Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Anti-trafficking is an inside job

States ‘combat trafficking’ to put a humanitarian face on their punitive anti-immigration policies. For this reason alone the project of anti-trafficking must go.

Nandita Sharma
18 November 2020
The Financial Sector Commission on Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking, hosted by the Dutch foreign minister, Stef Blok, meets in The Netherlands in 2019.
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Ministerie van Buitenlandse Zaken/Flickr. Creative Commons (by-sa)

Anti-trafficking has always been an ‘inside job’. This is true in at least two ways. First, we have an alliance between anti-trafficking organisations and state officials, who have worked together to embed the anti-trafficking framework into both international agreements and national and local laws. This alliance has actively dismissed the concerns of feminists, including sex workers, who have spoken up about the harms that tend to occur whenever anybody gets it in their head to ‘save women and children’. It has also sidelined evidence that anti-trafficking measures tend to intensify the harms already being done by immigration and anti-sex work policies.

Secondly, we have organisations who have used anti-trafficking and the access and influence it enables to advance other aspects of their agenda. Groups seeking to abolish sex work are the prime culprits here. Abolitionist campaigners have successfully harnessed sympathy for trafficking victims to further criminalise sex work, harass sex workers and their clients, and deny safe and law-bound routes of intra- and international migration for sex workers. Under the guise of anti-trafficking, in many jurisdictions previous victories gained by sex workers have been rolled back and sex workers have become more exposed to the punitive power of the state.

Follow the anti-trafficking money

Anti-trafficking crusaders have furthermore enriched themselves by being on the inside. They have financially benefitted from the funds civil society organisations and government agencies give out to ‘combat trafficking’, and acquired social capital by establishing lifelong connections and networks with the powerful and wealthy. As Cynthia Enloe has demonstrated, protecting women and children has long been a powerful tool for soliciting sympathy, money, and weapons. And anti-trafficking is indeed a well-oiled machine: the Trump administration alone has authorised approximately $430 million to “fight sex and labor trafficking” since 2016.

Talking about ‘traffickers’ and ‘smugglers’ enables nation-states who would otherwise be defined as anti-migrant to be viewed as the saviours and protectors of ‘victims of trafficking’.

This is a mutually beneficial alliance. The flow of hundreds of millions of dollars in the United States to organisations fighting ‘modern-day slavery’ has played a major role in drawing attention away from government policies on immigration, free trade, employment, the environment, and public welfare. Talking about ‘traffickers’ and ‘smugglers’ is not only an effective way of closing down other conversations, it also enables nation-states who would otherwise be defined by their anti-migrant, anti-environment, anti-women, anti-worker, and anti-poor policies to be viewed as the saviours and protectors of ‘victims of trafficking’.

This is no small benefit to nation-states. Look again at the Trump administration’s support and funding for anti-trafficking measures, which has been a hallmark of this administration. Since taking office, Trump has had a full-time appointee overseeing anti-trafficking initiatives and signed three executive orders and eight bills expressly targeting human trafficking. Trump has presented this as “fighting for the voiceless”.

Yet “the voiceless” to which Trump refers clearly does not include anyone affected by Trump’s immigration policies, including those harmed by the effective ending of lawful routes of migration to the United States, the implementation of a ‘Muslim ban’ (which reintroduces racism into US immigration law), the interdiction of asylum seekers at the US’s southern border, and the organised abandonment of would-be refugees in hazardous, make-shift camps in Mexico. Most egregiously, Trump’s concern for the most vulnerable does not extend to the separation of children from their caregiving adults as part of his administration’s “zero tolerance” policy – an especially vicious tactic to try and thwart future migration to the United States.

The voices of the people harmed by Trump’s anti-immigrant policies have not been prioritised by anti-trafficking activists either. It is no accident that most anti-trafficking organisations have failed to speak out against each and every one of Trump’s anti-immigration policies. On the contrary, many have stood beside Trump and his daughter Ivanka and applauded their anti-trafficking initiatives. Marking one such occasion, the twentieth anniversary of the 2000 Trafficking Victims Protection Act on 31 January 2020, Trump commented that his policies were a response to a “level of evil that you would never believe is even possible in a modern age. The level of evil is incredible.” The evil he was referring to was definitely not his administration’s continuing failure to reunite over 600 hundred children whom they separated from their parents.

Anti-trafficking or anti-immigrant?

There is further evidence of this symbiotic relationship between the anti-trafficking and anti-immigrant agendas. Notably, recent policies aimed at virtually eliminating asylum in the US have been reframed as humanitarian measures to “reduce illegal trafficking and human trafficking, as well as forced migration”. This is how Trump described his 2019 signing of a “bilateral cooperation agreement on security and migration” with El Salvador, as well as others signed with Honduras, and Guatemala. These agreements ensure that anyone seeking refuge in the US who has traversed these refugee producing states would no longer have the right to do so.

The strategic appeal of ‘combatting trafficking’ goes well beyond the United States. El Salvador’s foreign minister, Alexandra Hill, justified their participation in the bilateral agreement by invoking the recent deaths of a father and daughter from El Salvador who drowned in June 2019 in the Rio Grande. Claiming that their deaths “hit El Salvador in the heart”, Hill said the agreement would help El Salvador “avoid” such deaths. Yet this humanitarian rhetoric provides political cover for El Salvador’s endorsement of Trump’s efforts to further close routes of migration to the US, thereby increasing the danger to those who try.

Would draconian immigration laws be as easy to justify or enforce if they could not be sanitised as humanitarian efforts to ‘protect migrants’?

This provides a clear-eyed glimpse into what anti-trafficking means to nation-states: legitimising anti-immigrant policies. The diversion of refugees from the US to El Salvador (or Guatemala or Honduras) is justified by invoking ‘evil traffickers’, yet they are merely a prop held up to distract attention away from the US’s increasingly severe policies on immigration. Self-interested efforts to prevent movement are transformed into a shared humanitarian project to ‘combat trafficking’. Again, money greases the wheel: while it currently remains unclear what El Salvador or Honduras will receive from the US to ensure that refugees are unable to claim asylum there, the Trump administration has agreed to transfer $40 million to the United Nations refugee agency to effectively warehouse migrants in Guatemala, including those deported from the US.

This brings into focus a key question: how would the intensifying labyrinth of immigration restrictions be perceived in the absence of anti-trafficking measures? Would ever more draconian immigration laws be as easy to justify or to enforce if they could not be sanitised as humanitarian efforts to ‘protect migrants’? My answer – drawing upon my own research into how anti-trafficking rhetoric has led to unauthorised migration becoming more dangerous and more expensive – is no. The wide dissemination of the fear of traffickers has been integral to efforts to harm migrants.

Anti-trafficking conspiracies

By presenting themselves as ‘saviours’, anti-traffickers have secured prestige and authority within societies which have become obsessed with the trafficking of women and children. It should come as no surprise that this is an obsession which they have played no small part in fomenting. Even far-right conspiracy theories have by this point jumped on the anti-trafficking bandwagon as a way of re-presenting themselves as rescuers of victims and not victimisers.

This has most recently manifested in the social media phenomenon of QAnon, which draws upon longstanding fears about a vast network of traffickers who conspire to harm women and children. The QAnon slogan, “save the children”, borrows directly from the rhetoric accompanying efforts to ‘combat trafficking’. Indeed, the use of this slogan has increased the popularity of QAnon – and, unsurprisingly, the popularity of Trump. QAnon adherents believe the current president is secretly fighting a network of liberal Hollywood celebrities and Democrats supposedly running a child trafficking ring. President Trump’s tacit support of QAnon aligns with his own anti-trafficking agenda. Both incorrectly portray Trump as the protector of women and children.

If people seriously want to protect women and children then they should try to reform national immigration policies to make them less restrictive and less about deporting or caging people.

Some 150 anti-trafficking organisations recently denounced QAnon in an open letter, which stated that it misrepresents the extent of the phenomenon of trafficking as well as its root causes. The letter maintains that “we need policies that address systemic vulnerabilities of children to both sex trafficking and forced labor,” yet it once again remains silent when it comes to Trump’s own misrepresentation and strategic manipulation of the concept of trafficking. It is clear that the women and children these organisations purport to care for have been adversely affected by Trump’s policies, yet they find ways to look the other way.

There is an alternative path available to anti-trafficking organisations if they want to take it. If people seriously want to protect women and children then they should spend their energies trying to reform national immigration policies to make them less restrictive, less punitive, and less about deporting or caging people. Instead of giving lip-service to the systemic vulnerabilities of ‘victims of trafficking’, they would put their combined weight into exposing and challenging the very logics of nationalism and global capitalism that prevent most people from safely moving between nationalised territories. While this path is available to such organisations in theory, it is unlikely to be taken in practice. Walking it would mean upending the mutually beneficial alliance between anti-trafficking organisations and the nation-state, and thereby complicating all of the access, financial gain, and influence it generates.

It is well past time to jettison the entire framework of anti-trafficking by recognising that national border controls are meant to deny people their freedom. Border controls are designed to harm and are dedicated to destroying planetary solidarity. Anti-trafficking crusaders are part of the problem and play no part in the solution.

This series has been financially supported by Humanity United.

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