…human trafficking?

Nathalie Rothschild says the promiscuous use of the term 'trafficking' to describe migration across borders is leading to new and stringent restrictions on free movement around the world.

Nathalie Rothschild

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Nathalie Rothschild says the promiscuous use of the term ‘trafficking’ to describe migration across borders is leading to new and stringent restrictions on free movement around the world.

Of course, many people should be ‘afraid of human trafficking’. Whenever there is forced trafficking of people, it should be clamped down upon. The problem today is that the term ‘trafficking’ is being applied promiscuously to more and more forms of migration – and this is making life difficult and miserable for those who must, or who choose to, move across borders for work.

Reports on human trafficking frequently acknowledge that trafficking is a hidden and covert activity, and thus the extent to which it occurs remains unknown. This fact is repeated in the latest, Home Office-sponsored study by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) into child trafficking into the UK. Yet the centre’s acknowledgment that child trafficking cannot be defined, measured or tracked has not led to it ditching the unhelpful labels of ‘child trafficking’ or ‘human trafficking’. Rather the lack of a definition is used to justify plans for a more ‘joined-up’, cross-sector, approach to trafficking, which will, ultimately, severely infringe on the civil liberties of foreigners arriving in the UK. CEOP is proposing a plan to track all foreign children by taking their biometrics when they enter the country.

Despite its own broad definition of child trafficking, the CEOP study has only identified 330 cases of suspected or confirmed child victims of traffickers (1). Yet it proposes that the government should be allowed to monitor and track all non-British people under the age of 18 who enter the country. What may look like a benevolent rescue-mission of young prostitutes and ‘domestic slaves’ actually amounts, ultimately, to a clampdown on immigration itself.

CEOP defines child trafficking very broadly as ‘the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of a child for the purpose of exploitation’. While the UN’s definition of Trafficking in Persons also takes into consideration the means by which a person has been recruited, transported and so on, CEOP says that individuals under the age of 18 are not ‘capable of consenting to [their] own trafficking or exploitation’ and therefore the ‘”means” do not need to be proved in order to find a child has been trafficked’ (2).

In other words, by ignoring the wide-ranging socioeconomic factors that cause people to leave their homes or send their children abroad, CEOP and other agencies can lump together a range of motivations for such movements as ‘exploitative’ and ‘illegal’. So child trafficking can include everything from families in the developing world sending children to live with relatives abroad (especially if those children work when they are abroad) to the fact that some young people in the developing world work rather than go to school. It can also involve many different forms of labour, from waitressing to prostitution: when the worker is a young person and isn’t being paid very much, then everything they do can be described as exploitation and thus a form of trafficking. And trafficking can involve many different forms of recruitment, from outright abduction to the promise of cash payment or ‘any other form of coercion’. This could be interpreted to mean very tempting job adverts or physical force.

Reports into human trafficking typically fail to acknowledge that foreigners who wish to come work in the UK have very few legal options available, and thus tend to be forced into the shadow economy where they are, indeed, vulnerable to exploitation. Thus, anti-traffickers rarely reach the sensible conclusion that Britain’s and Europe’s stringent immigration laws should be revised to allow people to come here to work and contribute to our economies, and send remittances to their home countries and go back there when they choose to. Instead anti-trafficking campaigners see it as their duty to ‘rescue’ victimised individuals who may have been trafficked, and to care for them. This does nothing to challenge immigration laws that force some people into the hands of dodgy employers – as immigrants are often unable to work legally or to seek support or protection from the authorities – but it does a lot to paint immigrants as victims who need to be monitored ever more closely.

Everyone from the Home Office to national and international agencies concerned with crime prevention and child protection have adopted the terminology of ‘trafficking’ and ‘child exploitation’, even though such things are notoriously difficult to define or quantify. Migration has effectively been redefined as ‘trafficking’; migration and labour movements within and across borders are now being interpreted in terms of this vague and prejudiced label. This fails to acknowledge that people often take free decisions to leave their homes, and also that the reason they fall into the hands of what CEOP and others call ‘traffickers’ is because no one else will assist their desire to make a better life for themselves.

Exploitation of children should of course be exposed and fought against wherever it occurs. But rolling out identity-scanning for every single foreign child and young adult who enters the UK will result in a loss of liberties, in more suspicion against foreigners, and in a further tightening of immigration controls. That will not benefit those who wish or need to move around the world for work.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor at spiked.

Read on:

Who’s afraid of…

(1) Every child who enters Britain ‘must be tracked to thwart the slave trade’, The Times, 9 July 2007

(2) See A Scoping Project on Child Trafficking
in the UK
, June 2007

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Topics Politics