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[Scientific Books] 

The myth of trafficking

Brendan O'Neill, The New Statesman, March 27, 2008

Most migrant women, including those in the sex industry, have made a  clear decision, says a new study, to leave home and take their chances  abroad. They are not "passive victims" in need of "saving" or sending  back by western campaigners.

It is always refreshing to read a book that turns an issue on its head.  Laura María Agustín's trenchant and controversial critique of the  anti-trafficking crusade goes a step further: it lays out the matter -  in this case, "human trafficking" - on the operating table, dissects it,  unravels its innards, and shows the reader, in gory, sometimes  eye-watering detail, why everything we think about it is Wrong with a  capital W. It's a jarring read; I imagine that those who make a living  from campaigning against the scourge of human trafficking will throw it  violently across the room, if not into an incinerator.

Yet it may also  be one of the most important books on migration published in recent years. Most of us recognise the ideological under pinnings of old-style baiting  of migrants. When newspaper hacks or populist politicians talk about  evil Johnny Foreigners coming here and stealing our jobs or eating our  swans, it does not take much effort to sniff out their xenophobic  leanings. Agustín's contention is that the new "discourse" on migrants  (in which many of them, especially the women and children, are seen as  "victims of trafficking" in need of rescue) is also built on ideological  foundations.

Like its demented cousin - tabloid hysteria about foreign  scroungers - the trafficking scare is based on a deeply patronising view  of migrants, rather than any hard statistical evidence that human  trafficking is rife. Agustín begins by challenging the idea that there is a "new slave trade"  in which hundreds of thousands of women and children are sold like  chattels across borders. The US state department claims that between  600,000 and 800,000 people are trafficked for forced labour or sex  worldwide every year; Unicef says a million children and young people  are trafficked each year. Upmarket newspapers - which have embraced the  seemingly PC "trafficking discourse" with the same fervour as the  tabloid newspapers screech about fence-leaping job-stealers from  Sangatte - tell us that "thousands" of women and children have been  trafficked into Britain and "traded for tawdry sex", and that some of  them (the African ones) "live under fear of voodoo".

Agustín says the numbers are "mostly fantasies". She does not doubt that  there are instances of forced migration, or that, in a world where  freedom of movement is restricted by stiff laws and stringent border  controls, many aspiring migrants have little choice but to seek  assistance from dodgy middlemen. Yet, having researched trafficking and  sex workers' experiences for the past five years, both academically and  through fieldwork in Latin America and Asia, she concludes that the  figures are based on "sweeping generalisations" and frequently on "wild  speculation".

 "Most of the writing and activism [on trafficking] does  not seem to be based on empirical research, even when produced by  academics," she notes. Many of the authors rely on "media reports" and  "statistics published with little explanation of methodology or clarity  about definitions". Agustín points out that some anti-trafficking activists depend on  numbers produced by the CIA (not normally considered a reliable or  neutral font of information when it comes to inter national issues),  even though the CIA refuses to "divulge its research methods".

The  reason why the "new slavery" statistics are so high is, in part, that  the category of trafficking is promiscuously defined, sometimes  disingenuously so. Some researchers automatically label migrant women  who work as prostitutes "trafficked persons", basing their rationale on  the notion that no woman could seriously want to work in the sex  industry. The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women argues that "all  children and the majority of women in the sex trade" should be  considered "victims of trafficking". As Agustín says, such an approach  "infantilises" migrant women, "eliminating any notion that women who  sell sex can consent". Ironically, it objectifies them, treating them as  unthinking things that are moved around the world against their will.

The reality is very different, the author says. Most migrant women,  including those who end up in the sex industry, have made a clear  decision to leave home and take their chances overseas. They are not  "passive victims" who must be "saved" by anti-trafficking campaigners  and returned to their country of origin. Rather, frequently, they are  headstrong and ambitious women who migrate in order to escape  "small-town prejudices, dead-end jobs, dangerous streets and suffocating  families". Shocking as it might seem to the feminist social workers,  caring police people and campaigning journalists who make up what  Agustín refers to as the "rescue industry", she has discovered that some  poor migrant women "like the idea of being found beautiful or exotic  abroad, exciting desire in others".

I told you it was controversial. One of Agustín's chief concerns is that the anti-trafficking crusade is  restricting international freedom of movement. What presents itself as a  campaign to protect migrants from harm is actually making their efforts  to flee home, to find work, to make the most of their lives in often  difficult and unforgiving circumstances, that much harder. She writes  about the "rescue raids" carried out by police and non-governmental  organisations, in which even women who vociferously deny having been  trafficked may be arrested, imprisoned in detention centres and sent  back home - for the benefit of their own mental stability, of course.

It  used to be called repatriation; now, dolled up in therapeutic lingo, it  is called "rescue". For all its poisonous prejudices, the old racist view of migrants as  portents of crime and social instability at least treated them as  autonomous, sentient, albeit "morally depraved", adults. By contrast, as  the author illustrates, the anti-trafficking lobby robs migrants of  agency and their individual differences, and views them as a helpless,  swaying mass of thousands who must be saved by the more savvy and  intelligent women of the west and by western authorities. Agustín reserves her most cutting comments for the flourishing "rescue  industry", arguing convincingly that it is driven by a colonial-style,  maternalistic attitude to foreign women. In its world, "victims become  passive receptacles and mute sufferers who must be saved, and helpers  become saviours - a colonialist operation".

Bitingly, she compares  today's anti-trafficking feminists with the "bourgeois women" of the  19th century who considered it a moral virtue to save poor prostitutes,  who were "mistaken, misled, deviant". Like them, anti-trafficking  crusaders see women as weak, easily victimised, and in need of guidance  from a caring chaperone. In truth, poor women - and men and children - migrate for many different  reasons and have many different experiences, some good, some bad, some  tragic. Such migrants are wise and wily, says Agustín; they have  gumption, ambition and hope; they are often cosmopolitan, too, working,  mixing and having flings with migrants from the other side of the world  whom they meet in some big city in Europe or the United States.

And many  of them have far more liberal attitudes to freedom of movement than the  westerners who campaign on their behalf. She quotes a Kurdish migrant to  the Netherlands who thinks borders should be abolished: "I don't come  from the sun or moon. I'm from earth just like everybody else and the  earth belongs to all of us." Now that's an argument I can get behind.

[Scientific Books]

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