Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Human trafficking: a parasite of prohibitionism?

Is human trafficking an unintended consequence every time a sector of commerce is zoned illicit by lawmakers as a way of policing morality? What are the links between human trafficking and the wars on drugs and on undocumented immigration?

Samuel Martínez
30 October 2014

French NGOs protest an anti-prostitution law forbidding passive soliciting of clients. Tom Craig/Demotix. All Rights Reserved.

Among the elephants in the waiting room of today’s political commentary, one of the most obvious but least discussed is the accumulating evidence that human trafficking is a parasite of legal prohibitionism. Human trafficking is no doubt a ‘scourge’, yet it is not a natural or timeless affliction but one that battens on slavery-genic structures of law. It is time for students of trafficking to call out states for creating the conditions that enable this crime.

Early in the current global upsurge of concern about unfree labor, critical feminist voices warned that legislative and police efforts to suppress the sex trade are counterproductive. They drive sex-for-money commerce further underground and displace it, in a push-down/pop-up effect, into less strictly policed areas. Particularly in the negotiations of the 2000 UN Trafficking Protocol, sex-worker rights feminists pointed attention toward the relationship between the law and human trafficking. They did not, however, go far enough to unveil trafficking not as law’s absence but as law’s misdirected excess.

America’s prohibition habit

You would think that Americans would know better. Their first experiment in prohibition—the outlawing of the sale of alcohol between 1919 and 1933—should have brought home the message that prohibitionism cannot kill morally objectionable commerce. It only cordons it off inside a zone of non-regulated trade. It is in this sense alone that it makes sense to say, in the words of 12 Years a Slave director, Steve McQueen, that “Slavery was never abolished; it was deregulated.” Metaphorically, the walls around the spaces of unfree labor today are built by law even as the yard within those walls is unregulated. Yet instead of admitting to a mistake, Americans quickly followed their experiment in alcohol’s prohibition with other prohibitions, re-labeled eventually “wars on [fill in the blank].”

The most expensive of these ‘wars,’ in terms of tax dollars and blasted lives, is the still raging war on drugs. It also acts as host to the parasite of human trafficking. Reading, admittedly, against the grain, tantalizing evidence of this link is found in stories detailing the public spectacle of young teenage girls clad in five-inch heels and miniskirts, being led in and out of flashy cars and motel rooms on the Berlin Turnpike, not far from where I live in eastern Connecticut. In seeking to understand why “more young American girls [are] entering the commercial sex industry—an estimated 300,000 at this moment—and their ages have been dropping drastically,” investigative reporter, Amy Fine Collins, looked into the back story on one human trafficking bust on the Turnpike.

If, as assistant U.S. attorney, Krishna Patel says, the “two business models” in this commerce are “manipulating girls through violence … and controlling them with drugs,” one missing piece of the puzzle is the role of the police as surrogate enforcers of sex-worker discipline. In the story told by Collins, one bail bondsman—trickster figures of the law enforcement world—did double duty as a pimp. The bail bondsman not only enjoys predatory high ground on a law enforcement savanna dotted with young girls in trouble; he can also call in colleagues to arrest disobedient or rebellious girls for “crimes” such as “failure to appear” before a parole officer. Relevant here, too, is the school-to-prison pipeline—another disastrous misuse of law enforcement—through which mostly poor and disproportionately African-American youth get tagged with criminal records for school disciplinary infractions. On the Turnpike, the girls’ fear of encounters with law enforcers is a stick in pimps’ hands. The same police officer who enforces drug laws and arrests parole violators is also expected to be trusted by underage sex workers to respond with care. Looked at this way, human trafficking is not just one more form of illicit commerce; it also grows parasitically on the designation of other forms of commerce as illicit.

Border walls and human smugglers: a recipe for trafficking?

The link between prohibitionism and trafficking has been most clearly documented in America’s war on undocumented immigration. We have known for more than a decade that higher and longer walls, increased border patrol surveillance, and heightened bureaucratic impediments to immigration have deflected immigrants into the grip of smugglers. Yet trafficking’s parasitism on smuggler dependency has never been a topic of sustained discussion in either anti-trafficking or immigrant rights activism. In his 2001 study, Border Games, Peter Andreas pointed out that trafficking is not a product of porous borders: where borders are truly permeable, people will just walk across on their own and not bother with procuring a smuggler. Reliance on smugglers, who may stand revealed as traffickers if they seek to restrict the entrants’ freedom once they are on the other side, emerged only in response to the U.S. government’s border build-up in the 1990s. And this is a reality not just in North America but in other places worldwide. As Phil Marshall and Susu Thatun generalized in 2005, on the basis of their extensive anti-trafficking experience in the six-nation greater Mekong region, “tighter border controls exacerbate trafficking … [and] bringing migration policies more closely into line with labor market realities, would be the single greatest step a country could take against trafficking.”

Consider also that the current upsurge in concern about unfree labor began to build in the mid-1990s. This was just a few years after the start of the border build-up, with border-sealing actions like 1994’s Operation Gatekeeper followed by the slavery scandal in the 1995 El Monte forced labor case. Is that coincidence just a product of chance?

In rejecting the idea that trafficking is a law enforcement issue, pure and simple, I also reject the dismissal of trafficking as a “sex slave panic.” Trafficking and the plight of the trafficked are real. Steering away from prohibitionism is all I advocate. That begins by moving, as deliberately and incrementally as seems prudent, toward a world where bona fide migrant workers can cross borders legally and safely, where addicts get therapy and not jail time, and all youth stand a fair chance of legally earning a living wage.

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