Atlanta Asian massage parlor murders are a warning to the anti-trafficking sector

Published on: 29 March 2021 Written by: Jamison Liang All articles by: Jamison Liang

Playing fast and loose with stories of ‘sex trafficking’ is a good way to get innocent women hurt

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DEBATE: What has philanthrocapitalism done to anti-trafficking movement?


Anniversaries are a good time to take stock. Over the course of 2020 there were many events focusing upon the Palermo protocol and its legacies, but these all too often took the form of uncritical celebrations rather than meaningful reflections. In this double feature we dive deeper. And when reflecting upon the legacies and effects of the Palermo protocol, there are two vital questions that stand out.

What is exploitation?

Our first question focuses upon the political, legal, and ethical challenges of drawing moral and legal lines between ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ forms of exploitation under capitalism, a system in which profit is the primary goal. What ‘counts’ as exploitation in contexts where the deck is heavily stacked in favour of employers and against workers? If someone consents to work for poor wages and in bad conditions, is that the end of the matter? Should only the most extreme cases of abuse concern us? Or do we need to worry about the vulnerability inherent to all market life?

The trafficking protocol does a poor job of addressing this key question. Although it establishes exploitation as integral to the definition of trafficking, it doesn’t define exploitation itself, nor does it clarify where this begins or ends. We believe that this uncertainty contributes to all kinds of problems. There is a widespread tendency among policymakers and activists to approach exploitation in much the same way as pornography, where ‘you know it when you see it’. This results in a situation where the defining features of exploitation are more often assumed than analysed.

With this in mind, the goal of the first half of our double feature is to sharpen our understanding of this core concept. We have invited leading experts on law, philosophy, economics, and sociology to reflect on what exploitation looks like, how it has been and should be defined, what kinds of political and legal effects follow from different definitions, and what kind of role it should play within political activism and mobilisation. We do not expect to resolve this question once and for all, but asking it publicly and critically is essential.

Are we better off on the inside?

Our second question focuses upon political tactics and strategic calculations. The main goal of this half of our feature is to bring to light the kinds of behind-the-scenes calculations which have influenced how, why, and whether different campaigners and organisations have taken up the cause of combating human trafficking and, now, ‘modern slavery’. We hope to capture many of the issues at stake here by focusing upon one key question: are we better off on the inside? This is a question which frequently comes up in private conversations, but rarely gets discussed in public.

Most experts with first-hand experience of anti-trafficking or anti-slavery interventions and campaigns are well aware that they can be ineffective or compromised by other agendas. However, this recognition tends to be caveated with the claim that it is better to remain on the inside, despite the problems, to be better positioned to try and move things forward more productively over time. This can sometimes result in a degree of self-censorship, since speaking out too loudly or too often can mean risking your access, influence, and funding. Rejecting or resisting dominant models can lead to being left on the outside looking in, which can make it more difficult to have your voice heard or to exert influence over key decisions.

Many of the people and organisations engaged in anti-trafficking or anti-slavery work at least partially justify their approach by appealing to these kinds of arguments. However, there remains a widespread reluctance to talk openly about the trade-offs that come with this decision, so there hasn’t been enough analysis of whether their underlying assumptions stand up to scrutiny.

Yet it is also by no means clear that alternative approaches would be more effective. Critics frequently propose policies that would undoubtedly have beneficial effects, such as separating immigration enforcement from labour inspections, but these also tend to be a tall order politically. Is it better to work towards modest gains that might actually be achievable in the short term, or to embrace more radical positions that are harder to realise?

In a sense, this question is an echo of the old reform or revolution debate. In this scenario, the reformists argue that they’ve never before had such a powerful rallying call as trafficking or modern slavery, and its value as a mobilisation tool outweighs its drawbacks. They also maintain that small and incremental improvements are all that is achievable, and that something is better than nothing.

Advocates for more revolutionary approaches don’t entirely disagree. They understand that shouting slogans from the sidelines that powerful people will ignore will not have immediate (or any) positive impact. But they are much less confident that staying on the inside is beneficial. This is because they regard trafficking as a political tool which ends up legitimating the abuse of migrants, punishing sex workers, and deflecting longstanding efforts to improve the rights and protections afforded to precarious workers. Our current global order is deeply unjust and unequal. How should we respond, they ask, if anti-trafficking and anti-slavery campaigns play a role in helping it to stay that way?

We do not expect to come to a final answer, since this question is heavily influenced by context and position. Nevertheless, we are convinced that the only way to improve current tactics and strategies is to talk about them in depth, and that frank conversation is exactly what we intend to have.

Happy reading.

Inside Beyond Trafficking and Slavery


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After the 'migration crisis'

How Europe works to keep Africans in Africa

Edited by Liliane Mouan, Simon Massey and Cameron Thibos

Migration from Africa to Europe has, since the long summer of migration in 2015, been at the top of the European political agenda. As right-wing parties have gained at the ballot box through their anti-migration rhetoric, the priority for most policymakers has been to look tough and to prevent such an experience from ever happening again. To this end the European Union and individual EU member states have devoted large amounts of resources to trying to keep people in Africa. As this feature demonstrates in great detail, an awful lot has been going on.

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