive awareness-raising amongst migrant populations. As with efforts to legalise labour migration, a key assumption is that empowering migrants will curtail the market for traffickers and other unscrupulous facilitators of mobility. Within this framework, both officially sanctioned modes of recruitment (licensed recruitment companies/brokers) and informal migration networks of friends and acquaintances are assumed to result in better (‘safer’) conditions for labour migrants. Hence, implicit inferences are made about vulnerability, risk and safety in relation to different modes of recruitment in the light of legal context and migration policy, and are evident in programmes in the Mekong region and elsewhere.

It is therefore important to maintain a healthy dose of caution regarding what ‘safe migration’ can do to improve conditions for migrant labourers. As I have shown elsewhere, assuming certain ‘types’ of migrant recruitment constitute ‘safety’ (such as official labour recruitment companies, or informal migration networks) is problematic as it is precisely through such arrangements that non-consensual recruitment takes place.

Furthermore, safe migration in the form of legal migration status can work in counter-intuitive ways. Rather than producing safety through legal status, working permits and passports can become capital resources that are appropriated and produced through brokering networks. For example, evidence of residential address—required information as part of passport application—can become a commodity that can be traded through brokers. In my own research I have also come across cases where labour permits are arranged through brokers and the fee is added to the migrant’s debt bondage. There are also instances in which labour migrants pawn their passports to brokers in exchange for short-term cash.

Questions must also be raised regarding what safe migration programmes actually do. For example, migrant hotlines are frequently mentioned amongst programmes that profess ‘safe migration’ approaches. Such hotlines have already existed under the auspices of ‘anti-trafficking’ for years, and it’s more than unclear how ‘hot’ such hotlines are. My current research on safe migration and hotlines in the Mekong region suggests not only that very few migrants actually use them, but that operators have significant limitations in acting upon the few phone calls they receive.

Furthermore, safe migration awareness-raising can easily place the onus of change on the migrant themselves, thereby asking very little in terms of transforming how labour markets and migration regimes operate. Whereas labour migrants receive training in how to reduce risk through migration, less is done to address why labour markets are structured in ways that produce such risk in the first place. Finally, safe migration efforts may also be a two-edged sword, given that they introduce increasing forms of surveillance of migrant populations. Despite the official aim of migrant ‘safety’, there are no guarantees against safe migration programmes turning into instruments for social control and punitive anti-immigration agendas.

So, what are the positives? A notable contrast with both ‘modern slavery’ and ‘human trafficking’ is how safe migration avoids any fetishisation of misery. In other words, safe migration places a specific focus on the desired outcome of labour migration (i.e. safety) as opposed to a humanitarian discourse of suffering. As such it may at least provide a useful frame for discussions regarding migrant labour policies.

About the author

Sverre Molland is a lecturer in Anthropology (Development Studies) at the Australian National University. His research explores the intersection of development, migration and security in Southeast Asia. He has published widely on human trafficking and is the author of The Perfect Business? Anti-Trafficking and the Sex Trade along the Mekong. You can follow him on twitter at @SverreMolland.


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