‘Trafficking’ seems to extend the audience of those engaged with the human rights of migrants. Even those who are not usually sympathetic to the plight of undocumented migrants can engage with the plight of ‘victims of trafficking’ and respond to calls for their protection. Trafficking also seems to offer a rare patch of common ground between migrant advocates and state actors, both concerned to stop exploitation and abuse.
However in practice, anti-trafficking approaches have proved deeply problematic. How helpful is the trafficking framework?
To ask this question is not to put into question the undoubted abuse, injustice, extortion, rape, violence and murder experienced by migrants, particularly undocumented migrants. There is also no question that this happens, and that the vulnerable are exploited (a tricky term though) in myriad horrendous ways.
However, whatever one means by grouping such heterogeneous phenomena as child labour in Benin, tobacco farming in Kazakhstan and under age prostitution in Oxford, ‘anti-trafficking’ is not the answer. It mystifies labour and labour relations, it mystifies immigration and immigration controls, it essentialises gender and childhood, it confuses and obfuscates, and importantly it also acts against the interests of many that it purports to serve.
In recent years there has been an attempt to rehabilitate human rights to some extent in this discourse, as the expression of hope and indeed of some possibility of universalism; this has drawn explicitly on migrants and the undocumented, most obviously the work of Ranciere, that has emphasised the importance of rights claims and the power of rights when they are invoked by ‘the part of no part’.
Whatever one thinks of these arguments, trafficking obstructs them. It is not only that the authority of the state has to be invoked in order to protect the rights of the Victim of Trafficking, but that the state is directly and inescapably the source of vulnerability and that the means of protection for VoT, border controls, directly and inescapably heighten that vulnerability.
While undocumented migrants can challenge the source of their differentiation from citizens and assert "I’m illegal. So what?" VoT cannot claim, "I’m a VoT. So what?". The VoT in claiming human rights has no right to resist the author of the source of her vulnerability. She is caught in an iron cage of logic, a state created subject with no room for manoeuvre.
The granting of human rights to VoT make the possibility for human rights as dissensus invoked by illegal migrants more difficult. The most abject of those formally excluded are given rights, and they are rights that are premised on the right NOT to enter, to be protected from movement. The VoT, once she has testified and her abuser is imprisoned, is supposed to return home. Indeed the narrative is that she wants to return home, and part of her innocence and victimhood is that she never wanted to move in the first place.
In this way immigration controls are claimed to be a mechanism of protection for migrants, rather than a mechanism of oppression. Immigration enforcement does not ignore liberal values but directly invokes them.
The language of trafficking marks the United Kingdom as a site of free labour and equality. It draws attention to the backward employment and social relations of the migrant, in contrast to those of the citizen, yet it also overlooks the key point of difference between the migrant and the citizen, which is that the migrant is subject to immigration controls.
Trafficking enables us to congratulate ourselves on the freedom and rights within the British economy, and to respond morally and emotionally to the gap between us and them, between privilege and suffering. The commitment to combat trafficking demonstrates that non-citizens are not regarded purely as commodities, moved about for maximising profit.
Through anti-trafficking it is apparent that the state, and importantly the nation, acknowledges that they are human beings who cannot be simply traded as factors of production. In this sense it rescues the national labour market by connecting it to the moral economy. It flags the social norms and obligations and the extent of tolerable inequalities: "we’re not saying that migrant workers should be given cushy jobs, but they are entitled to the minimum", as a prosecutor on one UK Trafficking court case put it.
Concern with trafficking focuses on borders and immigration controls while missing the crucial point that immigration controls produce relations of domination and subordination, thereby leaving state responsibility for the consequences of this completely out of the picture.
This blog post is an extract from a longer piece "Trafficking and the protection of human rights. Full of sound and fury, but what does it signify?" presented on 24 January 2013 in Oxford as part of the COMPAS International Migration and Human Rights Seminar Series. It was first published on the Oxford Human Rights Hub blog on 22 February 2013.