Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Is human trafficking truly an intractable problem?

Two decades after the Palermo Protocol came into force, is extreme exploitation un-solvable?

Helga Konrad
1 December 2020
A Haitian sugar cane worker in Dominican Republic.
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Erika Santelices/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved

After two decades as an anti-trafficker, two things are clear to me. First, there are no magic bullets for success in anti-trafficking. Preventing and combatting trafficking in human beings requires knowledge of the patterns, factors, and circumstances that allow trafficking to happen. Second, there are no purely technical solutions. Anti-trafficking efforts are political in nature, and political responses are required to protect people and provide effective assistance to victims.

Governments bear primary responsibility for this and it is their job to ensure that they comply with their international obligations. They must, for example, ensure that victims are not subject to criminal sanctions. They must also refrain from expelling potential victims due to their unlawful migration or labour status. This is all already stipulated in international agreements; what is needed is the political will to put those into practice.

It has been twenty years since the Palermo Protocol came into force. Over that time anti-traffickers have participated in endless negotiations around documents and declarations, in conferences, seminars, workshops, and trainings. Despite this, trafficking has persisted, as have questions as to whether and when governments will ever muster up that political will. How successful can we have been as a field?

Frankly, I am unsure. My experience tells me that action is still often taken simply for the sake of action, which neither leads to nor produces meaningful results. Too much effort has been spent on symptoms, while too little has substantively addressed causes. We have not yet moved away from the cookie-cutter approach to policy. And still there is no integration between anti-trafficking and more significant areas of policymaking, such as development cooperation, technology transfers, trade, and investment. Would it be better just to call the anti-trafficking field an anti-trafficking industry?

Worse, the partnerships which are often vaunted in this world are frequently superficial.

Partnership, in general, means cooperation and coordination between equals based on mutual trust. Partnerships should be mutually beneficial and oriented towards the same goal: the eradication or decrease of trafficking and the prioritisation of survival, wellbeing, and freedom. However, in most cases, funding is provided by destination countries that typically suppress cross-border migration. Their funds strongly influence the anti-trafficking agenda and define its scope. This has meant stepping up border controls and subordinating human rights protections, thereby undermining the protection of victims.

In the end, we have no alternative but to engage with the root causes of human trafficking, no matter how complex, difficult, and forbidding they may be.

Anti-trafficking programmes should be seen as components of sustainable development, anti-discrimination, and anti-violence work. They should support the development of long-term, comprehensive strategies and seek long-term solutions. The fundamental problem is that they do not. Money has increasingly shifted attention away from issues of development, equality, and human rights to issues of state security and migration. It is high time for all of us, but especially for governments and government officials, to understand trafficking from the perspective of human rights and development.

It is also vital that we develop greater accountability. This applies both to governments and to large institutional actors like UN agencies, since they play a huge role in decisions over how resources are allocated. Despite this, they know surprisingly little about the impact of their anti-trafficking activities on trafficked persons, vulnerable groups, or on societies in general.

Both governments and anti-trafficking institutions are wary of these kinds of evaluations because they worry that they might reveal that money has been wasted, or even that measures have proved harmful. This is a problem. Evaluation should be an integral part of all anti-trafficking work. In the long run, governments, institutions, and societies at large will benefit from systematic impact assessments, because they will help prevent pouring good money after bad.

If we want things to change in this field, we need less rhetoric and greater focus on concrete implementation in the service of human rights. Less lip-service and more coherent policy informed by expertise and experience. We need a culture of effective and open evaluation; it is high time for a new generation of progress assessments and reports.

Above all, governments need not simply to control migration and prostitution, but to adopt diverse, long-term policies and strategies in dealing with unemployment and labour migration. They need to develop strategies other than trying to get rid of victims of trafficking as quickly as possible – strategies such as joint programmes of (re-)integration and more socially-balanced economic programmes. In the end, we have no alternative but to engage with the root causes of human trafficking, no matter how complex, difficult, and forbidding they may be. In our fight against trafficking in human beings we must put an end to the complicity of silence, to the complicity of indifference. We must ask ourselves what we have really achieved as a field and what we need to change.

This series has been financially supported by Humanity United.

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