The Victim, the Villain and the Rescuer: the trafficking of women and contemporary abolition.

Author:Faulkner, Elizabeth A.
Position:Gender and Development


Currently, the world is witnessing extraordinary movements of people, legally and illegally across national and international borders (Kapur, 2012: 25). The international legal/criminal justice framework is mirrored by the regional, sub-regional and national initiatives, law and policies adopted that demonstrate increasing concerns about unregulated migration and profitable underground criminal activities. Additionally, the current refugee crisis in Europe, coupled with fears around trafficking, sexual slavery, extremism and national security have encouraged the proliferation of laws regulating cross-border movements. The expansive legal architecture implemented to prevent illegal and irregular migration has simply created diminished opportunities for legal authorised migration, subsequently prompting the expansion and diversification of markets of clandestine services (Alpes, 2011; Kempadoo et al, 2012; O'Connell Davidson, 2015). This in turn has led to increased focus upon migration, with the overwhelming emphasis placed upon human trafficking or the 'modern slave trade'. The subsequent development of anti-trafficking laws and initiatives globally is illustrative of how migration is continually framed as trafficking, the rhetoric of which has come to dominate contemporary discussions about migration. Equating the migration or movement of all women as human trafficking echoes the fears of the early twentieth century that led to the creation of the international instruments known as the White Slavery Conventions. (1) One thing that remains a constant and has done since the creation of the 'white sexual slavery' instruments in the early Twentieth Century is that the story of human trafficking invariably involves the same actors; the victim, the villain and the rescuer. This paper will critique each of these actors and their construction within the international legal framework of anti-trafficking; highlighting how the discourse has dominated contemporary debates on migration to the detriment of women.

The story of human trafficking invariably involves the same actors; the victim, the villain and the rescuer. However, what is frequently excluded is the influence that this construction has upon female migration and how the perception that women are only capable of falling under the classification of victim is detrimental to women globally. Women migrate for a variety of reasons and whether that migration is legal or illegal they have both the capacity and right to make decisions about their own lives. This paper addresses the influence of the abolitionist movement upon modern-day responses to female migration and to consider if the movement further drives the gender inequalities that plague the migration framework.

After a discussion of the contemporary abolitionist movement, the paper critiques the framing of human trafficking as the 'modern slave trade' and briefly chart the historical origin of human trafficking within international legal frameworks. The paper will then examine the key actors in the dominant narrative of human trafficking, as identified in this paper as the victim, the villain and the rescuer. Applying a gender perspective to the construct of the three key actors is important as it highlights how the narrative disproportionality disadvantages women. Furthermore, this paper suggests that the dominant narrative is problematic because it reduces and obfuscates the reasons why women migrate, only allowing for them to fall into the category of a victim. The international legal framework has chosen to focus upon the rescue of women and children and capture and prosecution of criminal gangs. Finally, the paper proposes that empirically grounded research into why women migrate is needed to challenge the dominance of the rescue narrative and to serve as the foundations to develop strategies to help women access their rights to migrate.

The contemporary abolitionist movement

The first point to address here is what is meant by the contemporary abolitionist movement? The concept of the 'contemporary abolitionist movement' (hereafter, the abolitionist movement) is relatively easy to both identify and define. Due to its remarkably broad appeal to humanitarian feeling, the movement brings together anti-trafficking and anti-slavery initiatives to produce a powerful narrative that seeks to eradicate contemporary slavery (O'Connell Davidson, 2015: 1). The terms trafficking and slavery are frequently used interchangeably, whether to increase the appeal of contemporary efforts to eradicate the practices or due to confusion over the legal classifications of both. The inevitable consequence of the use of a term that is as morally and politically loaded as the 'modern day slave trade' both promotes and invokes strong emotive responses, within a variety of arenas (Howard, 2016). The powerful appeal of the language of modern slavery frequently relies upon the exploitation of the legacy of slavery inadvertently adopting Kipling's 'White Man's Burden' of a civilising mission (Faulkner, 2017a). The continued confusion and subsequent conflation of the terms trafficking, migration, smuggling and prostitution is particularly detrimental to women, who within these frameworks can only ever be identified as victims (O'Connell Davidson, 2016; Kempadoo et al, 2012; Lee, 2007; Obokata, 2005).

The commitment to the political agendas of criminalisation and punishment by the abolitionist movement serves to compliment other state and international efforts to regulate and control the cross-border flows of people. This is clearly demonstrated through the expansive legal architecture that has been adopted at international, regional and national levels to police borders. As alluded to earlier, the world is currently experiencing unprecedented levels of migration and is struggling both to conceptualise, manage and effectively respond (OECD, 2015). Within the context of human trafficking, these concerns have resulted in the Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2012 by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC, 2012). The report specifically focused upon the flows of trafficking across international borders. This focus is important as it highlights a need to identify the weak spots of international borders and more importantly where the 'evil criminals' are most likely to be caught and punished accordingly. This agenda has been driven by states heightened concerns about illegal migration across borders.

To prevent trafficking there has been a conscious move by states to stop those classified as vulnerable from migrating, serving to dissuade women and girls from moving to protect them from harm (Kapur, 2012: 30). The paternalistic nature of the international community to protect women and girls falls in line (to a certain extent) with the rhetoric of the 'white man's burden' and the need for a heroic rescuer. The UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially women and children (hereafter the Trafficking Protocol) which was adopted as a Protocol to the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime 2000 is the flagship instrument of anti-trafficking. The Trafficking Protocol explicitly identifies women and children, enshrining the perception of vulnerability and need for protection. Leaders of the movement advocate that the solution to contemporary slavery is tighter border controls and intensive policing, which would allow 'slaves' to be identified and rescued, forcing the evil 'slavers' out of business (Bales, 1999).

The justifications for restrictive immigration policies and criminalisation of irregular migration are to be found in claims regarding national security, supporting war and peacetime efforts to eradicate 'terrorism' and inspire Western humanitarian values and discourses of democracy globally (Kempadoo et al, 2012: xvi). Human mobility is perceived as a threat to state sovereignty (O'Connell Davidson, 2015, 113). Arguably, the rhetoric of anti-trafficking is primarily about state control over national borders rather than the exploitation of people. A prime example of which can be demonstrated through the advocacy of the idea of 'taking back control of our borders' within the United Kingdom (See Paterson, 2017; UKIP News, 2017). The effect of this perceived threat to state sovereignty is demonstrated through the construction of the international legal and policy responses to human trafficking, a framework that has shaped the legal understanding of migration in specific ways, serving specific interests. This raises the question of how the international contemporary responses to human trafficking have influenced our understanding of the migration of women. A key contention of this article is that the perceptions of migration and the actors involved have been adopted and nurtured to serve the interests of states in protecting national borders and state sovereignty.

Human Trafficking--The 'Modern Slave Trade'

Human trafficking is presented as a dynamic, multifaceted practice, continuously assuming new forms and dimensions (Gallagher, 2010). Trafficking has frequently been presented as an ever-growing phenomenon fuelled by the greed of 'evil human traffickers' exploiting the most vulnerable (Bales, 2007). Human trafficking and modern slavery are terms that are used indiscriminately with the United Nations (UN), frequently leading the way with the use of the terms as interchangeable. (2) The term human trafficking is not new to the international legal framework, it was first defined under international law through the Trafficking Protocol in 2000.

The UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially women and children

The Protocol enshrines the key three actors of human trafficking: the victim, the villain, and the rescuer. Subsequently the Protocol adopts the position of the new abolitionist movement and specifically...

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