Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

It isn’t just anti-trafficking: we must always ask whose interests we really serve

Space for critical reflection and engagement is shrinking across the NGO sector. The tactical dilemmas presented by the politics of anti-trafficking are only part of a larger series of challenges in the broader fight for social justice.

Bandana Pattanaik
16 December 2020
Women work to dry rice in West Bengal
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Avishek Das/Communications InterAction/Flickr. Creative Commons (by-nc)

The Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW) has been working on issues associated with human trafficking since 1994. While trafficking has always been a core component of our work, we are well aware of the negative and counter-productive effects that anti-trafficking interventions frequently produce. And these effects have caused us to question whether it is better strategically to be on the inside, outside or somewhere in between – the main thematic focus of this feature – many times.

GAATW’s members made this a key question at our tenth anniversary meeting in 2004. This was a major event in the history of our organisation, with more than 200 participants from 42 countries around the world. We welcomed representatives from our member and partner organisations, some of our donors, organised sex workers and domestic workers, academics, colleagues from the UN including the first special rapporteur on trafficking, and individual experts who had worked with GAATW since its inception. It was a forum for honest discussion, respectful debate, and strategic planning for the alliance.

We knew that it would not be easy to arrive at a consensus in such a diverse gathering. However, we were not prepared for the divide which emerged amongst people who otherwise agreed with each other on many core issues. Colleagues were in solidarity with sex workers and working-class migrants. They were worried that the anti-trafficking framework was being used to violate the rights of migrants and sex workers. They agreed that policies should be based on evidence. They were unanimous in their position that states must move away from a protectionist approach towards women that curtails their right to mobility and self-determination and focus on protecting their rights instead.

The main source of division was over the degree to which anti-trafficking could be held responsible for abuses against workers and migrants. Everyone accepted that there were problems which pre-dated the rise of anti-trafficking, but opinion remained strongly divided over whether or not anti-trafficking was making things worse or better. It also became clear that these differences of opinion were partly tied to differences in position. Colleagues who worked with trafficked persons on a daily basis favoured a different approach to researchers and analysts. Some friends championed the need for a ‘paradigm shift’ and for ‘jettisoning the framework’. Others worried that their hard work with trafficked persons was being completely dismissed by those who do not have ‘grassroots’ experience.

Building beyond silos

There were major practical consequences to this debate, since the future strategic direction of the alliance would look very different depending on which viewpoint was favoured. After much deliberation it was decided that GAATW would adopt a two-pronged strategy. One prong would critically engage with the anti-trafficking framework by documenting the human rights violations caused by specific initiatives. It would also facilitate processes of critical reflection among our members, drawing upon their own experiences and circumstances. The second prong, meanwhile, would step up engagement with migrant workers and women in low wage work, thereby taking up a much broader range of issues than those associated with anti-trafficking. GAATW had been founded as a feminist alliance in solidarity with sex workers and all working-class migrants. So this seemed like a logical strategic direction as we moved into our second decade of work.

It is one thing to draw attention to problems and silences. It is quite another to get states and corporations to change course.

We have continued to deepen this strategy in the years since. We have repeatedly documented the negative impact of anti-trafficking initiatives, such as stringent border controls, the criminalisation of migrants, and violence against sex workers. We have drawn attention to excessive and misplaced spending on anti-trafficking, and the ways in which a crime-control framework provides a smokescreen for states to ignore the link between their policies and the precarity of millions of workers. We have also continued to work closely with sex workers, domestic workers, garment sector workers, home-based workers, and women farmers, and have sought to build spaces for inter-movement and inter-sectoral dialogues within civil society for mutual learning. This has meant a sustained effort to reach outside silos and build larger conversations and connections.

So have we been on the inside or outside? Perhaps we have tried to be critical insiders. As an alliance that emerged out of women’s rights movements, we have always focused on the challenges working-class women face while trying to exercise their rights to mobility and decent work. This in turn informed how we approached human trafficking. Trafficking, as we understood it, was a bad outcome caused by restrictive migration regimes and a lack of rights and protection while working. We engaged in the advocacy around the Palermo Protocol, where we underscored the need for human rights protections of trafficked persons. However, we do not see any reason to applaud ‘the anti-trafficking industrial complex’, and we definitely never saw our role as being amplifiers of – or cheerleaders for – the anti-trafficking framework.

Changing course is easier said than done

This does not mean, however, that we have solved these strategic dilemmas. Many challenges need to be overcome in order to effectively address exploitation in the context of migration and labour, and we cannot help but worry about the limited impact that we have had. While we desperately try to hold on to our optimism, it is clear that systemic change will not happen any time soon. It is one thing to draw attention to problems and silences. It is quite another to get states and corporations to change course.

The challenges associated with the excesses of anti-trafficking measures have only grown stronger in the years that have followed our 2004 meeting. We now have a substantial evidence base showing that current anti-trafficking initiatives will not stop trafficking. We do not have to look too far to see that precarity and everyday abuses are the norm rather than the exception. COVID-19 has shown very clearly that fundamental policy shifts are needed to address the multiple rights violations that millions of people experience.

Yet, we have not seen policymakers coming together to discuss these issues. Some countries have even taken steps to erode labour rights further over the last few months. Migrants who were forced to return home in the early months of the pandemic are now returning to work. When they resume work they will do so under the same or worse conditions. Those unable to return face hunger and deprivation. The anti-trafficking framework is inadequate to respond to their needs.

We also cannot ignore the fact that right-wing, authoritarian leaders enjoy a large support base in many parts of the world. Much stronger resistance to the current system is needed. But where will resistance to the current development paradigm start? How will it gather momentum? Will we in the NGO sector be able to lead the resistance? Or at least play a supportive role in it?

NGO coaptation and social justice

Those of us who are in the organised and funded NGO sector sometimes tend to overlook the fact that there are many social justice movements outside of our sector. Many of these movements are small and operate within specific local contexts. Several of them choose to retain their independence and autonomy by not taking funds from donors. Some of them are self-organised groups of workers who support each other and resist abuse. It is important to acknowledge that while we are busy managing our projects and advancing our rights-based agendas, we sometimes lose the ability to hear voices of people who do not fit into our framework of analysis. Anti-trafficking activism is full of these oversights. While trying to identify trafficked persons all too often we ignore the fact that the so-called trafficking victim’s self-definition might be very different from ours.

While NGOs have proliferated over the last two decades, the gap between local social justice movements and NGOs has also widened during this period. Many NGOs now focus exclusively on providing services to groups of disadvantaged or abused people who are neglected by the state. They provide essential services where the state does not, often with funding support from foreign donors, at the same time as these states further policies of exclusion and repression. Many NGOs therefore end up tacitly supporting, rather than effectively challenging, the still rising global tide of neoliberalism and authoritarianism.

Some NGOs have made a strategic choice not to critique the state for fear of repression or co-option. However, opportunities to develop oppositional and people-centred politics within the NGO space have also shrunk. Community-based groups and small NGOs can be very precarious, and their survival increasingly depends on their capacity to execute projects which have been designed elsewhere. These projects tend to be conceptualised in ways which leave no space for the political education of the implementing team and no time to listen to the questions and analyses of community workers. Larger NGOs such as GAATW are increasingly obliged to mimic this managerial model in order to prove our efficiency. In the process, valuable opportunities for local and experiential knowledge production, rigorous social analysis, and collaborative movement building are lost. The mind-boggling challenges around us are artificially contained within the frame of victim assistance and project management.

This dilemma is not specific to anti-trafficking work, but applies to the NGO sector more broadly. Once you are inside a frame – that you may not have created or labelled – your main task is to oil it and keep it alive. Perhaps we should instead steal a little time to ask ourselves, on whose side are we and in whose interests are we working? If we think we are on the side of working people, then we need to start walking the long and difficult road with them.

This series has been financially supported by Humanity United.

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