Travel agency: a critique of anti-trafficking campaigns.

Author:Sharma, Nandita
Position:Includes abstract in French


This paper offers a critical evaluation of anti-trafficking campaigns spearheaded by some in the feminist movement in an attempt to deal with the issues of unsafe migrations and labour exploitation. I discuss how calls to "end trafficking, especially in women and children" are influenced by--and go on to legitimate--governmental practices to criminalize the self-willed migration of people moving without official permission. I discuss how the ideological frame of anti-trafficking works to reinforce restrictive immigration practices, shore up a nationalized consciousness of space and home, and criminalize those rendered illegal within national territories. Anti-trafficking campaigns also fail to take into account migrants' limited agency in the migration process. I provide alternative routes to anti-trafficking campaigns by arguing for an analytical framework in which the related worldwide crises of displacement and migration are foregrounded. I argue that by centering the standpoint of undocumented migrants a more transformative politics emerges, one that demands that people be able to "stay" and to "move" in a self-determined manner.


Cet article propose une evaluation critique des campagnes contre la traite des femmes menees par certaines personnes appartenant au mouvement feministe, et cela dans une tentative pour resoudre les problemes de migrations dangereuses et d'exploitation des travailleurs. J'examine comment les appels pour > sont influences--et servent a legitimer--aux pratiques gouvernementales visant a criminaliser la migration volontaire des gens qui voyagent sans permission officielle. Je demontre comment le cadre ideologique anti-traite sert eventuellement a renforcer des pratiques plus restrictives en matiere d'immigration, a la nationalisation des notions d'espace et de domicile et a criminaliser ceux qui sont rendus clandestins a l'interieur des territoires nationaux. De plus, les campagnes contre la traite ne prennent pas en consideration le peu d'influence des migrants dans le mecanisme de la migration. Je propose des voies alternatives aux campagnes contre la traite, en demandant la raise sur pied d'un cadre analytique qui donnerait une place de premiere importance aux crises mondiales jumelees aux deplacements et a la migration. Je soutiens, qu'en ramenant le point de rue des migrants sans-papiers au centre de la discussion, on arrive a une politique qui acquiert un pouvoir de transformation et qui requiert que les gens aient le droit de > et de > a leur gre.


There is no doubt that the issues addressed by anti-trafficking campaigns are in urgent need of attention: unprecedented levels of migration, unsafe migration practices; the exploitation of migrants; and the growing use of migrants as unfree, indentured, or even enslaved labour. However, anti-trafficking campaigns are unable to remedy these concerns. This is in part because the framing of these grave problems as one of "trafficking" or criminal "smuggling" assumes that the affected migrants are moved against their will and that the "trafficker" is the main culprit in their exploitation. (1)

Such a flaming of the problem leaves many crucial questions unasked, questions such as: What are the conditions from which migrants are moving? How are most people able to migrate if not with the assistance of smuggling operations? What are the labour market options currently available for migrants, particularly undocumented ones? What are the factors that expose undocumented migrants to heightened vulnerability within nationalized labour markets? How are the (im)migration regimes of national states implicated in this?

I will try to show that far from helping migrants, especially women and children who are the main focus of many anti-trafficking efforts, anti-trafficking and/or anti-smuggling campaigns exacerbate the conditions that cause harm to migrants. They do so because one of the key underlying motives of these campaigns is to restrict the mobility of migrants, particularly undocumented movements of people. Indeed, deeply embedded within the anti-trafficking and anti-smuggling discourse and practice are anti-immigrant sentiments expressed best in the idea that migrants are almost (if not) always better off at "home." This is evident in both official and feminist definitions of trafficking.

Since feminist organizations are at the forefront worldwide in initiating and sustaining public campaigns against trafficking it is important to examine their assumptions. The most widely used definition of trafficking within such campaigns was jointly arrived at in 1999 by the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW), the Foundation Against Trafficking in Women, and the International Human Rights Law Group (IHRLG) based in the U.S. A significant aspect of it states that to be considered trafficked a person would have to be exploited, abused and deceived "... in a community other than the one in which such person lived at the time of the original deception, coercion or debt bondage." (2) There are two main problems with such a definition.

First, it makes the fact of migration the overriding concern and problem. Exploitation "away from home" is conceptualized as a separate problem from exploitative and/or untenable economic relations "at home." This structures knowledge of "home" in particular ways. Exploitation comes to be identified with people's movements abroad and loses its moorings from the organization and expansion of capitalist social relationships wherein people's labour is alienated. In the process "home" is left naturalized and therefore depoliticized as a site where harm is also done to persons. As a result, the fact that capital is accrued and accumulated through employers' appropriation of a portion of workers' labour power is concealed. Moreover, the fact that people often move because they have been dislocated from their homes is left unaddressed by the romanticization of being "at home."

By making migration the problem, it is assumed that migration is something that is inherently damaging. As Bob Sutcliffe has pointed out, "migration tends to be regarded as something which is both exceptional and undesirable" by both academic researchers and, I would add, by many migrant-rights activists. (3) By problematizing migration itself, we are led away from a discussion of the socially organized conditions of both people's displacement and subsequent migration and the structuring of a contemporary Global Apartheid through national (im)migration regimes. The problematization of the migration of undocumented people also fails to address why certain people's mobilities are celebrated (those of tourists, intellectuals and members of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), for example) while those of Others is seen as detrimental.

Secondly, this influential definition of what constitutes trafficking fails to account for the reality of the current worldwide crisis of displacement, the proliferation of ever-increasing restrictive immigration policies that prevent the majority of migrants from ever realizing full status in the countries and labour markets they migrate to, and the intensified expansion of global capitalist markets over the last quarter-century.

To address these important issues, I argue that we need to jettison the anti-trafficking and the anti-smuggling discourse and the national and international governmental practices that such discourses organize. Anti-trafficking campaigns need to be replaced with a political practice that actually listens to and privileges the standpoint of undocumented migrants. Undocumented migrants the world over have some fairly uniform and well-articulated demands: an end to practices of displacement, the opening of national border regimes and the labour markets organized through them, and an end to discrimination based on one's nationality. These are precisely the politics that have been taken up by the growing group of No Borders activists in the Global North and South.

An approach that is grounded in the material lived realities of migrants makes for a far more transformative practice, I believe, than an emphasis on the abusive practices within criminalized networks of smuggling in persons. Rather than calling for an end to trafficking or smuggling, taking the standpoint of migrants compels us to deal with the reality that such illicit movements are the only ones available to the majority of the world's displaced people.

As a preliminary attempt to begin our discussion of clandestine movements of people from the standpoint of migrants rendered "illegal," this paper is grounded in the accounts of women who arrived on four separate boats from China and landed on the west coast of Canada in the summer of 1999. All 599 migrants on these boats arrived without legal documentation and with the assistance of smugglers whom they pre-paid and/or became indebted to for their journeys. Officials of the Canadian state captured all 599 migrants. All those arriving on the last three boats, including children, were automatically detained in Canadian jails, some for well over a year.

I worked with some of these women migrants in my capacity as a member of a feminist organization committed to advocating for them. (4) I was able to speak to a number of these women through the aid of a Mandarin feminist interpreter who worked closely with those women from the first boat who were living outside of jails in the Vancouver, BC, area as well as those detained at the Burnaby Correctional Centre for Women. By drawing on their accounts of migration, the Canadian "justice" and immigration systems, and their thoughts on various strategies used by feminists to help them, I critically assess the conceptualization of trafficking in the fields of both governmental and feminist discourses. This, it is hoped, reveals some of the processes that make these women amongst the most vulnerable of...

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