We’re all traffickers now

We should challenge the idea that everything from smoking a spliff to employing an African cleaner is potential complicity in a ‘slave trade’.

Nathalie Rothschild

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If you thought that the only really serious consequence of smoking weed was a tendency to have monosyllabic conversations, think again. If you assumed that the greatest risk involved in sleeping with prostitutes was contracting a sexually transmitted infection, you’re wrong. If you thought the most worrying thing about buying a pirate DVD is that you might end up with a blurry version of a Hollywood blockbuster, you’re off track.

Because according to a new campaign against trafficking, launched by the children’s rights organisation, ECPAT, and the Body Shop, people who indulge in all of the above activities could be contributing to the kidnapping, enslavement and rape of children around the world. That’s right, a puff on a joint may cause a child’s hopes of a happy life to go up in smoke; watch a bootleg movie and you could be supporting what the United Nations has described as a ‘modern-day slave trade’: international human trafficking (1). In short, we’re all traffickers now.

For the launch of the new campaign, ECPAT and the Body Shop published the results of a poll showing that a fifth of Britons unknowingly aid child trafficking. The Body Shop has also produced a special campaign hand cream called ‘Soft Hands, Kind Heart’ to raise funds and spread the message that ‘their future is in our hands’ (2).

Apparently, we are all complicit, in one way or another, in slave driving. According to ECPAT, many foreign children in the UK are being roped into working for criminals involved in bootlegging, cannabis growing, benefit fraud and other illegal activities. Other kids, says ECPAT, are forced into domestic servitude, prostitution and street begging (3). According to the UN, trafficked persons are employed in established industries, too, including agriculture or horticulture, construction, catering and restaurants, domestic work, food processing, healthcare and contract cleaning (4).

Reading reports about the alleged widespread trafficking of people, it would appear that it affects nearly all sectors and spheres of life; the world, it seems, can be divided into Trafficking Victims, Traffickers, and Those Who Implicitly Support Trafficking. So whether you are visiting brothels, smoking dope, giving money to beggars, eating out, grocery shopping or working in offices tidied by contract cleaners, you, too, are contributing to the twenty-first century slave trade.

ECPAT and the Body Shop are sending a message that Britons are shockingly ignorant about the extent of trafficking and about their own contribution to it. For instance, according to their poll, 34 per cent of people believe trafficked children end up in foreign countries, not in Britain (5).

Yet it appears that even the apparently enlightened ECPAT cannot be sure of the scale of child trafficking – or even how to determine who is and who is not a victim of trafficking. The Metropolitan Police’s anti-child trafficking unit recently revealed that at least three children a week are identified as victims of the new slave trade in the UK. However, Christine Beddoe, director of ECPAT UK, said: ‘The cases we know about are just the tip of the iceberg as this is a largely hidden crime.’ (6) And while the ECPAT/Body Shop report, Their Protection Is In Our Hands, focuses on global child trafficking for sexual purposes, ECPAT’s website states: ‘The covert and criminal nature of child sex crimes and the vulnerability of children, especially children living in poverty, make data collection a difficult task.’ (7)

That there is a severe lack of clarity on the issue of trafficking becomes evident when one looks at the disparate and loose figures and definitions cited by various organisations. In 2005, the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimated that at any one time there are some 2.5million people who have been trafficked and are being subjected to sexual or labour exploitation (8). The International Organization for Migration puts the figure of people trafficked across international borders at 800,000 a year, with ‘many more trafficked within the borders of their own countries’ (9).

Anti-trafficking campaigners also admit that it is near impossible to know how many trafficking victims are out there. ‘Due to the hidden and illegal nature of human trafficking, gathering statistics on the scale of the problem is difficult’, explains Stop the Traffik (10). ‘Because of its hidden nature, it is difficult to get accurate statistics on the numbers affected’, says Anti-slavery (11). The UN Global Initiative to Fight Trafficking (UN.GIFT) says ‘a lack of primary data makes it difficult to identify the factors that cause trafficking, establish best practices to prevent it, and assess and measure impacts’ (12). Despite this lack of clarity, however, the ILO has estimated that global trafficking is worth US$32 billion each year (13). Perhaps the ILO could tell us what the worldwide campaigns to prevent trafficking are worth? Because the efforts to define, track and clamp down on trafficking are, it seems, growing by the day.

It is not just because trafficking is illegal, clandestine and tangled up with the shadow economy that means it is hard to gather data on it. The very definition of trafficking is so confused and wide-ranging that it appears impossible to know what type of people to survey in the first place.

The official definition, as outlined in the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children, is: ‘The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of 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, for the purpose of exploitation.’ (14)

There are also rather vague clarifications on how to differentiate between migrant smuggling and human trafficking, and how to determine whether a person has given consent or has been coerced into moving. According to the UN, a person may even be unaware that he or she has been the victim of trafficking, and if their movement has involved any of the ‘means’ of trafficking then their consent is irrelevant (15).

For real people in real-life, complex situations, the above definition is more or less meaningless. There are a myriad of reasons why someone might want to leave their home or send their child to a different city or country (trafficking does not necessarily involve transnational movement). Sometimes it is out of desperation, to escape poverty or abuse. Should such migration be seen as voluntary or forced?

Persons affected by poverty, war or domestic abuse could all be defined as ‘vulnerable’. If they seek the help or services of another person in order to leave their home, is that other person then guilty of an ‘abuse of power’? Is it always morally wrong to help someone escape their fate? How can someone who wants to migrate, but is unable to do so because of tight migration controls, avoid taking illegal, expensive or dangerous routes across the world?

An impoverished family in the Third World may send their child to live with friends or relatives abroad in the belief that they will have a better life. Can those adults involved in arranging the movement of that child be defined as traffickers? ECPAT seems to think so. One of its consultation paper states: ‘In many instances family members or trusted elders may be involved in the trafficking chain and children are inextricably bound by familial obligation to what is happening to them.’ ECPAT proposes ‘a wider child protection strategy in source countries’ and the introduction of ‘multi-agency safeguarding teams’ in the UK and abroad (16).

ECPAT seems like a worthy, well-intentioned organisation, but its campaigns can have quite sinister effects. Here it is proposing the extension of UK border control powers in the name of rescuing foreigners from their own fates. It seems very tricky indeed to separate real cases of abuse and exploitation from legitimate motivations for sending children abroad. Where children do end up being abused or exploited, that should of course be clamped down on. But with many forms of legitimate movement being redefined as dangerous, risky, exploitative and abusive, anti-trafficking campaigns end up clamping down on migration itself.

The ECPAT and the Body Shop campaign effectively encourages us to view migrants with suspicion. It suggests that any migrant we come into contact with – whether we are buying something from them, thinking of employing them, or just engaging with them – might be a trafficked individual. It problematises British people’s everyday behaviour, too, depicting our socialising and work practices as potentially part and parcel of a new slave trade. Such a campaign can only ossify relations between British-born people and migrants in this country, so that we end up always asking: If I engage with this migrant, will I be the equivalent of a twenty-first century slave trader?

Instead of campaigning for more freedom and the right of people to move across borders as they see fit – which is the only sure way to combat those individuals and groups that do exploit aspirant migrants – this new campaign paints all migrants as potential victims and all native-born people as potential abusers.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor at spiked.

(1) See Fifth of Britons unknowingly aid child trafficking, according to survey, Guardian, 14 August 2009

(2) See Their Protection Is In Our Hands: The State of Global Child Trafficking for Sexual Purposes (PDF).

(3) UK ‘abandons trafficked children’, BBC News, 14 August 2009

(4) See the Human Trafficking FAQs on the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC) website.

(5) See the press release ECPAT UK joins forces with The Body Shop UK in a new campaign to stop trafficking of children on ECPAT UK’s website.

(6) Gangsters smuggle babies to sell to benefit fraudsters, Telegraph, 13 August 2009

(7) See the What We Do section of ECPAT UK’s website.

(8) See What is trafficking in people? on Anti-Slavery’s website.

(9) See the International Organization for Migration website.

(10) See What is the scale of human trafficking worldwide? on the Stop the Traffik website.

(11) See What is trafficking in people? on Anti-Slavery’s website.

(12) See the section on Goals on the UN.GIFT website.

(13) See the press release ILO experts to highlight critical aspects of human trafficking at Vienna Forum on the ILO website.

(14) See the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress And Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, Supplementing the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime (PDF).

(15) See the Human Trafficking FAQs on the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC) website.

(16) ECPAT UK’s submission to the Consultation on Proposals for a UK Trafficking Action Plan (PDF)

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