Human Trafficking in a Time of Crisis

How exaggerated media reports misconceive the realities of migration and displacement.


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The current refugee crisis in Europe has once again sounded alarms about increased human trafficking. This is nothing new! Trafficking—or the recruitment, transport and harboring of people for severe exploitation, such as forced labor, debt bondage, prostitution, pornography or the unlawful removal of organs—is a recurrent concern during armed conflicts, earthquakes, cyclones, health pandemics and even sporting events. It is worth noting that Western media, taking clues from Western advocates, tend to misconceive the realities of human trafficking during crises. Western journalists often use isolated incidents to suggest catastrophic scale of trafficking. We need to better understand the dynamics of mobility during and in the aftermath of crises. We cannot conflate migrants’ desire for safe and secure environments where livelihoods might be more viable with organized crime taking control of the trade in people. Our understanding of migration, smuggling and trafficking has to be grounded in empirical data. Advocacy, even the best intentioned, cannot be developed in an empirical vacuum.

Scholarly literature on trafficking in persons during armed conflict is robust in terms of policy and legal analysis but very limited regarding empirical data on actual cases of trafficking. Reports issued by human rights groups and humanitarian assistance organizations working in conflict and post-conflict situations tend to discuss risks for trafficking related to perceived vulnerabilities, mainly of children, and do not provide reliable statistics on the prevalence of trafficking during and immediately after conflict, although there is some evidence of the increased demand for sex workers by military and peacekeeping personnel.

The question remains whether these reports conflate intensified demand for sex workers with an increase in trafficking for sexual exploitation. Scholars of sex work such as Ronald Weitzer, for example, argue that the oppression paradigm depicts all types of sexual commerce as institutionalized subordination of women, regardless of the conditions under which it occurs. In reality, there is a broad constellation of work arrangements, power relations and personal experiences among participants in sexual commerce. Victimization, exploitation, choice, job satisfaction, self-esteem and other factors differ between types of sex work, geographical locations and other structural conditions. Commercial sexual exchange and erotic entertainment are not homogenous phenomena, stresses Weitzer. The UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, known as the Palermo Protocol, also makes a rather clear distinction between sex work and trafficking for sexual exploitation.

In the current refugee context, the label “trafficking” is often used where smuggling would be more appropriate or where a more nuanced discussion about gender inequalities and exploitation of vulnerable women would be warranted. Men’s inability to protect women and women being forced into situations that they would never have considered if it had not been for war is seen locally—in Syria or Iraq—as a breakdown of moral authority and of male and family protection, as well as exploitation, but not as trafficking. Don’t get me wrong, smugglers can be ruthless, they often charge migrants exorbitant fees for their services, but they do not force refugees onto their boats. Refugees undertake risky journeys out of fear and desperation. Without smugglers, many asylum seekers would have died crossing the Mediterranean. Smugglers are a necessary evil for many refugees fleeing conflict. For some, smugglers can be saviors.

Our understanding of migration, smuggling and trafficking has to be grounded in empirical data. Advocacy, even the best intentioned, cannot be developed in an empirical vacuum.

There seems to be a considerable difference between what media and advocates in the global North stress and what reports originating in the global South emphasize. Trafficking stories became attached to disaster narratives in the context of the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004. Western media reported that criminal gangs were befriending children orphaned by the tsunami and selling them to sex traffickers, that organized syndicates were exploiting the crisis in Aceh province and sending SMS messages to people throughout the region offering children for adoption. These reports were contradicted by experts who said that there was no increase in verified incidents of human trafficking in countries hit by the tsunami. Later assessments of media reporting of the disaster commissioned by UNICEF noted that local newspapers in Indonesia and Sri Lanka were very suspicious of stories of child trafficking from the very beginning. The reporting about the effects of the tsunami on children tended to be more positive, focusing on the resilience of local people, on the rebuilding of schools and on strategies to normalize children’s lives as best and as soon as possible. After cyclone Negris hit Myanmar in 2008, a UNICEF spokesperson said that the organization had no reports of an increase in trafficking. He hastened to add that if there were such reports he would be cautious about using them since there are no accurate figures on the numbers of people who were trafficked on a regular basis before the cyclone.

In Haiti, fears over vulnerable children increased in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake. Haiti is home to a large number of restavèks, extremely poor children who are sent to other homes to work as unpaid domestic servants. Unfortunately, many of the trade networks have links with the international adoption “markets.” The association of child trafficking with intercountry adoption might strike some readers as obvious, others as offensive, but in the aftermath of the earthquake it provoked exaggerated stories of child kidnapping for international adoptions. The “good intentions” of Laura Silsby of the New Life Children’s Refuge (NLCR), an Idaho-based Southern Baptist charity, who attempted to rescue Haitian orphans from collapsed orphanages in Port-au-Prince and bring them to a refuge in Cabarete, Dominican Republic, fueled such stories even further.

It is worth noting that the alarmists’ fear that the earthquake would spark a tidal wave of child trafficking portrayed all Haitian children as passive victims vulnerable to increased abuses during crises. This conceptualization did not take into account children’s motivations and maneuvers in their lives, including their working lives. The child trafficking discourse has only recently appropriated restavèks, to the detriment of discussions about long-standing patterns of poverty, social inequality and lack of employment for young people that deprive them of ways to make their livelihoods.

Interestingly, other natural or manmade disasters have sparked few concerns about human trafficking, showing that there are inconsistent assumptions about which crises and populations are most vulnerable to trafficking. The 2012 nuclear disaster in Japan, for example, did not cause speculation about trafficking. On the other hand, the Frontline documentary Sex Slaves includes a story of a young Ukrainian woman who became a sex worker in the hope of earning money to pay for medical care for her brother who suffered from cancer related to the 1986 Chernobyl explosion.

There is no doubt that there is a profound disconnect and at times collision between the anti-trafficking discourses found in the global North and global South. Narratives about crises found in many Western media are often framed by hegemonic representations of “us” and “them”, and focus mainly on death and destruction, on survivors’ misery and suffering. Narratives found in locally produced reports present the insiders’ point of view and focus on courage, resilience and generosity under duress.

These differences complicate the story even further. The human trafficking discourse is becoming globalized. The UN, the European Commission, the Council of Europe, Interpol, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and international organizations such as the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the International Labor Organization (ILO) have all launched policies and programs aimed at combating trafficking through efforts to prevent trafficking, protect victims, prosecute traffickers and form partnerships for more effective action (the four Ps). While the Palermo Protocol recognizes human trafficking as a human rights violation, different agencies regard the trafficking phenomenon within different frameworks, including organized crime, migration management and forced labor, to name a few examples.

Given the lack of empirical knowledge about human trafficking—including during crises—what drives the globalization of the trafficking discourse and the international anti-trafficking movement? Is this global discourse simply forced upon less powerful actors? Do less powerful actors have their own motivations for adopting the global anti-trafficking discourse? What effects does this discourse have locally? In Nepal, where I have done a lot of work on human trafficking, the government’s strategy to prevent trafficking of women was to ban migration of females under the age 30 to the Gulf States for domestic work. This decision de facto stripped young women of a basic human right: the right to migrate. Officials acknowledged the ban had increased illegal migration and subsequently heightened migrants’ risks to exploitation; however, the government viewed these policies as temporarily necessary to protect (sic!) female migrant workers while formulating safe migration guidelines. In Laos, the anti-trafficking discourse is deployed to keep Lao youth from cross-border migration to Thailand simply because migration poses a threat to the construction of a Lao national identity.

Exaggerated reports of trafficking are quite damaging because they divert attention away from structural problems underlying increased exploitation of migrant workers. There is a need for more dialogue between members of the anti-trafficking movement and workers’ rights advocates because much trafficking in persons boils down to the exploitation of different types of workers. Finally, existing critiques—particularly evidence-based ones—of the shortcomings of the four Ps have to be taken on board and applied as lessons learned in the times of crises and calm.

Elżbieta M. Goździak is research professor at the Institute for the Study of International Migration (ISIM) at Georgetown University. In the Fall of 2016 she will serve as the George Soros Visiting Chair in Public Policy at the Central European University in Budapest, Hungary. She received her PhD in anthropology from the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan, Poland in 1984.

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