Sex, Slaves and Citizens: The Politics of Anti-Trafficking

By Anderson, Bridget; Andrijasevic, Rutvica | Soundings, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview
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Sex, Slaves and Citizens: The Politics of Anti-Trafficking


Anderson, Bridget, Andrijasevic, Rutvica, Soundings


A focus on the evils of trafficking is a way of depoliticising the debate on migration.

Trafficking is in the news. It is on the political agenda, both nationally and internationally. Thousands of individuals, hundreds of groups, dozens of newspapers are determined to stamp it out. This focus on trafficking consistently reflects and reinforces deep public concern about prostitution/sex work, and also about immigration, and the abuse and exploitation it so frequently involves. So to challenge the expression, or some of the actions taken as a response to this concern, is akin to saying that one endorses slavery or is against motherhood and apple pie. Trafficking is a theme that is supposed to bring us all together. But we believe it is necessary to tread the line of challenging motherhood and apple pie while not endorsing slavery, because the moral panic over trafficking is diverting attention from the structural causes of the abuse of migrant workers. Concern becomes focused on the evil wrongdoers rather than more systemic factors. In particular it ignores the state's approach to migration and employment, which effectively constructs groups of non-citizens who can be treated as unequal with impunity.

What is trafficking? Definitions and the UN Convention

In November 2000 the UN Convention Against Transnational Organised Crime was adopted by the UN General Assembly. The purpose of this convention was to promote interstate cooperation in the combating of transnational organised crime and to eliminate 'safe havens' for its perpetrators. It is supplemented by three additional protocols, which deal with Smuggling of Migrants, Trafficking in Persons - especially women and children - and Trafficking in Firearms. The definition of trafficking in persons in the Protocol contains three elements: it is defined as an action, consisting of 'the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons'; as one which occurs by means o/'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'; and as being undertaken 'for the purpose of exploitation . . . (which) . . . 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'.

It is important to remember that the Palermo Protocol, as it is known, is not a human rights instrument. It is an instrument designed to facilitate cooperation between states to combat organised crime, rather than to protect or give restitution to the victims of crime. States are to strengthen border controls to prevent trafficking and smuggling. Border controls and police cooperation, not human rights protection, lies at the heart of both the smuggling and trafficking protocols. The emphasis is on intercepting traffickers and smugglers and on punishing and prosecuting them. While states are encouraged to offer protection to trafficked persons, in particular to consider providing victims of trafficking with the possibility of remaining, temporarily or permanently, on their territory, actual obligations are minimal and the protection provisions are weak. Though there do exist other more progressive legal instruments governing trafficking, even in these the protection of trafficked persons is dependent on their cooperation with authorities.1

The Palermo Protocol's concerns with crime and borders arose partly from a more particular concern about the prostitution of women and minors, and there is special reference made in the protocol to sexual exploitation and exploitation of the prostitution of others. Media, policy and research on trafficking have for the most part focused exclusively on sex work, and trafficking is commonly associated with 'sexual slavery' and organised crime.

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