Who’s who in anti-trafficking?

There are three main groups of people active in anti-trafficking efforts, with considerably different approaches. Sometimes they overlap, but often they pull in opposite directions. They can be summarised as follows:

  1. Moralist, “Abolitionist” and Prohibitionist groups (both state and non-state actors)
  2. States and Governments (including law enforcement)
  3. Human Rights groups (including labour rights, migrant rights, sex worker rights and more)

Many moralist, “abolitionist” and prohibitionist groups have their origins in the days before the Palermo Protocol was agreed. Accordingly, their perceptions of trafficking are largely influenced by the earlier treaties which framed trafficking exclusively within the sex sector and focused on women and children.

For these groups, “prostitution” is itself the problem: either a vice to be controlled in the name of public morals, or a ‘vector of disease’ to be controlled for public health, or a fundamental, intrinsic form of violence against women that must be abolished. (The appropriateness or otherwise of using the term “Abolitionist” will be examined in a later post.) Strategies advocated to achieve these goals tend to focus on full or partial criminalisation of buying/selling sexual services*. Some groups who have emerged since 2000 also adopt this framing of the issue, talking primarily of “sex trafficking”, even if “and labour trafficking” is added on the end of their agenda.

Both conservative religious groups and certain feminist groups exist in this area. Given how differently these two groups see other issues – particularly abortion and same sex sexual acts – it is unusual to see them aligned or working together on trafficking. It is not without precedent, however, as similar alliances were formed during the ‘pornography’ debates of the 1970s and 80s. Between them these groups possess significant funding, lobbying capacity and public-mobilising methods developed over years of experience in campaigning.

Making a consenting adult choice to voluntarily sell sexual services is not an option under this system; it simply has no place in the framework. The language used by these groups not only refer to “prostitutes” (considered a derogatory term by many who call themselves sex workers) but also to “prostituted women” implying an entirely passive person to whom things happen, not exercising any agency. Accordingly, some who advocate for the human rights of sex workers (see the third category, below) have termed these groups ‘prohibitionists‘: people who seek to impose their own views on wider society and prohibit other people’s choices to engage in consenting adult sex in exchange for benefit.

States, Governments and Law Enforcement

While some states have been (and still are) influenced by the historical treaties as above, two newer perceptions of what trafficking is from the perspective of States and Governments are reflected in the text of the UN Trafficking Protocol, 2000. These are trafficking as an issue of immigration, and trafficking as an issue of organised crime.  It was these two perceptions that led to UN member states drafting the UN Trafficking Protocol in the context of a treaty on organised crime (UNTOC). (See posts: What is Trafficking in Persons? and A Brief History of Anti-trafficking.)

A major criticism of this approach, and of the UN Trafficking Protocol itself, is the extent to which it neatly and conveniently aligns with the anti-immigration policies of many states. Where stricter border controls to prevent migrants entering a country may face opposition from civil liberties groups and the wider electorate, increasing border security to “fight trafficking” is much more acceptable and popular.

A less talked about aspect of governments in relation to trafficking is the adoption of neo-liberal idealogy in terms of managing a state’s economy. The second ‘pillar’ of neo-liberalism is deregulation of the labour market.** This makes it easier to hire and fire employees, and discourages regulation or inspection schemes that might identify employers taking advantage of their workers. Naturally, this runs counter to efforts to identify labour exploitation and thus potentially trafficked people.

An even less discussed topic is the role of police in enforcing anti-trafficking laws. Due to the locations of trafficking exploitation being private (domestic work), discreet (sex sector), or remote  (agriculture, fisheries), trafficking is what law enforcement calls a surveillance crime. In other words, if you don’t go looking for it, you do not find it. And, correspondingly, the amount that you find may relate as much to the amount of money and human resources spent looking for it, than the extent of the crime itself. The political ramifications of this, especially through media coverage, have been documented for some time.***

Human Rights Organisations

This is also a wide group of civil society organisations active in anti-trafficking policy and frontline response who use the international human rights framework as the basis of their approach. These include groups working on women’s rights, labour rights, migrant rights, sex worker rights, and the right to health.

While there is great diversity among these groups, a number of common themes are evident, including:

  • recognising that all labour exploitation is an infringement of people’s rights and should be addressed irrespective of whether it meets the definition of trafficking or not (though in doing so it will also help address trafficking)
  • recognising that rights to “safe” migration will reduce risks of trafficking and that restrictive immigration policies contribute to enabling conditions for trafficking
  • acknowledging that it is coercion, abuse, deceit and violence within the sex sector that violates people’s rights, not sex work itself;
  • recognising the agency and voice of those who migrate to sell sex, and applying a human rights framework from the sex worker’s perspective, including calls for the decriminalisation of sex work
  • recognising the multiple gender dimensions of trafficking, including that many men are also affected by trafficking
  • recognising the intersections between trafficking and migrant rights, labour rights, gender (in)equality, borders and security,
  • calling for a human rights based approach not just to those who are trafficked, but also to those who are not trafficked: anti-trafficking efforts should themselves do no harm.

In conclusion

These are broad categories and there can be overlap between the three groups. For example, some moralist/prohibitionist groups also use the language of human rights (some with integrity, others simply in an effort to make their conservative views sound more modern and palatable). Some trade unions make strong arguments in the third category, while also promoting ideas from the first. Other analysts describe six categories rather than three (see references below). As a general overview, however, these three are a useful shorthand guide to understanding where people are coming from when they speak.

Lastly, it should come as no surprise that this blog blogs firmly from the human rights perspective. We argue that “All of Us First” includes sex workers (female, male and transgender); includes migrant workers (whether documented or undocumented); it includes those within our borders who are fleeing political persecution (refugees and asylum seekers), and those who simply see no viable life back home (‘economic migrants’).

Nobody is illegal.

Nobody’s human rights are dispensable.

And anti-trafficking efforts should help, or at least do no harm.

Christian Engagement in US Anti-trafficking Activism: Precedents and Contexts (Part 1, and Part 2). Letitia M. Campbell and Yvonne C. Zimmerman, Adapted from “Christian Ethics and Human Trafficking Activism: Progressive Christianity and Social Critique,” Journal of the Society for Christian Ethics 34:1 (2014).

But What about Trafficking?“, Megan Rivers-Moore, Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies, Carleton University, Canada. (From the Border Criminologies website of the Centre for Criminology at the University of Oxford.)

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

* “An Easy Guide to Sex Work Law Reform: The difference between criminalisation, decriminalisation, legalisation and regulation of sex work“, Briefing Paper presented to Parliamentary Monitoring Group, by SWEAT South Africa, 2012.

** Globalisation and Its Discontents, Joseph Stiglitz, Penguin, 2003

*** “Policing the Crisis – Mugging, the State and Law and Order“, Stuart Hall et al, 1978. (Original text is academic and technical – but there are many more readable summaries and reviews on the web, such as this one.)