Could Trump be an ally in the fight against human trafficking?

There are good reasons for caution but it would be foolhardy and short-sighted to let cynicism obstruct opportunity.

Anne T. Gallagher
4 July 2017

US President Donald Trump at an event on human trafficking, February 2017.

US President Donald Trump at an event on human trafficking, February 2017. Photo: PA Images. All rights reserved.

Last week, the US government released its Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, a yearly assessment and ranking of more than 180 countries on their responses to human exploitation in its myriad forms: from forced labour to sexual servitude; from the recruitment of child soldiers to online child sexual exploitation.

The 2017 report was awaited with nervous anticipation. Donald Trump’s administration has been singularly cold on human rights issues, especially in relation to US foreign policy. Its decision in March to forego the usual ceremony to launch the state department’s annual human rights report was particularly significant.

But human trafficking, the quintessential human rights issue of our time, might be an exception. Indeed, there have been strong signs that the Trump administration will continue, and perhaps even accelerate, the US war against trafficking that began in the late 1990s and continued through the Obama years.

"a moral and strategic interest domestically and abroad"

In late 2016, Congress authorised unprecedented levels of funding – $37.5 million a year, for four years – “to seek to bring to an end modern slavery” (the newly popular umbrella term for human trafficking and related exploitation).

In February, not long after President Trump’s inauguration, he and his daughter hosted a high-level “listening session” on the issue of human trafficking, after which he vowed to "bring the full force and weight of our government" to combat this “epidemic”.

In May, Ivanka Trump, who is also an advisor to the President, brought experts and lawmakers together in a bipartisan meeting "to discuss concrete steps through legislation" to combat human trafficking and modern slavery, describing this as “both a moral and strategic interest domestically and abroad".

And then there’s the 2017 TIP report, launched at a high-profile event hosted by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, with a guest appearance by Ivanka Trump. In his remarks, Tillerson emphasised that this “crime against basic human rights” is, and will continue to be, a priority for the US government.

It’s important to acknowledge, upfront, that the TIP reports are political creatures, serving political ends. Over the past several years the politicisation of country rankings has become more noticeable and the 2017 edition continues this trend.

North Korea is condemned in the usual way for its use of forced labour while China is downgraded (for only the second time since 2001, when the TIP reports began) to the lowest possible tier in the report’s rankings – specifically for its complicity in the exploitation of North Korean workers.

For reasons that are unpersuasive or at least unclear given their respective track records on trafficking, Iran is ranked lower than Qatar and Saudi Arabia. At the other end of the spectrum, Indonesia and Vietnam continue to enjoy a free pass when it comes to their less than impressive efforts. Malaysia’s upgrade this year from the bottom ranking has also been widely criticised as undeserving and politically-motivated.

There are other problems too. From the first TIP report, an in-built bias in its assessment criteria has let rich countries of destination off the hook completely and has ignored the complicity of corporations that reap the major profits of human exploitation. This has been slavishly continued in the 2017 edition.

it lets rich countries of destination off the hook completely and ignores the complicity of corporations that reap the major profits of human exploitation

For example, Australia is judged on its response to the relatively minor problem of trafficking in that country – not for the egregious exploitation of workers across Africa connected to publicly-traded Australian mining companies.

The US position on what should be done, meanwhile, remains dominated by a criminal justice perspective that too often looks for convictions at any cost, leading to the pursuit of low-level traffickers and unfair trials that fail to respect suspects’ basic rights.

It’s not all bad news, though.

The report is blunt in its assessment of government failures to prosecute traffickers and protect victims. It highlights the insidious effect of public sector corruption on anti-trafficking efforts. And it includes a perceptive and much overdue analysis of why trafficking prosecutions are so difficult and so rare.

There are also encouraging signs that understanding of victim experience is improving. The report acknowledges the long-standing invisibility of male victims. It affirms of the principle of non-prosecution of trafficked persons for offences arising out of their situation (such as illegal entry and illegal work). And it includes a nuanced discussion of the role of recruitment fees in creating and sustaining exploitation of migrant workers.

What does all of this mean?

The world is an increasingly hostile place for individuals and their rights. In their dealings with each other, governments are distancing themselves from 'uncomfortable' human rights discussions; our rules-based international order is steadily eroding in favour of soft commitments or none at all; and institutions built to protect the vulnerable from the depredations of the powerful are being weakened at every turn.

The Trump administration appears happily complicit in this drift. But could human trafficking be an exception to this?

of course, there are good reasons to be sceptical...

The massive injection of funds and political capital into this sector over the last few years is encouraging. Recent government statements, and tenor of the TIP report – which, after a dip in quality and focus in recent years, is back with a vengeance – suggest that this administration does not intend to stand in the way of trafficking’s march to the top of the international agenda.

Of course, there are good reasons to be sceptical of this flurry of activity. A small group of powerful NGOs are advising the administration on this issue and these are the same organisations that will likely receive or manage related federal funding. Critics have warned that the exclusion of alternative voices will further entrench the power of these NGOs, legitimise questionable and self-serving ‘data’ on trafficking, and perpetuate grand approaches that fail to recognise the need for solutions that are locally-relevant and sector-specific.

It’s also been noted that Trump’s “America First” agenda – which includes aggressive immigration enforcement, a withdrawal from international legal commitments on human rights and asylum, and disengagement from international laws and institutions – inevitably operates to increase vulnerability to exploitation.

Rally in Los Angeles against immigration raids and deportations.

Recent rally in Los Angeles against immigration raids and deportations. Photo: Ronen Tivony/PA Images. All rights reserved.

And it’s hard to imagine the commercial interests of the Trump family and its associates being sacrificed at the altar of fair and decent work. On the same day that Ivanka Trump spoke at the launch of the 2017 TIP report, AP journalists published a report documenting violence and abuse at the Chinese factory that makes her branded shoes.

This is a painful limitation of the anti-trafficking movement: too many of its leaders, apparently also the Trumps, fail to understand that trafficking is woven into the fabric of a global economic order heavily dependent on unfree, unprotected work. Exploitation will be with us as long as the basic model of globalisation remains unchallenged.

But it’s worth remembering that pragmatism has long been a potent weapon in the battle against exploitation of human beings for private profit.

pragmatism has long been a potent weapon in the battle against exploitation of human beings for private profit

Nowhere is this better reflected than in the composition of the contemporary movement against modern slavery – a peculiar coalition of diverse governments, civil society organisations, philanthropists and religious leaders. These groups come to the cause with divergent values and perspectives but are united in their determination to do (or to be seen to be doing) something against this global ‘scourge’.

Over the last two decades, and through multiple administrations, the US has been the unofficial torch-bearer of the anti-trafficking movement. Through the TIP report, targeted political pressure and strategic funding it has catalysed real and lasting change – in laws and institutions but also in attitudes to exploitation and perceptions of government responsibility to respond effectively.

With the Trump administration, there are good reasons for caution but it would be foolhardy and short-sighted to let cynicism obstruct opportunity. We must hold this government to account – while doing everything possible to encourage its continued, constructive involvement in the fight against human trafficking.

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