Podcasts: Feature

Borders & Belonging: Human smuggling or human trafficking? Why the difference matters

Politicians blur the difference because it helps them block the flows of all migrants and refugees

22 November 2022, 12.00am

Anan Kaewkhammul/Alamy Stock Photo

Toronto University CERC Migration logo with extra white space.png

Politicians sometimes talk about human smuggling and trafficking as if they were the same thing. It’s not always because of ignorance: they want to gain support for blocking the flows of all migrants and refugees.

In this episode we hear from Luca Stevenson of European Sex Workers Rights Alliance, who explains that, even with sex workers, we have to look at what drives them to the trade in the first place and recognise that laws to prevent trafficking can cause vulnerable women even more harm. Host Maggie Prezyna speaks with Kamala Kempadoo (York University) and Gabriella Sanchez (University of Massachusetts), who argue that we need to look deeper at the systemic injustices behind smuggling, at what drives people to risk everything for a chance of a better life.

Maggie is a researcher with the Canada Excellence Research Chair (CERC) in Migration & Integration program at Toronto Metropolitan University and this new podcast is Borders & Belonging. Maggie will talk to leading experts from around the world and people with on-the-ground experience to explore the individual experiences of migrants: the difficult decisions and many challenges they face on their journeys.

She and her guests will also think through the global dimensions of migrants’ movement: the national policies, international agreements, trends of war, climate change, employment and more.

Borders & Belonging brings together hard evidence with stories of human experience to kindle new thinking in advocacy, policy and research.

Top researchers contribute articles that complement each podcast with a deeper dive into the themes discussed.

Borders & Belonging is a co-production between the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Migration & Integration at Toronto Metropolitan University and openDemocracy. The podcast was produced by LEAD Podcasting, Toronto, Ontario.

Show notes

Below, you will find links to all of the research referenced by our guests, as well as other resources you may find useful.

Donate or get involved!

European Sex Workers Rights Alliance

Butterfly: Asian and Migrant Sex Workers Support Network

Derechos Humanos Integrales en Acción (DHIA)

Media

OECS: Cuban medical brigade shouldn't be compared to human trafficking’ Dionne Baptiste, D. , Loop Carribean News (21 June 2020)

Trump Administration ups pressure on Cuban medical programmes’ by the Carribean Council (2022)

Cuba’s Shameful Trafficking of Its Doctors’ by Jonathan Cuneo & Samuel Dubbin, The Wall Street Journal (21 June 2020)

The violent, hopeful world of children who smuggle people’ by Gabriella Sanchez & Cameron Thibos, openDemocracy (3 May 2022)

100 Sex Slaves at Airport: Around 100 sex slaves nabbed by border cops at Glasgow Airport in just nine months’ by Douglas Walker, The Scottish Sun (24 August 2017)

The Long, Colorful History of the Mann Act’ by Eric Weiner, NPR (11 March 2008)

Books

Kempadoo, K. (2004).’Sexing the Caribbean: Gender, Race and Sexual Labor’. Routledge.

Kempadoo, K., & Doezema, J. (Eds.)(2018). ‘Global Sex Workers: Rights, Resistance, and Redefinition’. Routledge.

Kempadoo, K., Sanghera, J., & Pattanaik, B. (2015). ‘Trafficking and Prostitution Reconsidered: New Perspectives on Migration, Sex Work, and Human Rights’. Routledge.

Kempadoo, K., & Shih, E. (Eds.)(2022). ‘White Supremacy, Racism and the Coloniality of Anti-Trafficking’. Taylor & Francis.

Sanchez, G. (2014). ‘Human Smuggling and Border Crossings’. Routledge.

Reports

UNODC submission to the report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants’, United Nations Office in Drugs and Crime (February 2022)

Global study on smuggling of migrants’, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (2018)

What does it mean to disrupt the business models of people smugglers?, Migration Policy Institute (2017)

Academic works

Kempadoo, K. (2015). ‘The modern-day white (wo) man’s burden: Trends in anti-trafficking and anti-slavery campaigns’. Journal of Human Trafficking.

Provine, D. M., & Sanchez, G. (2011). ‘Suspecting immigrants: Exploring links between racialised anxieties and expanded police powers in Arizona’. Policing and Society.

Sanchez, G. (2017). ‘Beyond the matrix of oppression: Reframing human smuggling through instersectionality-informed approaches’. Theoretical Criminology.

Sanchez, G. (2018). ‘'Circuit Children': the experiences and perspectives of children engaged in migrant smuggling facilitation on the US-Mexico border’. Anti-trafficking Review.

Sanchez, G. (2018). ‘Portrait of a human smuggler: Race, class, and gender among facilitators of irregular migration on the US–Mexico border,’ In Bosworth, M., Parmar, A., & Vázquez, Y. (Eds), Race, Criminal Justice, and Migration Control: Enforcing the Boundaries of Belonging. Oxford University Press.

Sánchez, G. (2016). ‘Women’s participation in the facilitation of human smuggling: The case of the US southwest’. Geopolitics.

Sanchez, G. & Zhang, S. X. ‘In their own words: Children and the facilitation of migrant journeys on the U.S.-Mexico border’. Victims and Offenders.

Legislation

The Mann Act [1910] (also known as the White-Slave Traffic Act of 1910). Cornell University.

Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air [2000]. United Nations.

Transcript

Maggie Perzyna

Welcome to Borders & Belonging, a podcast that explores issues in global migration, and aims to debunk myths about migration based on current research. This series is produced by CERC migration and openDemocracy. I'm Maggie Perzyna, a researcher with the Canada Excellence Research Chair and migration and integration program at Toronto Metropolitan University. Today we're going to explore the thorny problems of human smuggling and human trafficking, two issues that commonly get conflated. We'll discuss what these terms mean and how they differ. In this episode, two leading experts will help us understand why migrants are smuggled. How gender and race come into the mix and shed light on how certain policies may actually put migrants at more risk. But first, we'll speak to someone who has seen firsthand the effects of anti-trafficking policies on migrants in Europe.

Maggie Perzyna

Luca Stevenson is a sex worker and activist based in Belgium. He is also the Operations Officer at the European Sex Workers Rights Alliance. In 2017, Luca was living in Scotland. One day he was scrolling through the news when he came across something that stopped him in his tracks.

Luca Stevenson

And it was this really shocking article, the Scottish police, the Scotland police forces. They made this press release announcing that they had stopped hundreds of women coming from central Europe from Romania, moving to Scotland, because they were potentially victim of trafficking.

Maggie Perzyna

Luca read the article carefully and from what he could glean, the police didn't actually have any evidence of trafficking. And at the time, Scotland was still part of the European Union. It meant that people from Romania could live and work freely in Scotland. So, what exactly was going on?

Luca Stevenson

The police of Scotland basically used this very vague definition of trafficking as a way to stop migrant woman from entering the country. I thought that was interesting that they would actually be public about it because it's actually completely against the human rights of EU citizens. But they were actually posting it as a form of like prevention of tragedy. So, if they were, if these women were single and they were coming to the UK, or they were with a man, they were not speaking English very well. They didn't have a job on arrival in the in the country. Therefore, they were potential victims of trafficking, and they were not allowed to continue.

Maggie Perzyna

To Luca, this was a prime example of how authorities tend to assume that many migrant women, including sex workers, are being trafficked. He says it's an assumption that can put vulnerable people in even more precarious situations, especially when they're escaping conflict.

Luca Stevenson

There's been quite a lot of articles and media around how Ukrainian women were being trafficked in order to work in the sex industry in Europe. And this is also again, not the reality. It is true that there are many Ukrainian women who are crossing the border, and some of them will work in the sex industry. Like other workers who have limited access to the labour market, they will choose sex work in order to make a living. And our organization on the ground is providing health services, legal support, administrative support, to these women, not just women, but many women, who are going to work in the sex industry. But this has been manipulated by different organizations and the media to say that there was this huge wave of trafficking in human beings at the border, which is simply not the reality.

Maggie Perzyna

To be clear, Luca is aware that human trafficking is an issue that exists and must be addressed. But he worries that doing so without including migrants and sex workers in the conversation may further marginalize and endanger them.

Luca Stevenson

Globally, sex workers are usually at high risk of human rights violations and violence. In particular, when it comes to violence, sex workers are usually easy targets for people who would try to take advantage of them through, like physical violence or robbery, sexual violence, rape, etc. And the main reason is that very few sex workers would report a crime committed against them to the police or the authorities. And this is even more the case when people are migrants, sex workers, and in particular, undocumented migrants. So, we know that in Europe, the majority of people who sell sex are migrants, a large number of them undocumented migrants.

Maggie Perzyna

And it's not just undocumented migrants that are at risk of persecution under anti trafficking laws. Luca notes that those trying to help them might be at risk too.

Luca Stevenson

Even organizations, like human rights organizations who are providing support to these migrants, can be now targeted as trafficking, or profiting from trafficking.

Maggie Perzyna

To Luca, this fear mongering around trafficking is actually a symptom of something much more systemic, racism.

Luca Stevenson

Lots of the laws that have been developed to prevent trafficking, are actually laws that are aimed at preventing migration. And if you look at the history of anti-trafficking legislation in the US, you know, like the like Mann Act, for example, or in Europe. You know, despite the way that they are being produced or advertised as a way of like preventing exploitation, of sexual exploitation etc. The reality is that these laws are aimed at preventing migration, and migration of women, in particular from the Global South. So, for us definitely these laws are racist.

Maggie Perzyna

Stevenson and his colleagues at the European Sex Workers Rights Alliance are campaigning for the decriminalization of sex work in Europe, and hope that such policy changes will lead to better protections for migrant sex workers. Our thanks to Luca for bringing his perspective from the field.

Maggie Perzyna

Joining me today to talk about the interwoven narratives around human smuggling and human trafficking is Professor Kamala Kempadoo from York University. She's an author and specialist in gender, feminist and women's studies, political science, and development studies. And Gabriela Sanchez, an ethnographer and director of field research at the School of Criminology and Social Justice, University of Massachusetts at Lowell. Her work centers on the experience and perspectives of migrants from around the world.

Maggie Perzyna

Human smuggling and human trafficking are often conflated to mean the same thing. Can you explain the difference? Gabriella let's start with you.

Gabriella Sanchez

Migrant smuggling is the facilitation of the entry of a person into a country other than their own. And this is typically in exchange for a fee, or some sort of material benefit as the Protocol outlines it. While human trafficking assumes the existence of coercion and intimidation and also the extraction of profit, off the labour of another person. Most typically this has been looked at from the conflation of sex work and trafficking, which is another one of the layers that complicate the definition.

Maggie Perzyna

Professor Kempadoo, any additional thoughts?

Kamala Kempadoo

I think one of the main differences that I understand between these two ideas, is that often around human trafficking, people assume that the person moving across the border, or to some kind of work is a victim and is forced, whereas in smuggling, there's often a sense of agency of the person. And that's the important difference between the two.

Maggie Perzyna

Why do migrants’ resort to being smuggled across borders? What are the root causes here?

People turn to smuggling facilitators, because there is not equal access to the documentation or to visas for passports that would allow them to travel in a dignified manner. And many times, there's, we have to keep in mind that access to documents like just like birth certificates, identification cards, let alone passports and visas themselves, require a lot of paperwork and also demand a certain knowledge and how to navigate the system to obtain them. Most people do in fact, aim to travel legal in a legal and safe manner. The very inequality that is embedded within the processes that are connected to obtaining all of this documentation prevents them from traveling that way.

Kamala Kempadoo

I completely agree with that, and that is also, you know, what happens around the idea of human trafficking. Except for that we also have the situation that people are also looking for employment, work when they get somewhere else. And the kind of areas that people are going into are often underground or in the informal sector. So, they remain in sort of criminalized work or sectors.

Maggie Perzyna

So, is human smuggling a recent phenomenon historically, or is it something that's been going on for a long time?

Kamala Kempadoo

I think it's been exacerbated recently by border controls and immigration and the increasing difficulty to move between countries, between areas of the world. It's been going on for a long time. Human migration is long, it characterizes our existence. But smuggling and trafficking can only exist if you have borders between nations.

Gabriella Sanchez

You know there's smugglers - and here I am going to be talking about the specific case of the US-Mexico border. Smugglers appear in the literature in the 1800s. You know, and they are very much related to the emergence, of the creation of what was the US-Mexico border in itself. So, it is very much connected to the notion of borders, to the enforcement of borders, and of course, to the emergence of the Protocol in the year 2000. Before then, that conflation of human trafficking and migrant smuggling was even stronger. And the two of them were pretty much assumed to be same. But it is definitely connected to border enforcement and control that we have this increased interest on how they take place.

Maggie Perzyna

Can I just ask you to elaborate a little bit on the Protocol.

Gabriella Sanchez

When I talk about the Protocol, I'm referring to the Protocol Against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea, and Air. And this was a tool that was developed by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime [UNODC] in coordination with other countries. And this was aimed at typifying what smuggling and also what trafficking and in its corresponding Protocol, was all about. So, this tool, these legal tools gave us the first definitions, and the ones with which we have been operating pretty much for the last 22 years.

Maggie Perzyna

Professor Kempadoo, you've written about campaigns about human trafficking, comparing the modern anti-slavery movement, abolitionist feminism, and celebrity humanitarianism. What connects these campaigns and who does the narrative serve when everything is grouped under human trafficking?

Kamala Kempadoo

It's a big question, but yes, we have many companies around the world at this time connecting feminists, connecting churches, connecting governments, that are aimed at abolishing slavery, or modern-day slavery as it's called and trafficking. Unfortunately, I think the idea of human trafficking has become so broad that almost anything falls under it. So femicide in Latin America, for example, can be classified as human trafficking. Sex tourism, domestic work, a lot of things become labeled as human trafficking. And there's a lot of blurriness between what people consider to be forced labour or modern slavery and coercion across borders, smuggling. As I said earlier, one of the common things across these different campaigns is the idea that people have been victimized that they are that they had no choice in the movement or the kind of work that they're doing and need to be rescued and saved. And so consequently, we have a sort of saviour politics that's happening around the world. It's primarily, you know, the wealthy countries and the elites who are going around trying to rescue people from what they perceive to be dire circumstances.

Maggie Perzyna

The media and pop culture are full of stories of migrants being forced into indentured labor, the sex trade or paying exorbitant fees to cross borders. Human smugglers are often portrayed as evil or primarily linked to organized crime. Based on your research. Is this a true representation of those involved in smuggling?

Gabriella Sanchez

I think that first of all, it is very important to notice how most of these representations are embedded into even larger notions of gender and race. The notion of the smuggler, the very fact that the moment we say they word smuggler we think of a male, of a man rather than a woman. And that we also envision or think of them as men of color. So really sending us a very clear framework in terms of how smuggling is thought of or was conceptualized from the very beginning. It was a crime that was committed by the people from the Global South. Once we start thinking about that, we can start also unpacking other elements of smuggling. The data, the evidence on the ground shows us that smuggling is a crime of the poor and for the poor. Most of the people who participate in it live along the migration pathway and they are capitalizing on their knowledge of primarily the landscape, the geography, and they are also facilitating some of these connections based on their social networks on their acquaintances. Hardly anyone that participates in migrant smuggling has connections to what we know when we traditionally think of as transnationally organized crime. As gangs, as mafias. Those are tools that have been very effective at facilitating the criminalization of migrants in general and by extension the processes that they rely on to migrate irregularly. Many of these ideas, many of these images, only fuel all of the industry that is behind counter smuggling and migration control, and it is really not reflective of how migrant smuggling is organized on the ground.

Gabriella Sanchez

Professor Kempado anything to add?

Kamala Kempadoo

The other thing I think we tend to overlook, or is overlooked in the media and pop culture, is that a lot of what takes place under smuggling or so-human trafficking is designed by the person. Right, they will they want to move from A to B and will seek out, or agree to be indebted to a person who's aiding them and helping them across the border or helping them to get a job and agree to a certain level of debt, right, in order to get past these borders that are not allowing them in. Or you know, being able to get a job. So that part of the creation is something that is really not shown in the media and general culture and discussions. It's as if people are being dragged or kidnapped or forced against their will by a set of evil men. Whether these are smugglers but trafficking particularly carries this kind of image. Smuggling perhaps is less so. But definitely trafficking. The agency of people and their desire to actually get, to improve their lives, to move into another country to find a better job, better living conditions, is usually overlooked in these narratives, in these narratives about human trafficking.

Maggie Perzyna

So, who exactly are the people who are helping smuggle migrants across the border?

Gabriella Sanchez

Most of the facilitation processes are carried out, again by people who live along the migration pathway. So, these are people from villages, people who live along the borders, people who know the roads that migrants travel through. And they can be both male and female. Women many times do perform roles that are very gendered in nature. For example, the provide room and board, they take care of migrants who have been injured, help nurse children, or watch over children, pregnant women or elderly migrants who might have fallen behind in terms of transits. And something that we are documenting more clearly throughout the Americas and the Caribbean is actually the participation of young people. These are children who also are very knowledgeable. You know, because these are the places where they usually play, when they grow up. In terms of how the border works, who is there, who are the main actors. And many of them may also be collaborating in an effort to pay for their own journeys. So, they pay off a spot in one of those boats, the trucks or any other kind of transportation that is used for them to arrive somewhere. Another element that I think many times we forget this once again, is this dimension of gender. How we see a very clear presence of women, as I said before, doing what would be more gendered tasks, but also facilitating recruitment, many times the collecting fees, and doing a lot of coordinating work when it comes to putting people in touch not only with other smugglers, but also when they reach, once they reach their destination. Women, because most of them stay within their own communities, tend to have a very good knowledge of doctors, schools, stores, places where you can get medication or medical attention for free, that type of thing. So, there's all of these dimensions that many times we don't think about or that typically are forgotten in the discourse on smuggling.

Kamala Kempadoo

I'll add something there because some of the research in what we're seeing around, particularly the sex trade, is that it's often women who are helping to facilitate movement and migration and employment, right, of other women and that has been very pronounced from West Africa to Europe, for example, into sex work. And, you know, it's sort of relying on a network of women who have worked before. Women who may be in Italy and recruit other women, to come to move to Italy for example. So, this is also I mean, specifically in the sex trade. And then there are other people involved. People in the entertainment industry, who are facilitating and helping women to get from A to B and find a job. So, you know, in the sex trade there is that complication as well.

Maggie Perzyna

So, I know we've touched on this in the previous questions, but how does looking at gender and race add to our understanding of human smuggling?

Kamala Kempadoo

Gabriella's already touched on this very nicely in pointing out how there's this common conception that it is men from the Global South who are doing the smuggling who are the evil ones. And that is a continual kind of idea. So, it's a racialized and gendered construction of the smuggler and we have the same thing with the traffickers as well. In trafficking, what we are seeing globally, is that women from the Global South, Brown, and Black women, are predominantly classified as the ones being trafficked. They are also the ones who are being given the least assistance and ability to stay in a country or offered protections if they are seen to be trafficked. And are often deported home. So, there is a disproportionate focus on poor Brown and Black women moving around the world, but they're not necessarily given the support or the rights that they should have.

Maggie Perzyna

What do you think is the biggest myth about human smuggling versus human trafficking?

Gabriella Sanchez

I would think you know, as Professor Kempadoo said at the beginning, it's this notion that migrants or that everybody who travels with traffickers, or with the so-called traffickers and smugglers - and because this is also a legal construct - that everybody who travels with them are victims, that they don't know better, that these are things that are being imposed onto them by other evil people who happen to look just like them. So, I think that by bringing race, class, gender into the equation, the work of multiple scholars shows that this narrative simply facilitates the criminalization, primarily of Black and Brown people around the world. On the justification that they are being evil to their own kind. And this eliminates or reduces the need to take a closer look at how governments and how states are the ones that are creating the barriers and the mechanisms that prevent people from moving equally and freely in a dignified way. So, it's very important to bring this intersectional perspective into the equation because otherwise we lose all of this nuance that is being used to perpetuate this specific myth.

Kamala Kempadoo

There's one example that came up recently around this idea of trafficking. It's a very interesting case. Last year and early this year a Senator from the United States decided and called for the criminalization of the Cuban government and labelled them as traffickers because they were sending medical - Cuba was sending Medical Brigades around, particularly the Caribbean region, and Latin America perhaps, to assist with the COVID pandemic, right? And these Medical Brigades have a long history in Cuba. But they were really important for many countries in region. And I happened to be in Barbados when those teams arrived, and they popped up and they're still working for the people. But the Cuban government got condemned as trafficking its doctors and nurses and called for also the labeling and the identification of those governments that received these Medical Brigades, such as the Barbadian government, and this caused an immense uproar in the smaller country because they needed the aid. They did not want to be seen as aiding and abetting in trafficking. And, you know, it sort of gets out of hand. This idea of trafficking is being used willy nilly to demonize not just Brown and Black men and women in the Global South, but also governments that are not favourable to the West, or the Global North does not view favorably, and it’s used in a political way.

Maggie Perzyna

Are there any trends that you can notice that leave you hopeful or inspired for the future? Gabriella, would you like to start?

Gabriella Sanchez

For the last five years I have been collaborating with an organization here on the US-Mexico border, it's called DHIA [Derechos Humanos Integrales en Acción]. And DHIA is the only organization, or the only nonprofit in Mexico, that is working with children who are identified as facilitating border crossings. And we do this not by doing what would be the more traditional intervention of "rescue", right that typically people are used to when we speak about trafficking and smuggling, but rather creating mechanisms for the children, for the teenagers themselves, to do the research for them, becoming the researchers for them. Disseminating the knowledge and the content concerning their activities. By removing, right, the adult voices, or what have been the more dominant academic voices, and by allowing this group of young people to communicate and to publish, and to decide what they want to say about their experiences facilitating border crossings, we are also trying to create new ways and new narratives, new understandings of how smuggling or this facilitation of border crossings takes place. Also, over the years I have been very encouraged to see the work of more and more researchers from the Global South. Many of them migrants themselves, who having experienced smuggling or trafficking, have also decided to engage in these counter narratives. And how by coming together, they have also been able to create new spaces, create paths that have allowed for the inclusion of their work in the discussions at the international level. We are very happy that we have been part of those conversations and that now we see a more critical understanding of for example, of what the traditional way to envision of what smuggling is. If when the Protocol first was developed, there was this very strict identification or connection to organized crime. Now if you look at the most recent reports of migrant smuggling that was put out by the UNODC [United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime], you will see that there is a recognition that migrant smuggling is in fact facilitated by multiple forms of organizations many of them people acting on your own. So, once you also see the inclusion of that work of people from the Global South, we are able to be part of this debate this is also from my perspective, very encouraging.

Kamala Kempadoo

I work with an organization in Toronto that is Asian migrant sex worker, massage parlor worker, organization. So, the organization is Butterfly. They are really doing some amazing work with the workers in contesting the attempts to rescue them from this work. And they are pushing back against it. They're demanding that local governments legalize or decriminalized the massage parlour and sex work industry. And they are mobilizing and talking to the workers and really putting out a different narrative, and it's exciting to see, it's helpful. It's a way that I think will change some of the narrative around human smuggling and human trafficking. And to me, that's a really important and exciting development.

Maggie Perzyna

Thanks to Professor Kempadoo and Gabriela Sanchez, for joining me today. And thank you for listening. This is a CERC migration and openDemocracy podcast, produced in collaboration with Lead Podcasting. If you enjoyed the episode, subscribe to Borders & Belonging on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcast. For more information on human smuggling, human trafficking, and the organizations mentioned by our guests, please visit the show notes. I'm Maggie Perzyna. Thanks for listening!

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