A Brief History of Anti-trafficking

With the explosion of media coverage, awareness raising campaigns, movies and documentaries over the last 15 years or so, you could be forgiven for thinking the idea of “trafficking” in persons was a relatively modern concept.

In fact, it’s history goes back over 100 years and has it’s origins in a particular period towards the end of the Victorian era when the British Empire was at it’s peak. Travel between Europe and North America had become faster and cheaper than ever before due to the evolution in design of steamships, and this also opened up new travel opportunities, for working class people as well as the wealthy.

We do not know exactly how many women traveled to America on steamships, nor what proportion  were of independent means, or who chose to engage in available work. What is much more clear is that late nineteenth century European and American middle class perceptions of the role of women in society mostly involved staying at home. Women of “good reputation” would certainly not cross the Atlantic without a husband, parent, guardian or chaperone.

Some migrants taking advantage of new transatlantic opportunities certainly included European women who sold sex. And the perceived increase in these numbers in America – in “ice cream parlors” and “fruit stores” amongst other places – fueled social activism described by some modern historians as a moral panic. Books and pamphlets were written, speaking tours arranged, and all the governments of Europe were lobbied.

This culminated in the first ever international agreement to refer specifically to trafficking:

Parties to this agreement committed amongst other things to:  “have a watch kept, especially in railway stations, ports of embarkation, and en route, for persons in charge of women and girls destined for an immoral life.”

Ostensibly the “War on the White Slave Trade” was about women and girls forced into prostitution against their will: ‘snatched‘, ‘lured‘ and ‘enticed‘, often by ‘foreigners’. The phenomenon is widely agreed to have existed more in the public perception than in reality, and few cases were ever documented. In practice, of course, these efforts – including early examples of religious groups organising raids on brothels in partnership with local police – blurred the lines between those forced into prostitution and those who made their own decisions to enter.

Various amendments were made to the 1904 agreement over the years: the inclusion of trafficking within national borders in 1910; replacing the language of “white slave traffic” with the less racist, but equally gender-biased, phrasing of “traffic in women and children” in 192; and the 1933 version spoke of “traffic in women of the full age”, and outlawed movement of women across state borders for “immoral purposes” regardless of their consent.

The extent to which these agreements reflected the prevailing abolitionist agenda in relation to the buying and selling of sex is illustrated in the next major revision of these laws in the:

This convention dropped the ‘women and children’ language but maintained the focus on prostitution. It committed states who signed up to: “punish any person who … procures, entices or leads away, for purposes of prostitution, another person, even with the consent of that person; exploits the prostitution of that person; … keeps or manages … a brothel … building or other place … for the prostitution of others.

The 1950 Convention was never widely adopted, and trafficking as in issue largely disappeared from public discussion until later in the 20th Century. From the 1980s onwards, however, the phrase “trafficking in women” began being used by some women’s rights groups to describe abuses in the migration experiences of women; especially those of women traveling from poorer countries to richer ones, and especially in relation to the sex sector.

This reappearance of Victorian-era language with its moral binary options of “victim” or “criminal”,  its racist and nationalist roots, and its criminalisation and abolitionist approach to the sex sector, was of considerable concern to a range of other women’s rights groups. This second group included those who favoured human rights approaches to migration, labour and the sex sector; and for whom it was coercion, abuse and exploitation in the sex that was the problem, not a woman’s decision to travel or work. Furthermore, they argued, exploitation through force or fraud was an issue in a range of migrant employment sectors, including domestic work, and was also of significance to men who migrated and were exploited.

Other important developments around the final decades of the 20th century included the increasing spread of globalisation, and the end the “Cold War”. Both of these had led to new patterns of migration and new opportunities for organised crime groups. These latter two issues where what prompted UN members states to address trafficking in persons, smuggling of migrants, and trafficking of firearms under the Convention on Transnational Organised Crime, leading to the drafting of the:

A range of international legal perspectives went into the drafting of this protocol: the histories of slavery, forced labour, prostitution, and human rights including the rights of the child. There was much debate during the drafting of the text, and the end result continues to be argued over in terms of: the return of gender-biased language (‘women-and-children’); misinterpretation of references to prostitution and sexual exploitation; priority given to border security (an issue exacerbated in the post 2001 ‘war on terrorism’ era); and the use of a criminal justice rather than a human rights framework in the first place.

Ultimately, these issues are themselves human rights issues. Freedom of movement, the right to work, the right to live free from violence and more are all inalienable rights. The should not be infringed by patriarchy, nor should they be infringed by anti-trafficking policies.

Further (strongly recommended) reading:

Loose women or lost women” (html) – Jo Doezema, Institute of Development Studies University of Sussex, Brighton, UK. International Studies Convention Washington, DC, February 16 – 20, 1999
Gender Issues, Vol. 18, no. 1, Winter 2000, pp. 23-50.

*** “Sex at the Margins – Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry”  – Laura Agustín, Zed Books (2007), ISBN: 9781842778593   (Link to a book – available from libraries/bookshops, or purchase online. This book is essential reading for anyone interested in anti-trafficking!)

M Wijers, ‘Purity, Victimhood and Agency: Fifteen years of the UN Trafficking Protocol’, Anti-Trafficking Review, issue 4, 2015, pp. 56—79, www.antitraffickingreview.org

All About Sex?! The Evolution of International Law Relating to Trafficking in Persons.” Corin Morcom & Andreas Schloenhardt, University of New South Wales, Research Paper, 2011.

Globalisation and Its Discontents, Joseph Stiglitz, Penguin, 2003

From Trafficking to Terror – Constructing a Global Social Problem, Pardis Mahdavi,
Routledge, 2014, Series: Framing 21st Century Social Issues. (Link to book – available from libraries/booksellers. Here is a review.)

Fighting the Traffic in Young Girls –or– War on the White Slave Trade“, Ernest A. Bell, Secretary of the Illinois Vigilance Association, Superintendent of Midnight Missions etc.,1910. (No publisher listed, presumed out of copyright, and available in full at the internet archive.)