Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Where does the UK government’s anti-trafficking money go?

This article reviews the outcomes of research assessing anti-trafficking funding commitments by the UK government. It suggests that antitrafficking government funding stabilises specific policy representations of human trafficking that need to be interrogated and challenged. 

Kiril Sharapov
17 December 2014
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An anti-slavery protest outside Qatar's embassy in London in 2013. Paul Davey/Demotix. All rights reserved.

In 2013, Luis CdeBaca, US Ambassador-at-Large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, said the U.S. Government aims to fund anti-trafficking programmes that give  “the biggest ‘bang for the buck’”. For a critical mind, this hyperbole forefronts an overall point of suspicion when it comes to the funding of anti-trafficking initiatives (or should we say ‘ideological anti-trafficking agendas’?): Who gets the money? Who gives it? What does it fund? And who benefits from this proverbial ‘biggest bang’?

It remains virtually impossible to undertake a thorough assessment of where anti-trafficking money goes on either the national or the global scales. In order to arrive at a definitive sum, such an assessment would need to include both funds allocated by governments and, increasingly, by private and non-governmental donors. The latter includes The Freedom Fund, a $100 million initiative launched in 2013 by Humanity United, Walk Free Foundation, and the Legatum Foundation to “end modern slavery.” The last of these is a part of the Dubai-based private investment group Legatum, and the extent to which its commitment to Freedom Fund’s mission extends to the not-so-free workers in Dubai remains a point for further debates.

From a conceptual point of view, the task of identifying funding priorities and anti-trafficking discourses that underpin them is equally complex. However, a simple, albeit often overlooked, ‘policy-funding-policy’ loop allows one to critically assess how anti-trafficking policies construct a very specific version of what human trafficking is, and how anti-trafficking funding allocated by governments serves to support, stabilise and ‘freeze’ such specific policy representations.

The recently published Volume 3 of Anti-Trafficking Review provides a glimpse into the increasingly complex and fragmented money trails in the anti-trafficking sector. This endeavour is the first of its kind, as to date there has been no systematic research on how much is spent combating the human rights abuses that amount to human trafficking. It includes my article ‘Biggest Bang for the Buck’ (or not): Anti-Trafficking government funding in Ukraine and the United Kingdom’, which investigates how national governments in these two countries construct specific representations of human trafficking and stabilise them through anti-trafficking allocations. In the UK, my research suggests, the dominant anti-trafficking government discourse consists of:

Specific ‘vectors’—trafficking as a matter of crime, ‘illegal’ border crossing, victimhood and ‘genuine’ victim rescue, and ‘outsourcing’ of responsibility for trafficking to evil criminals, ‘poor’ countries and poor people themselves.

Assumptions—the most fundamental of which is that the UK border is under threat from criminals and ‘their’ victims, whilst the UK general public remains fully aware of ‘modern slavery’ and genuinely cares about the plight of ‘slaves’.

Policy silences—the role of the Government itself, and its entanglement within the web of private and corporate interests perpetuating the structural conditions for the physical, sexual or emotional exploitation of labour.

Policy categories and hyperseparations—‘Us’ and racialised and gendered ‘Others’; evil and ruthless criminals; ‘genuine’ victims vs. ‘illegal’ migrants; freedom vs slavery; and legal vs. illegal.

The UK government’s Strategy on Human Trafficking 2011–2015—despite its clear message of impending doom of criminality and threat to the UK from traffickers, organised criminals and ‘illegal immigrants’—gives little away on how much anti-trafficking money there is and how it is going to be allocated. The only time the issue of funding is mentioned is in relation to the annual allocation of £2million per year towards victims’ support and care in England and Wales.

To assess the extent of anti-trafficking activities and of money trails (allocated in 2012 and planned for 2013), I submitted freedom of information (FOI) requests to the local authorities representing the thirty-largest UK council populations as of 2010 (out of fifty-five), forty-five UK police forces, and most of the central ministerial departments (excluding regional authorities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) in the first four months of 2013.

Out of the thirty local authorities, twenty-seven, including twelve councils, responded that they had no allocated funding, anti-trafficking strategies or activities. Thirteen councils had no dedicated budgets but considered anti-trafficking activities as integrated/mainstreamed into central budgets. Only two councils provided details of their specific anti-trafficking allocations. On rare occasions where councils did recognise trafficking as relevant to their operations, it was interpreted as an issue of safeguarding vulnerable children and adults.

Out of the forty-five UK police forces contacted, thirty-two responded within the legally prescribed time limit. Only two reported having dedicated anti-trafficking funding: the Thames Valley Police had allocated £25,000 in 2012, while the Metropolitan Police had about £2.4 million in 2012 and £2.4 million in 2013.

The majority of central government departments reported having no anti-trafficking policies, strategies or funding allocations in 2012/13. These included the Cabinet Office, the Department of Culture Media and Sport, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Department for Communities and Local Government, HM Revenue and Customs, the Office of Fair Trading, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Education, and the Gangmasters Licensing Authority.

The Department of Health allocated some money towards awareness raising and research on victim care; the Department of Justice matched a £1.5 million contribution by the Home Office towards victim care provided by the Salvation Army. The cost of policing and immigration related to the Home Office’s anti-trafficking activities were reported as mainstreamed into central budgets; while the amount of funding allocated to the UK Human Trafficking Centre was redacted.

The Department for International Development (DfID) and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office provided a list of funded overseas projects, including the ‘groundbreaking’, multimillion-pound project ‘Work in Freedom’. The project’s aim is to empower 100,000 women and girls from India, Bangladesh and Nepal and to prevent them from becoming victims of trafficking. Such victim-centred, project-based approaches appear to locate the ‘source’ of the problem within female victims themselves—their individualised victimhood needing to be un-made by targeted interventions, whilst the complexity of broader economic and social contexts, that disempower rather than victimise, remains largely unacknowledged and unchallenged.

Overall, it appears that the way in which the UK government allocates anti-trafficking funding reflects the UK government’s self-deluding obsession with a particular framing of ‘modern slavery’. This produces victims and slaves from the aggregated sum of individual and individualized criminal acts of deceit, violation and abuse that are recorded in government-funded ‘docufictions’ and on modern slavery ‘media hubs’. Many such acts involve ‘illegal’ border crossing by dehumanized victims, who, if genuine, ‘deserve’ rescue and care. How far these representations and corresponding funding allocations are from delivering the ‘biggest bang for the buck’ for people exploited across the world remains an open question.

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