On The Anti-Trafficking Discourse and its Material Consequences

(cross-linked with my other blog)


According to the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, Supplementing the UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, Article 3(a), trafficking in persons is defined thusly:

“Trafficking in persons” shall mean the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the  giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a  person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs;”

In sum, trafficking is the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring, receipt of persons for the purpose of exploitation. In this chain of acts, all participants are traffickers.

In legal terms, trafficking in persons is broken down into 3 parts: 1) Action 2) Means 3) Purpose. Action is the actual act of trafficking. Means is the ‘how’ of trafficking. Finally, the purpose (mens rea) of trafficking is exploitation. In order to establish a legal case, lawyers must prove all 3. Action and means are typically easier to prove than purpose, which is highly circumstantial.

In practice, trafficking is complicated. The legal definition says “transportation,” but not all trafficking victims are transported. Understandings of trafficking that hinge on “transportation” will tend to conflate smuggling with trafficking. Smuggling is defined in the UN Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime as:

“the procurement, in order to obtain, directly or indirectly, a financial or other material benefit, of the illegal entry of a person into a State Party of which the person is not a national or a permanent resident;”

What separates smuggling from trafficking is the absence of exploitation. Smuggling becomes trafficking when, for example, smugglers demand higher fees after bringing migrants to a transit or destination country, thereby forcing migrants into a situation of debt peonage or debt bondage.


Trafficking takes on many forms in many sectors.

  • illegal (transnational) adoption
  • sexual exploitation
  • coerced labor in agriculture, the service industry, domestic work, construction, sports, and so on.
  • child brides
  • recruitment of children into armed conflict
  • forced begging
  • removal of organs

Human trafficking worldwide is very complex. Trafficking overlaps with traditional forms of slavery, and often follows historical migration and trade routes and newer migration and trade routes. In other words, human trafficking is a problem internally, regionally, and internationally. In West and Central Africa, trafficking is recognized as a problem in 70% of nations in the respective regions. In East and Southern Africa, trafficking is recognized as a problem in a third of the countries. In West and North Africa, the trafficking of Africans into Europe is a problem exacerbated by pressures exerted by forces of globalization, which drive capital flow northward, and correspondingly, drive eurocentric migration.

Traditional slavery manifests in Northern Ghana and parts of Togo, when young girls are „donated“ to priests and are forced to live as ‚wives‘ and submit sexually to the shrine priests in return for the protection of the families.“ (15, „Trafficking in Human Beings, Especially Woman and Children, in Africa“, UNICEF Innocenti Research Center) In central and western Africa, impoverished families (especially in the face of food insecurity- as seen in Niger in the past year, where a famine meant increased attention on child brides) might marry their young daughters off to much older men- subjecting them to destitution, abandonment through divorce. In Kenya and Ethiopia, girls who are married off at a young age are a runaway risk- many of whom end up in urban centers like Addis Ababa, Mombasa, and Nairobi where trafficking in the sex industry is a known problem.  The risks of sex work- sexually transmitted diseases/infections, increased likelihood of abuse- only exacerbate the vulnerability of these young women.

In Northern Tanzania, the mining industry (tanzanite and gold) drives demand for human trafficking.  Additionally, the mines drive demand for the sex trade in their vicinities, which is answered in turn by active recruitment among young women with the promise of fast cash.  Just recently, Bloomberg published a story highlighting the gross abuses and violence in the mines of Tanzania.  In Ghana, the 10th biggest exporter of gold, thousands of children are forced to work in the dangerous mines. Similarly, debt bondage and sex slavery occur in proximity to these mines. In response, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society organizations (CSOs) have formed the The Anti-Human Trafficking and Child Protection Coalition and launched projects such as their Community Resistance to Slavery and Forced Labor (CRSFL), which helps vulnerable communities “organize and create community-based action plans to eradicate slavery.”  The project offers miners alternative means of revenue, via economic assistance intended to foster economic self-sufficiency and autonomy.

It is useful to talk about trafficking in terms of push and pull factors. What would make the child of a smallholder farmer in Niger vulnerable to trafficking? What drives their parents’ decision to enter into an uneven contracts with distant family members or acquaintances that stipulate sending their child away to be an apprentice for a small business owner? Push factors could include:

  • Climate change [desertification, flooding, etc] and the resultant displacement of subsistence farmers and pastoral groups
  • Poor management of natural resources
  • Land dispossession
  • Poverty [e.g. the increased reliance upon cash economies and the global food market makes low-income households vulnerable to price-induced food security]
  • Low wages
  • Social marginalization [e.g. the transnational trafficking of stateless Rohingya people (who originate from Burma) into Malaysia by Thai police and army officers]
  • Lack of opportunities in home communities

Pull factors include:

  • Perceived opportunity elsewhere

I am hesitant to address the pull factors of trafficking, because, then I risk the appearance of victim-blaming or contradicting the definition of trafficking as being coerced. Persons who are trafficked are indeed lured into coercive situations. Recruiters, in the form of modeling scouts, sports scouts, labor recruiters for temp agencies, even religious leaders, who make promises that appeal to the trafficking victim’s sense of lack. They might promise opportunities to earn money, pursue their studies or become famous. Here is where trafficking prevention would step in. Trafficking prevention should be about addressing social inequities, and not about targeting or demonizing traffickers.


I say that trafficking prevention is about addressing social inequities, and not about targeting or demonizing traffickers, because in order to do the latter, one needs a “victim” and an “aggressor.” This irradiates the conditions that make trafficking a viable means of income for traffickers and make victims of trafficking vulnerable to coercion and exploitation. The construction of “victims” and “aggressors” in the discourse of trafficking is unhelpful, and it only neglects a fuller analysis of the social conditions and material realities that the trafficker and trafficked grapple with. This is an analog of the “good guys/Heroes” “bad guys/Anti-Heroes” “damsel in distress” narrative that characterizes the Western story-telling tradition.

Am I saying that there are no victims? No. To the contrary, I am saying that this popular narrative among anti-trafficking activists, lobbyists, feminists, and the like facilitates a re-victimizing of survivors of trafficking in synchrony with the demonizing of traffickers. The impetus to ‘save’ victims of trafficking is not an impetus to recognize the agency of survivors and traffickers. By representing traffickers as ‘exceptional’ figures- notably in the classist, racialized trope of the “pimp,” anti-trafficking discourse occludes the truth that traffickers are often those closest to the victim. In many cases, traffickers are parents, family members, intimate partners, neighbors, teachers, religious leaders, police officers, and other ‘trusted’ authority figures. The trafficker is not simply the shadowy figure in the alley who ‘snatches’ runaways or migrants.

The popular discourse trafficking tends to center on women and girls as victims, conflating sex trafficking w the sex trade while displacing the majority of trafficking cases- domestic/forced labor/organ trafficking. This same discourse also facilitates an uneven gaze upon the gendered (and often, racialized) bodies of sex workers via inflated reports of sex trafficking. The “Rescue Industry” enacts this through the surveillance and policing of sex workers, and their subsequent arrest and entry into cycles of recidivism through ‘brothel raids.’ These ‘brothel raids’ typically traumatize and criminalize sex workers and survivors of sex trafficking, most of whom are cis-women and transwomen.

Even “End the Demand” efforts targeting ‘Johns’ unwittingly target and criminalize sex workers- particularly transwomen in the sex industry. ‘Johns’ are assumed to be heterosexual, cis-gender (or “male-bodied”)* men. These assumptions of heteronormativity are dangerous, however, as they doubly criminalize transwomen. One example is the Chicago Police Department’s practice of posting the mugshots of of ‘Johns’ who were arrested and charged with soliciting online in order to ‘shame’ them. Thing is, researchers at DePaul University found that about 10 percent of the photos are of Trans* women (likely sex workers) who were misgendered as men by police officers and arrested as “johns.”

The “White Savior” impetus manifests itself frequently in anti-trafficking organizations representations of themselves. For example, one organization tellingly named “Saving Innocence” offers would-be anti-trafficking activists a chance to “buy her freedom.” Yes, they propose that anti-trafficking activists fuel trafficking in order to save the ‘exceptional’ victim. Who is this ‘exceptional victim?’ She is typically a cis-gendered Eastern European girl or woman with blond hair, pale skin, and blue eyes. She is “innocence” unlike ‘presumably ‘hypersexual’ African-descended or Latina women who are trafficked into the sex industry.

Orientalism rears its head in the anti-trafficking discourse when the ‘victim’ is an Asian woman or girl. A good example is Nick Kristof’s January 2004 column where he reported on ‘buying’ two Cambodian girls’ freedom for $353. He positions himself as a benevolent White Savior gracing the lives of poor trafficked Cambodian girls. He never questions that he fuels the human trafficking industry by ‘saving’ these victims that he’s deemed exceptional. He never questions the gross inequality between the himself and these girls. He never questions his complicity in trafficking. Instead, he silences the girls and tells their story in his typical self-aggrandizing manner.


* I avoid using “male-bodied” or “female-bodied” because it is extremely problematic terminology. The terms themselves do not capture the reality that sex is assigned and ascribed, not innate.

1 Comment

  1. Parents also need the money to feed the family, so selling one of their children at US$60 for a ‘better life’ is often an easier option on their finances. The problem is that the children who are rescued in the W.African sub-region haven’t got anywhere in particular to go; the authorities house them where they can, often in orphanages which are unable to cater for their emotional needs. This is where we’re trying to step in, but it’s a long slog! Both Ghana & Cote d’Ivoire are not on the 14 country USAID TIP list this year despite being Tier 2 countries as they’d like to manage it internally!

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