Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

The Palermo Protocols at 20: a missed opportunity for ending trafficking

Nobody at the top has been interested in tackling the real causes of exploitation.

Mike Dottridge
20 November 2020, 12.17am
Wheat farming in Jiangsu province, China.
ChinaImages/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Two decades after the United Nations adopted a protocol against human trafficking (the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime), enough time has passed to comment on the most salient aspects of what has gone right and what has gone wrong.

During these decades the international community could have made great strides towards ending the types of exploitation included in the protocol as human trafficking, namely “the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs”.

However, the balance sheet after twenty years shows something else. This is in part because the protocol was linked to a convention against organised crime as well as a second protocol aimed at penalising ‘people smugglers’ for helping migrants to cross borders illicitly. Most measures taken since 2000 have focused on strengthening law enforcement agencies and prosecuting criminals. They have not addressed the causes of exploitation or sought to reduce its occurrence. The smuggling protocol furthermore made it harder to distinguish the benevolent brokers helping irregular migrants to cross borders from the sharks preying on migrants, while legitimising government attempts to equate the two. As a result, the past two decades have seen the world’s wealthy countries institute a range of hostile measures to prevent refugees and irregular migrants from entering their territories.

The United Kingdom started focusing on ‘modern slavery’ after its government made it a priority to create a ‘hostile environment’ for migrants and to deport as many as possible.

The trafficking protocol focuses on what is supposedly a quite different form of abuse: the recruitment (which sometimes involves crossing borders) of people (women and girls, but also men and boys) “for the purpose of exploitation”. It has resulted in countless law reforms and tens of thousands of police being trained to identify and investigate the crime of trafficking. This has led to an increase in prosecutions and convictions of traffickers. However, the structural causes of exploitation remain unaddressed: the vast inequalities in income and power within and between countries, the systematic discrimination practiced throughout the world against migrant workers, and a continuing trend to abandon conventional employment relationships and regulation of the labour market.

A fig leaf for repression

In practice, many of the actions taken in the name of stopping trafficking have had the effect of harming migrants and people who have been trafficked. Measures against irregular migrants have been repeatedly justified by politicians as ‘rescuing’ trafficking victims. Rich country governments have exploited the issue of trafficking (and the related one of ‘modern slavery’) to advance their own interests at the expense of the very people they claim to be protecting. Several countries have used their anti-trafficking or anti-slavery agendas like a fig leaf, while simultaneously implementing repressive policies that violate human rights. The USA embarked on an anti-trafficking crusade while putting its version of Hitler’s ‘Nacht und Nebel’ order into action, creating terror through disappearances and torture in the aftermath of the September 2001 attacks on New York and Washington DC. The United Kingdom started focusing on ‘modern slavery’ after its government made it a priority to create a ‘hostile environment’ for migrants and to deport as many as possible.

Countless governments have been selective about which types of exploitation they want their criminal justice system to target. Before the provisions of the trafficking protocol had even been finalised, it was clear that the USA, Sweden, and various other countries wanted to use it to stop prostitution in general (claiming that all or most sex workers were trafficked). Predictably, sex workers who have not been trafficked have protested that anti-trafficking measures seek to deprive them of an income or to push them into more hazardous working conditions. The two decades since 2000 have not resolved the differences in approach between the anti-prostitution crusaders and others.

The preoccupation with commercial sex has been less dominant since 2010. The International Labour Organization adopted a convention about domestic workers in 2011 and a protocol on forced labour in 2014 (supplementing its original 1930 Convention on Forced Labour). In theory this should have resulted in more action to protect migrant workers who were forced to work, whether in private homes, workshops, fields or at sea. Yet implementation has been once again influenced by the priorities and inclinations of governments. Big business has also been more concerned with the steps they are supposed to take under the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (2011), which have been side-tracked to a worrying extent by the requirement to publicly state what is being done to ensure that suppliers do not exploit workers. So far these statements, which can be crafted to sound marvellous, have divulged little about what is happening in practice.

Lessons not learned

Many hundreds of millions of dollars and euros collected from taxpayers in industrialised countries have paid for projects around the world to ‘stop trafficking’ or ‘stop modern slavery’. However, instead of building on knowledge and experience, these have repeatedly reinvented the wheel. Instead of choosing the most effective implementing partners and the methods most likely to succeed, many governments have preferred to channel funds to organisations with an ideology of which they approve. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been channelled to avowedly Christian organisations, in effect subordinating the anti-trafficking and anti-slavery agendas to that of Christian churches.

Projects also suffer from the way in which they are handed out. They often go to the cheapest bidder rather than to groups with real expertise, and the inexperienced staff of the former frequently do not apply or are simply unaware of previous lessons learned. Sometimes no lessons are learnt at all. The lifespans of individual projects are generally short and they rarely achieve their objectives. As a result, after two decades it is still common to see comments such as “we haven’t had time to learn what works”.

Hundreds of millions of dollars have been channelled to avowedly Christian organisations, in effect subordinating the anti-trafficking and anti-slavery agendas to that of Christian churches.

Patronage for anti-trafficking programmes has also been a tool in the ‘divide and rule’ approach that powerful governments have taken to the United Nations system, in which different UN organisations are pitted against each other rather than pushed to cooperatively identify best practice. Indeed, the very phrase ‘best practice’ has been subverted to add gloss to the many anti-trafficking methods used by different organisations – there is no international forum that agrees on these things.

Private sector donors have also made large amounts of money available for anti-trafficking work. Some quietly and effectively support local initiatives away from the limelight. Others seem to think that dominating the headlines should be given priority. Their publicity focuses mainly on numbers (of ‘modern slaves’ or ‘trafficking victims’). One was established in 2013 with a commitment to reduce the number of people in modern slavery, but instead revised its way of counting who this involves and consequently doubled the number involved. The numbers game has been a good way of grabbing headlines, but not an effective way of protecting people.

Is it reasonable to conclude that powerful governments (and private donors) have used the past two decades to ‘play’ with the issues of human trafficking and modern slavery, rather than to devote energy and resources to stopping the worst forms of exploitation? This sounds very unfair on the police, health workers, social workers and non-governmental organisations that have worked to catch criminals and protect victims. Nevertheless, my conclusion is that politicians and decision-makers at the top have acted as saboteurs. A quite different agenda is needed to protect migrants and other job-seekers from poor communities, and to challenge both the discrimination and oppression that characterise today’s global economy.

This series has been financially supported by Humanity United.

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