‘Victims of Trafficking’ and ‘Foreign Criminals’ – Constructing the state as our (masculine) saviour

Luke de Noronha

This post is part of the joint blog series on ‘Gender and Migration’ co-hosted by Border Criminologies and COMPAS. Posts of this series will be published in both blogs every Friday until the end of June.

Photo by Pawel O'Brien, COMPAS Photo Competition 2010
Photo by Pawel O’Brien, COMPAS Photo Competition 2010

Some people who live outside of their country of origin don’t really count as migrants. They might be expats; they might not be named at all. But Australian backpackers, French nannies, and international bankers are not really what we mean when we talk about migrants. If, however, you are the kind of person we mean when we talk about the migrant – i.e. you are racialised and/or poor – then you are generally portrayed as either a victim or a villain. Migrants are constructed as victims and villains by a range of actors (i.e. institutions of the state, journalists, politicians, judges, migrant advocates, and academics).

Gender and race are central to determining who goes where within this framework. In my work on ‘foreign criminals’, I examine the mechanics of gender and race in producing villains. ‘Foreign criminals’ have attracted much media and political interest in recent years; they are discursively constructed as racialised men who commit acts of hypermasculinist violence, often sexual, thus imperilling ‘our’ streets and, importantly, ‘our’ women. This construction of the ‘foreign criminal’ as a monstrous villain works to justify, on moral grounds, policies of imprisonment, indefinite detention, and deportation.

Thinking about victims and villains, and gender and race, in the context of migration, has directed me towards a critical literature on trafficking (see e.g. here, here, and here) that seeks to re-centre the state and examine the relationship between gender, race and immigration restrictions. In weaving analytical threads between this literature and my work on ‘foreign criminals’, I hope to show why thinking critically about gender and race is both productive and necessary.

Control and enforcement: creating the victim category

The Victim of Trafficking (VoT for short) is not a human type, but an administrative category, produced by immigration controls. This is not to deny that some migrant sex workers (women, men and trans people) find themselves in truly awful situations. Rather, it is to suggest that state categories are generated for administrative purposes and that these categories do not necessarily map onto meaningful distinctions from the perspective of the individuals concerned.

The anti-trafficking narrative rests on a conception of the world in which nasty individuals force vulnerable people into servitude, and border controls have nothing to do with it whatsoever. It relies on crude images of suffering victims, images which marginalise those who don’t fit the mould. Not every migrant sex worker fits the image of the ideal victim (see e.g. Mai on non-heteronormative migrant sex workers), but most would still benefit greatly from substantive human and labour rights.

The image of the VoT simplifies and distorts a much messier reality. And so too with the discourse on ‘foreign criminals’. VoTs and ‘foreign criminals’ are entangled in the same twisted fairy-tale, both caricatured, cast as either weak and helpless or as barbaric and evil. Casting noncitizens in these roles helps to rationalise immigration controls.

The anti-trafficking discourse oils the wheels of immigration enforcement, enforcement that targets both ‘traffickers’ and undeserving, ‘illegal’ migrant sex workers (i.e. most migrant sex workers). Similarly, dominant discourse on ‘foreign criminals’ works to justify and celebrate the detention and deportation of any noncitizen with a criminal conviction, and, increasingly, any noncitizen who is even associated with or accused of criminal conduct.

Gender symbolImportantly, the VoT and the ‘foreign criminal’ only become intelligible in relation to problematic ideas about race and gender.  The anti-trafficking narrative relies on images of “wounded and inanimate female bodies” (Andrijasevic, 2007); the women that need saving are usually racialised in problematic ways (Kempadoo, 2015). Similarly, the figure of the ‘foreign criminal’ rouses deeply entrenched fears about the dangerous sexuality of racialised men. Both of these sets of racialised and gendered stereotypes justify draconian forms of immigration control and construct the state as a (masculine) saviour.

State categories and identities

In thinking against state categories, I have become wary of the economy of suffering that undergirds most debates on migration. As Julia O’Connell Davidson notes, “because suffering is not raw datum, it can be selectively recognized…unfortunately, it is perfectly possible for states simultaneously to recognize some kinds of suffering as a qualification for community inclusion, but continue to operate the lethal immigration regimes and border controls that both deny and generate other kinds of suffering.”

Arguing that rights should not be fastened onto suffering is not to deny that certain migrants have specific vulnerabilities. It is not to suggest that all migrant sex workers have it easy. Nor is it to ignore or underplay the pervasiveness of male sexual violence (sometimes noncitizens are guilty of hypermasculinist acts of sexual violence). But it is to remain fiercely critical of any conception of the state as protector.

Migrant sex workers often don’t look like Victims of Trafficking, and policies instituted under the anti-trafficking rubric tend to bolster the forms of control directed at noncitizens who sell sex. Non-citizen ex-offenders usually don’t look like the caricatured ‘foreign criminal’. Instead, their complex biographies might include experiences of racism, poverty, irregularity and exclusion. Finding room to speak about these migrants requires that we resist investing too much energy in the politics of victimhood and,instead, think critically about race and gender, and against state categories.


Thanks to Julia O’Connell Davidson and Georgia Rigg for thoughts on an earlier draft.

Author affiliation: Luke de Noronha, DPhil Candidate in Anthropology (COMPAS), University of Oxford