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A universal harm: making criminals of migrants

About the author
Saskia Sassen is professor of sociology at Columbia University, New York, and at the London School of Economics.
It is estimated that more than 2,500 would-be immigrants died trying to enter Europe over the last decade. That is many dead: but not many would-be immigrants for a continent of over 375 million people. Who are they – these people whom Europe seems determined to keep out, to the point that they risk their lives to get in?

In short, they are an equally determined, but tiny, minority of men, women and children from mostly poor countries who will come, no matter what, in search of work or refuge. They are not criminals. Yet the resolve of the receivers has the opposite effect to that intended: it results in the fuelling of a criminal trade. As receiving countries have clamped down on entries and semi-militarised more borders, there has been a sharp growth in illegal trafficking of people.

As with policy towards ‘soft’ drugs like marijuana, these developments rely on an old trade-off. In the name of controlling an awkward, dynamic situation, policies that criminalise what may not intrinsically be a criminal act actually raise the incentives for genuinely criminal actors to promote the forbidden activity. But does the criminalising of marijuana in the US and the UK really work better as a policy to restrict its use than its controlled legality in the Netherlands, which leaves very little room or incentive for profit making by drug-dealers?

There is a more fundamental point. The deaths of these hundreds of people attempting to enter Europe affect everyone, and – however much political and media circles attempt to distance themselves – are in good part the responsibility of the reluctant ‘host’ societies.

The drive towards greater police and military control in European immigration policies, coupled with growing disregard for international human rights codes and domestic laws governing civil liberties, is promoting illegal trafficking while weakening the rule of law and thereby democracy itself. These policies create what I would describe as negative incentives, or incentives with negative outcomes for significant sectors of European societies. Illegal trafficking and the deaths of men, women and children who are not criminals and who die on our, Europe’s, “soil”, eventually tear at the social fabric. These abuses cannot be allowed to happen in the name of maintaining control, while leaving the societies and people responsible untouched. In the long run it will affect us all. That is my argument.

A cycle of fear and despair

A large part of the challenge presented by the exploding illegal trade in people is to recognise the interconnectedness of what are actually different forms of violence. The neoliberal model of globalisation has brought with it a sharp growth of government debt, poverty, unemployment, and closing of traditional economic sectors in the global south; this has contributed to making emigration one survival option and trafficking an entrepreneurship option. The result is significant ‘people flow’, to use the term of Theo Veenkamp and his colleagues.

There is growing evidence that International Monetary Fund (IMF) policy, with the support of western governments, has sharpened these conditions in the 1990s, even as it has brought great prosperity to about 20% of the residents in many countries in the global south. When particular sectors in the economies of the global north become even richer, thanks partly to these same IMF policies, they also become more desirable destinations. Immigrants, whether voluntary or trafficked, remit money back creating a source of hard currency for the governments of the sending countries in a context in which they face mounting debt and decline in national revenues. These governments are thus not particularly interested in regulating emigration.

Finally, as these same policies exacerbate inequality and unemployment inside rich economies, sections of the disadvantaged become radicalised, often adopting extreme right-wing politics. The governments of the receiving countries often contribute to and even create this anti-immigrant virulence by their settlement policies, notably putting asylum seekers in low-income housing for natives already suffering from high unemployment and little government support.

The tragedy is that the victims of these processes, to whom violence has been done both in the global south and in the rich west, now confront each other as enemies inside the rich countries. Anti-immigrant sentiment frequently runs highest among those most hurt by the very policies that generate mass immigration. When the rich countries raise their walls to keep immigrants and refugees out, they feed the illegal trade in people and raise the profits to be made. Despair rises in the global south and fear in the global north. This is not sound policy; it is a vicious policy cycle.

We need to reverse this dynamic.

A multiple flow of people and money

The way emigrants enter the macro-level of development strategies for sending countries is through their remittances. In many countries these represent a major source of foreign exchange reserves for the government. While the flows of remittances may be minor compared to the massive daily capital flows in various financial markets, they are often very significant for developing or struggling economies.

In 1998 – the last year for which comprehensive data are available – global remittances sent by immigrants to their home countries reached over $70 billion, a figure that excludes informally sent remittances. To understand the significance of this figure, it should be related to the GDP and foreign currency reserves in the specific countries involved, rather than compared to the global flow of capital. In Bangladesh, a country with significant numbers of its workers in the Middle East, Japan, and several European countries, remittances represent about a third of foreign exchange; in the Philippines, remittances have been the third largest source of foreign exchange in recent years. Exporting workers and remittances are means for such governments to cope with unemployment and foreign debt.

The same set of growing interdependencies increases illegal trafficking. Cross-border business travel, global tourism, the internet, and other conditions integral to globalisation enable multiple global flows never foreseen by the framers and developers of economic globalisation. While 9/11 has further sharpened the will to control immigration and increased illegal trafficking the reduction in civil liberties will not strengthen our civil societies or democracy. Nor will this policy orientation help our societies adjust to emerging demographic trends. Let us take a detailed look at how one specific form of people flow today brings many of these issues together.

People for sale

Trafficking in workers – the forced recruitment and/or transportation of people within and across states – for both licit and illegal work (for example, unauthorised sex work) illuminates a number of the intersections between negative conditions in the global south and some of the tensions in the immigration regime.

Trafficking is a violation of several distinct types of rights: human, civil, political. Much legislative work has been done to address trafficking via international treaties and charters, UN resolutions, and various bodies and commissions. The issue was addressed, for example, in the G8 meeting in Birmingham in May 1998 where the heads of the major industrialised countries stressed the importance of cooperating against international organised crime.

Former US President Clinton issued a set of directives to his administration to strengthen and increase efforts against trafficking in women and girls, which in turn generated a legislation initiative by the late senator Paul Wellstone, whose bill – S.600 – was introduced in the senate in 1999.

NGOs are also playing an increasingly important role. For instance, the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women has centres and representatives in Australia, Bangladesh, Europe, Latin America, North America, Africa and Asia Pacific. The Women’s Rights Advocacy Program has established the Initiative Against Trafficking in Persons to combat the global trade.

There are two distinct issues here: one is that globalisation has produced new conditions and dynamics, especially the growing demand for these types of workers by the expanding high-income professional workforce associated largely, though not exclusively, with globalisation. The second issue is that globalisation has enabled older trafficking networks and practices which used to be national or regional to become global.

Here I want to focus on some of the data on the trafficking of women, especially for the sex industries and the growing weight of this trafficking as a profit-making option for the traffickers, especially it would seem from the global south – certain areas in Asia, Nigeria, some regions of the ex-Soviet Union and east-central Europe. This then adds to the role of emigrants’ remittances generally, whether from lawful, unauthorised or trafficked immigrants, in the account balance of many of the impoverished governments of sending countries. Profits and revenues are, clearly, a disincentive to attack this trade. Insofar as the countries of the global north are one of the key destinations, they do not escape the consequences of this illegal trade either.

A case study: trafficking in women

Trafficking in migrants is a profitable business. According to a UN report, criminal organisations in the 1990s generated an estimated 3.5 billion US$ per year in profits from trafficking migrants (excluding most of the women trafficked for the sex industry). The involvement of organised crime is a recent development. In the past it was mostly petty criminals who engaged in this type of trafficking, but a CIA report for 1999 notes that in several countries, organised crime groups are creating intercontinental strategic alliances through networks of co-ethnics, to facilitate transport arrangements, local contact and distribution, and the provision of false documents.

Although there is no exhaustive data, the available information suggests that trafficking in women, including minors, for the sex industry is particularly profitable. The United Nations estimates that 4 million women were trafficked in 1998, producing a profit of US$7 billion for criminal groups. These funds include remittances from prostitutes’ earnings and payments to organisers and facilitators in these countries.

In Japan, where the ‘entertainment’ industry is legal, and profits are about 4.2 trillion yen per year over the last few years – there is growing evidence that illegally-trafficked women are a growing share of sex-workers. In Poland, police estimate that for each Polish woman delivered, the trafficker receives about US$700. In Australia, the federal police estimate that the cash flow from 200 prostitutes is up to A$900,000 a week. Ukrainian and Russian women, in high demand in the sex market, earn the criminal gangs involved about $500 to $1000 per woman delivered. These women can be expected to service fifteen clients a day on average; each can be expected to make about $215,000 per month for the gang.

It is estimated that in recent years several million women and girls have been trafficked within and out of Asia and the former Soviet Union, two major trafficking areas. Some research suggests that economic need is the bottom line for entry into prostitution. Increases in trafficking in both these areas are linked to women being pushed into poverty or sold to brokers due to the poverty of their households or parents. High unemployment in the former Soviet republics has been one factor promoting growth of criminal gangs as well as growth of trafficking in women. Unemployment rates among women in Armenia, Russia, Bulgaria and Croatia reached 70% and in Ukraine 80% with the implementation of market policies.

But some aspects of immigration policy and enforcement may also contribute to the vulnerability of these women. If they are undocumented, which is all too likely, they will not be treated as victims of abuse but as violators of the laws governing entry, residence and work. Attempts to address undocumented immigration and trafficking through greater border controls only increase the likelihood that women will use traffickers to cross the border, some of whom will turn out to belong to criminal organisations linked to the sex industry.

Further, in many countries prostitution is forbidden for foreign women, which enhances the role of criminal gangs. It also diminishes one of the survival options of foreign women who have limited access to jobs. In other countries, foreign women are tolerated in prostitution but less so in regular jobs – this is the case for instance in the Netherlands and in Switzerland. According to International Organisation of Migration (IOM) data, the number of migrant women prostitutes in many EU countries is far higher than that for nationals: 75% in Germany, 80% in the case of Milan in Italy.

While some women know that they are being trafficked for prostitution, many only become aware of the conditions of their recruitment and the extent of their abuse and bondage once they arrive in the receiving country. The conditions of confinement are often extreme, akin to slavery, and so are the conditions of abuse, including rape and other forms of sexual violence and physical punishment. They are severely underpaid, and wages are often withheld. Typically, they are prevented from using protection methods against Aids, and have no right to medical treatment. If they seek police help, they may be taken into detention because they are in violation of immigration laws. If they have been provided with false documents there are criminal charges.

As tourism has grown sharply over the last decade and become a major development strategy for cities, regions and whole countries, the entertainment sector has seen a parallel growth and recognition as a key development strategy. At some point, where governments are desperate for revenue and foreign exchange reserves and where levels of poverty and unemployment are high, the sex trade itself as part of the entertainment industry can become a development strategy.

When local manufacturing and agriculture can no longer function as sources of employment, profits or government revenue, what was once a marginal source of earnings, profits and revenues now becomes far more important. When the IMF and the World Bank see tourism as a solution to some of the growth challenges in many poor countries, providing loans for its development or expansion, they may well be contributing to a broader institutional setting for the expansion of the entertainment industry and, indirectly, to the sex trade.

Trafficking in women may therefore well see further expansion, given the shrinking of a world of work opportunities embedded in the more traditional sectors of these economies, and the growing debt burden of governments. Under these conditions, women in the sex industry can become a source of government revenue. These tie-ins are structural, not a function of conspiracies. Their weight and impact in an economy will be enhanced by the absence or limitations of other sources for securing a livelihood, profits and revenues for respectively workers, enterprises and governments.

The United States: a fraying rule of law

Meanwhile, the price paid in the rich countries for allowing the abuse that is human smuggling is much higher than the “price” paid for accommodating people who just want a chance to work – and work they assuredly do. Indeed, much research suggests how much benefit immigrants bring to the receiving countries. For instance, 17% of entrepreneurs in London belong to ethnic communities, a far higher proportion than their population share. And the share is over 20% in New York.

But the United States, in the name of effective control, is moving in the opposite direction. The new 1996 Immigration Act strengthened policing by reducing judiciary review of immigration police actions. Policing, when unchecked by civil review, can easily violate civil and human rights and interfere with the functioning of civil society. The consequence is a tension between the strengthening of police approaches to immigrant regulation and the civic empowerment associated with a stronger sense of civil society and the rights it embodies.

If my son decided to go and write the great American novel by spending time with farm workers or in garment sweatshops, and there were an Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) raid – he could well be amongst the suspects. I know he would not be carrying his US passport with him. Or worse, he might have joined farm workers in California running away from the INS police on galloping horses, who were pushed towards jumping in one of the water levies, as has happened a number of times over the last few years, and drowned. In the most dramatic accounts, the turbulent waters seemed less threatening than the INS police with their guns and shouting. Farm workers may even have been driven in terror into the waters; in several cases there were deaths by drowning.

After the new 1996 law, many of these INS actions can escape review and accountability in front of a judge if the persecuted were merely suspected of being undocumented. Sooner or later, abusive or excess policing and the weakening of judicial review of such police actions, will interfere with the aspiration towards the rule of law that is such a deep part of the inheritance and lived reality of comfortable people. This type of police action will one day touch the documented also. We need to find another way of regulating entry.

Repairing the global social fabric

The large, looming issue confronting societies of the rich north is whether policies that brutalise people (whatever their nationality) and promote criminalised profit-making through the trade in people, are compatible with democratic systems based on the rule of law.

The risks to these societies and to its citizens are well illustrated by what is happening today in the United States. Already, some would argue, the events of 11 September 2001 and the subsequent restrictions on the civil liberties of particular immigration groups in the US are weakening the rule of law. The US government is granting itself more and more authority to deal directly, in an extra-judicial way, with matters that used to run through judiciaries or that would not be considered a matter for the government involvement. In so doing, the US government is violating basic rights, not only of those it has profiled as possibly dangerous but also of all its citizens.

As the authors of People Flow have so pertinently asked, are there ways of regulating the movement of people that could strengthen, rather than weaken, the European – and by extension, global – civic fabric? The repeated incidents of would-be immigrants dying at the hands of illegal traffickers or trying to enter in unauthorized ways, do not. They represent a failing policy, but also a gradual corrosion of the sense of citizenship, responsibility, and ultimately humanity itself without which a decent society cannot survive.


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