Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Ignorance and misunderstanding undermine current anti-trafficking initiatives: Q&A | Part II

Anti-trafficking efforts will fail as long as states and citizens continue to frame the victims of trafficking as criminals and security threats. Only a comprehensive and coordinated approach will sustainably reduce human trafficking.

Helga Konrad
16 October 2014

An awareness parade in 2010 against human trafficking in Kathmandu. Nabin Baral/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Helga Konrad is a former minister for women’s issues and federal parliamentarian in Austria. She chaired the EU Stability Pact Task Force on Anti-Trafficking for South Eastern Europe from 2000-04 and was the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Special Representative for the Fight Against Trafficking in Persons from 2004-06. She now works as an independent consultant on anti-trafficking. This is the second installment of Beyond Trafficking and Slavery’s three-part interview with Dr. Konrad.

Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: Why do you think that slavery, trafficking and forced labour have become such celebrity issues? Figures from Bono to Blair now line up to condemn these problems, and New Abolitionism in the US is big business. What explains this?

Helga Konrad: When governments and states began to address human trafficking in the late 1990s, they started with a profound misunderstanding. Namely, they regarded human trafficking as a spin-off of illegal immigration and therefore was primarily or exclusively seen from the perspective of national security.

When we look into the practice of many European countries, it becomes quite obvious that the protection of the rights, including the fundamental rights of those affected by trafficking, takes second place to the promotion of state interests. Reality shows that people who fall victim to human trafficking are still frequently regarded as criminals, entitled to little sympathy and support.

Almost everyone has picked up the politically correct language. But at the back of their heads many people and unfortunately many authorities, when confronted with human trafficking, continue to think of prostitutes, illegal aliens, illegal workers, and bogus asylum seekers. In a nutshell, they envision suspects of all sorts.

It would seem the trend is towards managing trafficking in human beings rather than really combating it.

More and more people have become aware of and committed to dealing with the problem of human trafficking. They have developed extensive expertise on the issue. However, many of those responsible for curbing this crime, namely government officials and other authorities, have not yet fully understood the true nature of human trafficking. They are often side-tracked by other agendas, such as: fighting illegal (im)migration, including the smuggling of people; controlling migration; controlling asylum abuse; fighting prostitution; fighting terrorism; fighting organised crime, etc.

They keep missing the point. We are dealing with the victims of a serious crime. People have been lured, tricked, sold into slavery-like situations where they are exposed to threats, intimidation and often brutal violence. It is often hard, if not almost impossible, to escape such situations.

We must be aware that state policies focusing on measures of control and (so-called) self-protection, as opposed to a more comprehensive approach, are counterproductive and therefore part of the problem. This realisation is all the more important because current anti-trafficking policies and measures, which invariably focus on law enforcement instead of human rights protection, have reportedly already caused collateral damage.

Research carried out by The Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women reveals a raft of breaches in human rights under current anti-trafficking laws and measures. It shows that human rights protection has been subordinated to control and anti-crime measures. This focus has negatively impacted the methods for addressing human trafficking and the treatment of trafficked persons.

Human trafficking affects tens or rather hundreds of thousands of people—including men, women and children—worldwide. It generates billions of dollars annually for the criminals involved in trafficking and funds other criminal rackets. This money, the source of which is the utter misery of people, is a dead loss to the development of countries. Considering all this, we must admit that we have at best scratched the surface of the problem. We content ourselves with attempts to thaw the tip of the iceberg and shy back from looking below the surface at this massive criminal business. Generally speaking, it would seem the trend is towards managing trafficking in human beings rather than really combating it.

BTS: Do you think the sensationalism contributes to a lack of genuine understanding about these issues? What common misconceptions exist that projects such as Beyond Trafficking and Slavery can help overcome?

HK: While there are signs of progress in the fight against human trafficking, especially when it comes to legislation and institutional mechanisms that did not exist several years ago, little has changed for those who have fallen victim to this crime.

For the victims, trafficking is about violence. It is about the loss of control. It is about pain, fear, and deep distress.

For the victims, trafficking is about violence. It is about the loss of control. It is about pain, fear, and deep distress. Traffickers often exert extremely brutal and manipulative control over their victims, both physical and psychological terms. They use rape, beating, torture, starvation, isolation, deception and death threats to force the victims of trafficking into obeying their rules and orders. Moreover, the repeated incidents of being startled and the deliberately malicious treatment by traffickers intensify the severity of the experience.

This loss of control is reported as being the most humiliating aspect of the trafficking situation and often causes severe trauma. Accumulated fears and trauma often make victims of trafficking incapable of trusting anyone. They reduce a trafficking victim’s ability to recall and recount what happened to her/him, which may mistakenly be interpreted as a victim being uncooperative or untruthful. Trauma also leads to dissociation and significant memory problems, and is likely to impair a victim’s ability to respond in a meaningful way. These facts are not only important for service providers. Law enforcement officers, immigration services, and the judiciary, who often evaluate a victim’s credibility on the clarity and consistency of her or his story, must understand them as well.

A primary reason why we must object to human trafficking is because of the harm it causes people. Therefore it is legitimate and important to inform about the horrors of this crime. The problem is that reports and the media often stop there. They do not ask, who is responsible? Who is to be held or made accountable? What needs to be done?

The criteria of success in combating human trafficking must never be reduced to one single field of action. They need to cover all the elements required for an appropriate response to trafficking situations. They cannot be measured in terms of minimum standards or checklists. Victims of trafficking must be identified and trafficking situations investigated properly. Victims must be protected and perpetrators prosecuted. Traffickers must be convicted to custodial sentences that reflect the severity of the crime. This is all that matters. It must also happen in much larger numbers. Approaches such as ‘the fewer victims the better’ or ‘no data, no problem’ are counterproductive.

What we need is a massive, integrated, and coordinated response. We need a truly comprehensive and multi-pronged approach if we really wish to contain, if we really wish to fight, human trafficking. It must bring together those who work in poverty reduction, development, education, employment, human and labour rights protection, as well as those who address issues of corruption, organised crime, and migration and legal reform.

Last but not least, it must involve politicians who care. Expressing political will means more than political leaders declaring that human trafficking is one of a country’s priorities. It means more than government officials gathering periodically in inter-ministerial meetings. Political will means proactive political leadership on the issue. It means pushing initiatives regularly and continuously towards more and better results. It means reviewing policies and adjusting them as new knowledge becomes available. This will ultimately make all the difference.

A profound understanding of all that human trafficking involves, and of all that is required to counteract it, is the prerequisite for curbing this crime and this horrendous violation of human rights. This is why it is vital for all the actors to fully understand what needs to be done and why. It is also why isolated, one-off responses will not lead to sustainable results.

Let’s not be self-complacent and let’s not content ourselves with defending the status quo. Let’s make another concerted effort to come to grips with this complex problem by putting into perspective the efficiency, the effectiveness and the sustainability of the measures taken so far.

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