On the Anti-Politics of Anti-Trafficking

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The Status Quo and The State of Play

Arguably, in Europe as elsewhere, ‘trafficking’ is still commonly understood as being about nasty, frequently male criminals who capture and enslave innocent women and children, usually for sex. Most of the time, the stories we hear are extreme, they’re the worst of the worst.

The way the anti-trafficking field ‘deals’ with trafficking reflects these representations. Though there have been some advances, the dominant policy emphasis is still on getting the right laws passed, on ramping up prosecutions, on strengthening borders, and on ‘raising awareness’ by telling potential migrants that migrating is a bad idea because it could leave them vulnerable to traffickers.

What has been the result of all this? Although reports will cite an increase in law-enforcement and a rising number of prosecutions, it is clear that people are still migrating illegally, that some of them still find themselves in situations of trafficking, and that non-migrant workers everywhere still find themselves working in conditions equivalent to trafficking.

Why Things are This Way

So why is discourse so reductive and policy so ineffective? Over the following paragraphs, I will try and offer a few thoughts as to why this is the case, and I will do so by drawing on data and anecdotes from my recent years of research with those individuals and institutions at the heart of the anti-trafficking field.

Lack of Understanding

The first, major point concerns a lack of understanding on the part of anti-trafficking actors.. Of the 100 or so anti-trafficking officials I interviewed and worked with, only 5 had ever actually met the people that their policies targeted as ‘victims of trafficking’. Often, this was because institutional protocol prevented them from doing so. So, through lack of access, many people routinely reproduce bad stereotypes and poor policies without properly questioning either.

The Politics of Silence

But there is more to it than that. As far as I can tell from my investigations, there is also a lot of individual, institutional and governmental politics, and what I term the politics of silence. What do I mean by this? I will illustrate by drawing on the case of Benin.

In Benin, huge numbers of young males leave the centre of the country to go and work in gravel pits in Nigeria. Their work is hard, but it is tolerable, and as far as the young men and their families are concerned, it represents the best of a very narrow bunch of options. Why is that? Because, as dozens of them told me, it is the only option they have for making the money that is essential to life in any capitalist economy. The fact that they have only one option is determined by many factors, including of course US cotton subsidies, which have deflated already volatile cotton prices and the global trade tariffs which mean that alternative crops – such as pineapples or soya – simply cannot me made to turn a profit, because they’re not allowed into markets such as the EU’s.

Benin is a clear case not only of a ‘root cause of trafficking’ – poverty – but also of a ‘root cause’ of that ‘root cause’ – subsidies, tariffs and the structure of global political economy. Yet I never once come across a single instance agency prepared to address or even mention the political-economic causation of poverty. This was because of a widespread politics of silence.

Sometimes that silence was self-imposed.

Sometimes, however, this silence is imposed from above. I interviewed various people within the US trafficking hierarchy and I asked them whether they, sitting at the top of the anti-trafficking tree, they at least could bring things like cotton subsidies or political economy into the discussion. These were two of the responses I had:

One woman said: ‘No way could I mention this! ‘We’re constrained by US interests and that means we’re restricted to corridor discussions’.

Another said: ‘Listen, I can try and raise this in our meetings, but the chances of success or of public discussion are slim-to-none, because there are very big interests to fight.’

Even more telling were the words of two EU officials I spoke to in Benin’s capital. I asked them whether they could ever consider including, if not in their anti-trafficking policies, then at least in their reports, mention of things like subsidies. This is what they replied:

The first: ‘We can take account of the effects of these things at ground level – people being poor in Benin and such. But we can’t talk about the top level.’

The second: ‘We simply cannot talk about this. This is a delegation. We structurally cannot go beyond borders. If we want to do something like this regarding EU or US subsidies, we need to have a formal political position sent down to us from Brussels. Otherwise we cant mention it’.

The Politics of Representation

So what’s happening here? It seems as if at least some people know that anti-trafficking work would be better off if we addressed matters of political economy. But no-one talks about it. Why? This is to do with what I suggest is a politics of representation.

Most of the agencies active in this field depend on funding, be that from their own governments, from donors, international agencies or multilateral institutions. Almost always that funding is conditional on people being able to report on ‘successes’, on being able to demonstrate ‘outputs’, and on being able to show that their limited resources have been well spent. Those in receipt of donor money have to be able to represent what they do as an ‘output’ or a ‘success’, according to the definitions of success provided by those who give that money.

As a result, we have the dynamics mentioned above. First, anti-trafficking actors silence themselves about the truth or are silenced by those above them. When talking about trafficking or designing anti-trafficking policies, this means eschewing the political-economy of poverty in favour of reproducing simplistic narratives around ‘bad men capturing innocent women and children’. Second, and similarly seriously, there is a perpetuation of arguably futile policies or projects simply because the money that there is needs to get spent and both donors and recipients need to at least pretend that things are happening with that money, because if they don’t, it – and with it their jobs, livelihoods, and the wages on which their families depend – will dry up. As one former and quite famous EU anti-trafficking figure said to me:

‘The reality is that not much happens; people just produce papers – they cut and paste, cut and paste, cut and paste. Or, it’s seminar, seminar, seminar, conference. We have to do something to justify our money and to show some form of tangible outcome. Otherwise, the gravy-train will stop rolling’.

Conclusions and Possible Alternatives?

In terms of consequences, it seems reasonable to conclude that one of the anti-trafficking field’s prime accomplishments is in fact little other than it’s own reproduction. Money is donated, agencies survive, and jobs are kept. But in the process, attention is drawn away from the unjust and political-economic conditions underpinning the very factors that are blamed for the emergence of the phenomena – trafficking – which justifies their existence in the first place.

If we want this to change we need to build a critical mass of anti-trafficking voices prepared, able, and ready to speak honestly – to break the silence – by identifying not only the very real chains linking policy to poverty, but also the actions of powerful figures seeking to keep everyone quiet about them. It is only when we are prepared to think about the causation of trafficking, or of any labour exploitation, about the political-economy of labour, migration, production and exchange, that things will begin to improve.

Neil Howard, Marie Curie Fellow at the MPC, introduces his research into the discourse and politics of anti-trafficking. He does so by adapting a speech he recently gave to the Council of Europe’s Expert Group on Trafficking in Human Beings

You can find out more about Neil’s work here: https://blogs.eui.eu/neilhoward and here: http://www.migrationpolicycentre.eu/people/neil-howard/


The EUI, RSCAS and MPC are not responsible for the opinion expressed by the author(s). Furthermore, the views expressed in this publication cannot in any circumstances be regarded as the official position of the European Union.