Rethinking Human Trafficking | Wilson Center

Rethinking Human Trafficking

Ambassador Luis CdeBaca opened the conference by describing his work to combat human trafficking at the State Department. His approach, he said, is shaped by principles embedded in the United Nations Protocol against Trafficking in Persons, as well as the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000. The enactment of this statute was, according to CdeBaca, a turning point in the America's approach to trafficking, one that draws on the lessons of the movement against domestic violence that had promoted greater sensitivity to the plight of victims. Too often, he argued, people on the margins of society who have been trafficked are treated as criminals who need policing rather than as those in need of protection. He emphasized the importance of acknowledging a "bubble" of rights around those who are prosecuted, and providing support structures for survivors.

In discussing the ongoing work of his office, CdeBaca indicated that he is still struggling with fundamental challenges, even in obtaining acceptance of a suitable definition of trafficking. "What we've seen," he said, "is a misconception as to what trafficking is and where you end up finding it." In legal prosecutions, the focus has been skewed toward trafficking in the sex industry although this constitutes only a small fraction of all involuntary workers.

One of the crucial ingredients in this law and in the ongoing effort against trafficking, CdeBaca said, is the capacity for national self-assessment. For this reason, it is significant that the U.S. is including itself for the first time in its Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, an annual ranking of countries' efforts in fighting trafficking.

Denise Brennan presented a roadmap for protecting those who have been trafficked into the United States. She noted that fewer than 3,000 migrant workers have received T-visas since the passage of the TVPA, a number that partially reflects the profound mistrust between migrant workers and law enforcement officials. She emphasized the need for empirically-based research regarding human trafficking, as well as outreach that increases workers' knowledge of their rights, provides a forum for them to voice complaints, and protects those who are willing to come forward to identify abusive practices.

While Brennan's work focuses on labor abuses, Elizabeth Bernstein draws on her experiences with sex workers in New York City. She described the problems her interview subjects have encountered as a result of the association "trafficking" and prostitution. This has led to more arrests and prosecution of sex workers under anti-trafficking laws. For many sex workers, she reported, "it's prison, not prostitution, that's most tantamount to slavery." The current law-enforcement paradigm, she said, has the effect of arresting and deporting those it aims to save. She criticized the deportation and incarceration of apprehended female sex workers and expressed skepticism toward efforts to crack down on "demand" instead of "supply." "Prostitution," Bernstein asserted, "is often the solution to a more fundamental problem, not the problem."

Florrie Burke extended the conversation by identifying the "fragile infrastructure" of law enforcement agencies, government institutions, and NGOs that play a role in anti-trafficking discourse and policy. She argued that the philosophical differences between the various stakeholders undermine a victim-centered approach. Within the context of a holistic human rights plan, Burke concluded, "we need to stop creating better Band-Aids." She encouraged comprehensive coordination between victims, service providers, and law-enforcement officials.

But trafficking does not solely concern women who become sex workers; it also includes both men and women who are forced into other types of exploitative, underpaid (or unpaid) labor. Building on Brennan's introduction, Peter Kwong maintained that the trafficking debate should be about "American values" and the "casualization of labor standards." The criminal prosecution of movement, he claimed, diverts attention from exploitation that occurs upon the arrival of trafficked individuals. Drawing on research with Chinese immigrant factory workers in New York, Kwong insisted that the best way to target exploitation would be to reconcile the challenges associated with immigration policy. Acknowledging that this recommendation is "counterintuitive and politically risky," Kwong affirmed that we must create an environment in which exploited workers may come forward without fear of deportation.

Dina Haynes also deplored the distinction between labor migrants and trafficked workers, noting, "we split laws to protect some groups of people and not others." Drawing from her legal experiences on behalf of trafficked persons, she emphasized that there is an "insular circle" among law enforcement officials and providers of post-trafficking care that inhibits migrants from seeking help against exploitative employers. Haynes suggested that the justice system, "would find a lot more exploited workers if we just believed the ones who come forward."

Carole Vance emphasized the limitation, if not failure, of using criminal law to combat human trafficking. Vance asserted that a framework based on rights rather than criminalization is needed to address the context and structural causes behind the broader trafficking issue. She stressed that narratives about sexual slavery are also problematic and merely reinforce the (anti-feminist) trope of female sexual innocence and the need to be rescued. Since these narratives overlook the roles of globalization and labor markets, Vance called for a moratorium on narratives about sexual slavery. She also cautioned that any rights-based intervention include careful empirical research.

Pardis Mahdavi and the speakers who followed her traced the international implications of the U.S. approach. Mahdavi drew upon her extensive fieldwork in the United Arab Emirates to criticize the U.S. approach to addressing human trafficking, which is focused on sex trafficking and ignores the plight of individuals in other labor sectors. In her view, outside the U.S. the TIP Report has been perceived as a "tool of American hegemony" due to the apparent arbitrariness of its rankings, and it has stifled progress toward outlining comprehensive approaches to addressing broader issues of forced labor and migration in regions such as the Middle East. Through the TIP Report, the U.S. "paints its enemies in a negative, artificial light" instead of recognizing the root causes of human trafficking.

While Laura Agustín also critiqued U.S. policy toward human trafficking, her primary focus was on combating the assumption "that the U.S. and other sacred nations must take action" against human trafficking. Rather than assuming that trafficked persons need to be rescued, Agustín believes that we must interrogate the structure of 'rescue' efforts that can at times feel more like arrest, abuse and deportation. She also emphasized that migrants are not always passive victims, but rather are courageous, active agents, willing to risk the hazards of the informal economy in order to find work and pay in developed countries. She concluded that the current international discourse on protecting the rights of trafficked workers is misplaced and recommended that developed countries begin to legally recognize more jobs in the informal economy.

Rhacel Parreñas wrestled with the disconnect between trafficking labels and discourse and actual lived experience by providing a gripping case study from her ethnographic study of Filipino migrants in Japan. The young woman in the case study was under 18 and forced to work long hours in a Tokyo night club, yet she loved her job and wanted to continue her employment in Japan. From such experiences, Parreñas concluded that "the issue of trafficking arises when [migrant] workers cannot quit when they want to." Therefore, she explained, the challenge for developed countries is to enact laws that would empower all migrant workers.

Using insights from her anthropological fieldwork with commercial sex workers in South Korea, Sealing Cheng discussed the roles of that country's 2004 anti-prostitution laws and women's movement in affecting the in-country trafficking discourse. The anti-prostitution laws were positive because they represented the first time sex workers could be identified as victims and not just "fallen women," but the laws also continued to criminalize prostitution with heavier penalties and ignored migrant workers' rights.

Nicole Constable examined the issues of gender and migration that emerged from her research on Indonesian and Filipina domestic workers in Hong Kong. Looking at the factors that motivated women to go to Hong Kong and shaped their actual experiences, she noted that in addition to economic motivations, marital or familial problems and a desire to travel were common reasons for these labor migrants to leave their home countries thus highlighting the complexity of migrants' decision-making processes. Constable also found that broader issues of trafficking must be understood within a framework of less than desirable working conditions, and a lack of access to rights for many migrant worker groups. To combat underpayment and illegal working conditions, Filipina workers developed support networks in Hong Kong. Without such a support network, Indonesian workers faced greater problems related to labor exploitation. She also discussed cross-border marriages derived from correspondence courtships, noting this was representative of gendered migration rather than trafficking.

Drawing on her work in Cambodia, Noy Thrupkaew commented on the problem of counter-trafficking tactics pushed by the United States and international organizations, which led to street sweeps of sex workers. While Cambodia's NGO community represented these sweeps as part of an anti-trafficking campaign, she argued they were not constructive but merely used anti-trafficking rhetoric as a metaphoric fig leaf to mask the real problems. Furthermore, these "rescue efforts" often resembled raids and arrests, with high levels of corruption and abuse on the part of the purported "rescuers." To support her claims, Thrupkaew pointed out that half of sex workers reported being raped by policemen, reflecting the problem of perpetrators in power. These corruption problems are compounded by international norms and a limited understanding of local conditions.

Ann Jordan offered closing remarks on the future of anti-trafficking initiatives. She stressed the need for people who are affected by trafficking and anti-trafficking measures to be included at the table, and was appreciative of ethnographic endeavors presented by scholars at the conference to bring those missing voices into the conversation. While trafficking is largely seen as a women's issue, she indicated that the framework should also acknowledge issues related to labor, migrants, and men. She also emphasized the need to bring information from academics who work on trafficking issues to groups and people on the ground.

By Kendra Heideman, Richard Iserman, Megan Sigovich and Aldo Prosperi
Haleh Esfandiari, Director, Middle East Program and
Sonya Michel, Director, United States Studies