Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Introduction to this week's theme: beyond popular representations of trafficking and slavery

Beyond Trafficking and Slavery editors introduce their first themed issue, which explores how slavery and trafficking have been represented—by public officials, activists, and numerous others—and their effect.

Joel Quirk Julia O'Connell Davidson
12 January 2015

Modern activists expend a great deal of time and energy trying to get their message out, using numerous strategies in an effort to attract the interest of the media, governments, corporations, international organisations, and the public at large.

‘Human trafficking’ and ‘modern slavery’ have fared well in this fierce competition between causes. Over the last two decades, human trafficking has secured a remarkable level of both popular and official recognition, resulting in a state of affairs where most people now have at least a passing familiarity with this general topic. While ‘modern-day abolitionists’ routinely lament how little the general public knows about their cause, many campaigners working on other issues would count themselves lucky if they secured even a fraction of the publicity and investment that trafficking now receives.

The recent political success of anti-trafficking has come at a considerable price. In order to help get their message out, activists and officials have repeatedly turned to a range of simplistic and misleading images, dubious ‘statistics’, and self-serving narratives. Even the history of slavery and abolition has been selectively mined to support contemporary causes, while more challenging questions regarding the limitations of anti-slavery activism and the enduring legacies of historical slave systems remain neglected.

Unfounded, misleading and self-serving representations of trafficking and slavery have also had far-reaching consequences at the level of policy and practice.

Thanks to an often voyeuristic interest in commercial sexual abuse, much less interest has been directed towards ‘unsexy’ problems and practices. Thanks to unrealistic models of ‘innocent victimhood’, individuals with more complicated personal stories have been deemed unworthy of assistance, despite the fact that they have been exploited and abused. Thanks to the construction of migration as a problem and threat, policy responses have focused upon telling migrants to ‘stay at home’, irrespective of the positive possibilities of mobility and the potential problems of ‘home’.

Thanks to the popularity of ‘slavery as exception’, global patterns of systemic abuse, exploitation and discrimination and have been routinely dispatched to the margins of political conversations. Thanks to the depiction of trafficking victims as ‘exotic outsiders’ in need of rescue and salvation, there has been an uncritical return to some of the worst tropes of the colonial ‘civilizing mission’, where paternalistic intervention by ‘superior’ Westerners is justified in order to ‘save’ non-western supplicants.

Popular representations of trafficking and slavery have too often hurt—rather than helped—efforts to both understand and combat global exploitation, discrimination and vulnerability.

Our first group of articles on this theme starts today, beginning with a major contribution from Kamala Kempadoo considering how popular representations of trafficking and modern slavery can be traced to older stories about the ‘white man’s burden’. This is the first of several contributions to take up historical themes, and to flag the on-going significance of race in ‘modern slavery’ despite new abolitionists’ insistence that it is a ‘colour blind’ phenomenon.

We also kick off with a piece from Ben Rogaly, who considers how and why representations of ‘forced labour’ have created an ‘exceptional’ problem, with a singular focus on migrants sidestepping contentious questions regarding capitalism and class.

On Tuesday, Vanessa Pupavac challenges simplistic celebrations of the hero of the original abolitionist movement, William Wilberforce. She raises difficult questions about the construction of slavery as a problem that can be detached from more general demands for labour rights and freedom of movement.

On Wednesday, Liam Hogan explores the contemporary political agendas associated with the historical mythology of Irish indentured servants as ‘white slaves’. 

Thursday, James Esson examines the representations and realities of Ghanaian youth football players, who have been reported as ‘victims’ of ‘child trafficking’.  

We end the week with a piece from Robbie Shilliam, who contrasts the historical amnesia of the ‘new slavery’ with parallel campaigns seeking reparations for the history and legacies of legal slavery.

Our second series, which will continue to explore these themes and open up new topics of discussion, will be published in the week of January 26 on Beyond Trafficking and Slavery.

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