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Another film on human trafficking

14 October, 2007

After the recent success of The Jammed, an independent Australian feature, a new Hollywood film on human trafficking, Trade, is being released worldwide. The production, endorsed by Amnesty International and UNESCO, highlights two trends: the engagement of Hollywood filmmakers in publicizing causes championed by international NGOs (Blood Diamonds is a case in point) and, specifically, the broad appeal of the fight against “trafficking” that reaches from the Christian right to the feminist left.

The problem is that the global anti-trafficking movement, by conflating different forms of irregular migration into a single category that seems unquestionably evil (since it involves illegal profiteering, exploitation, rape and death) makes all of them seem suspect and plays into the hands of governments wishing to eliminate it at all costs. By recasting a diverse array of people — ranging from girls and boys kidnapped and held against their will to economic migrants as well as refugees willingly entering a transaction with migration brokers — as a homogeneous mass of victims of an “evil trade,” it ironically helps to justify their repression and such brutal measures as indefinite detention, denial of due process, or outright deportation to third countries.

Not only Western governments but also states like Thailand and China borrow the rhetoric of “human trafficking” to justify the forced repatriation of Hmongs (to Laos) and North Koreans, despite claims by the former to fleeing from oppression. (The latter have no chance to claim anything, but it is believed that they are punished after being returned to North Korea.)

The trafficking discourse portrays illegal migration as a highly organized “evil trade” (Tony Blair) firmly controlled by transnational crime syndicates. But my own research among illegal Chinese migrants in Europe (Transnational Chinese, Stanford University Press, 2004) shows that most of them rely on an informal and loose network of migration brokers, some of whom perform legal services (such as applying for a passport or visa) and others illegal ones (such as smuggling a person across a border or falsifying a passport). The process is more like the airline industry, with many contractors and subcontractors, than like a mafia plot. As Sverre Molland shows in his research on Lao prostitutes in Thailand, the assumptions of the trafficking model do not work here either: recruitment back in the villages is most often done by friends of the new recruits; the girls are rarely forced or sequestered, and most know they type of work they are going to perform.

I do not doubt that there are workers, among them Chinese in Europe and Lao women in Thailand, who are genuine victims of violence, deception, and false imprisonment. Indeed, a number of such cases have been documented in England alone. But most of those Chinese I spoke to who had been mistreated see it as cases of bad luck with unscrupulous service providers. Scotland Yard officers in charge of London’s Chinatown I spoke to described people smuggling as “disorganised crime”, and the most-cited expert on the issue, Ko-lin Chin, has conceded that, against his earlier position, the involvement of organised crime in illegal Chinese migration cannot be documented.

The fundamental problem with the proposition that all illegal migration is produced by this invisible global criminal network is that, like the story about global networks of terrors, is — as Sverre remarked — unfalsifiable: if individuals deny the involvement of such a network, that only appears to confirm their cunning to those who believe in the conspiracy. Ironically, people are much less likely to challenge “experts” on the subjects of terror and crime than on the subjects of science or the environment (where specialist knowledge is in fact much less accessible to the layman), because they accept that the source of the information must be kept secret. This is particularly so today, when governments can justifies sweeping policies by referring to security needs. Yet it often turns out that such “insider” information is based on unsubstantiated media reports. Once in the early 2000s, a visiting Scotland Yard official informed his audience of Hungarian police officers that there were 40 thousand illegal Chinese migrants in Hungary, waiting to go on to the West. This caused great consternation. Later it turned out that the figure had come from a 1994 article by an American author who had quoted a 1993 Hungarian media report, which had in turn cited … me. Except what I said referred to legal migrants and to 1991!

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Geoffrey M permalink
    15 October, 2007 7:56 pm

    On the topic of movie representations helpless East Asian women being trafficked into a brothel, a new movie ‘The Shanghai Hotel’ is being released in the US soon.


    Seems this might be part of the recent wave of ‘help the third world’ that is in vogue.

  2. 18 October, 2007 9:49 am

    All excellent points, Third Tone Devil. Yet I just ran across this article ( about two Filipina women who claim they were sent to Saudi Arabia to work as chambermaids in a hotel and were repeatedly raped by some prince (there are by some counts upwards of 10,000 princes in the Saudi Royal family). The article headline is “2 women recount ordeal as sex slaves in Saudi Arabia” and their cause is apparently being take up by the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW) Asia-Pacific. I suspect that there are certain countries — in the Arabian Gulf states, and particularly Saudi Arabia — where this clear-cut type of human trafficking is more likely to happen than in others (like Europe), because there is so little protection for non-citizens and especially vis-a-vis powerful members of the royal family.

  3. 18 October, 2007 11:53 am

    Oh, I am sure there is plenty of clear-cut trafficking cases in Europe too. But in this particular case, if the women went to Saudi Arabia and were then raped, why does this count as trafficking? It seems to me as precisely the kind of conflation that my esteemed colleague Third Tone Devil was talking about. There have been several such high-profile rape cases before (including, remember, the maid who was sentenced to death for killing the employer who raped her), but what’s interesting is that they are now being taken up as part of the anti-trafficking cause, which previously they hadn’t been.

  4. Sverre Molland permalink
    18 October, 2007 3:43 pm

    First of all, regarding the claim about my research in Laos and Thailand (“recruitment back in the villages is most often done by friends of the new recruits; the girls are rarely forced or sequestered, and most know they type of work they are going to perform.”) – I am not sure if that encapsulates the issue. Yes, often women enter prostitution for all sorts of circumstantial reasons, and often women who already work in the sex industry introduce and recruit acquaintances and friends (although this is not to say that sometimes other people are involved). This is commented upon in academic literature in the Mekong region. However, what I found in my research is that from time to time current sex workers act as “traffickers’ (ie. Apply deception to recruit acquaintances/friends for a commission). Hence, in these cases the “trafficker” embodies what she is deceiving her friend into. And sometimes, the pattern is repeated where a woman (or girl) who has been deceived into the sex industry ends up doing the very same to a friend or acquaintance in her home community later on. In other words, the victim and perpetrator are subject to the same form of exploitation and can even be the same person. It is excruciatingly difficult to project legal definitions of trafficking onto such cases, and this becomes all very interesting when you have the presence of trafficking projects that attempts to reconcile all this through their programming.

    In regards to the issue of organized crime and the fact that this theme is now taken up in various movies, there is no doubt governments (but also others) play around with these concepts for a range of purposes (fighting trafficking can make increased border control appear righteous, and repatriating illegal migrants under the label of “trafficked victims” almost sound heart-warming). But there is quite a bit more to it, particularly why the film industry is getting involved. And here I will add to the list, “Lilja 4 ever” (from 2002), a Swedish film about a young girl from the former Soviet-Union who ends up in forced prostitution in Sweden (A positive review in the Guardian can be found here), and from Laos (where I am more familiar with the issue of “trafficking”) UNICEF supported a trafficking movie which was launched last year. And, in Australia, SBS is currently broadcasting a crime-series on the same topic, called “Russian Dolls”.

    Worldwide, both migration and commercial sex takes an immense number of forms, and it is of course possible to come across a range of different life experiences and in this sense, I guess, many people can claim to speak of “true” trafficking stories. Now, when it comes to assess the scale of the problem, as well as whether it is primarily the misdeeds of organized crime groups, such claims are far more problematic. Depending on what report you read from the US government (to give an example) the number of trafficked victims vary from 800,000 to 4 million globally, and depending on what organization you ask in Australia, the numbers range from 10 to more than a thousand. Again, amongst people who work with trafficking projects in Laos numbers and “guestimates” could range from a few hundred to more than 100,000 per year. Besides methodological challenges, undoubtedly another reason for the big variety of numbers has to do with the simple fact that “agency” can be understood in a range of different ways. A lot of people who work to combat trafficking are fully aware of the shaky foundation of these statistics, yet it keeps being quoted and used in policy planning. Although trafficking might be an issue worthwhile combating, few are in a good position to substantiate empirically either the scale or nature of the problem.

    I think part of the reason why there is all this imagery of “organized crime “has a lot to do with the simple fact that it is easier to imagine alleged horrific crimes when there is a sharp disjuncture between victim and perpetrator. Organised crime is in this sense “good to think with” as it is easier to imagine no social relationship – except for one of exploitation – between the victim and perpetrator. Simultaneously, the assumed clandestine and the de-territorial nature of trafficking and organized crime both accounts for its existence and why it does not require data to account for its existence (“The reason we don’t see any trafficking in this village might be that the traffickers have relocated!” etc). As trafficking can potentially be nowhere and everywhere, anything goes.

    The apparent tendency of the movie industry (ranging from Laos, Sweden, Australia, US – I am sure there are many others) also raises the question of who needs whom? Undoubtedly many women (as well as girls, boys and men) do need support from trafficking projects around the world (though I have my doubts about the impact of many of them after a few years working with the UN on this issue in Laos), but I am also wondering if it is also in part the reverse. Although I understand many of these films allegedly are “based on facts”, I do think the reason why these movies (as well as how the issue is talked about in the media more generally) take on a particular formulaic character has more to do with what makes a good and thrilling narrative. Trafficking (particularly if it is into the sex industry) is indeed a good story and, trafficked victims become an icon which symbolises a range of anxieties in today’s world (powerlessness, violence, hell etc). And, as trafficking is de-territorial, it allows us to relate to it in an intimate way. In contrast to starving children in Africa, which is far away in our imaginations, a trafficked victim can be imagined to be in our own backyard (well perhaps not our backyard, but in the city we live etc). It is therefore no surprise that the Australian movie “the Jammed” (discussed in a previous post) has this element in its story line, where an ordinary woman (subtext: “it could be you!”), through a set of coincidences, ends up helping trafficked victims escape an illegal brothel.

    What is truly remarkable is how many different groups, organizations and individuals are drawn to this issue. It is not only about government using it for anti-immigration purposes. Both organizations and Governments who seek to legalise labour migration also talk about “trafficking. Likewise with prostitution: both lobbyists who want to criminalize and legalise prostitution “fight” trafficking.

  5. 9 February, 2008 11:53 am

    Young Belarusian native, Dzmitry Vasilyeu, is working on a movie called “Dimanasus Prophecy,” about the horror of human trafficking of women in Eastern Europe. The movie’s also a love story between a young Belarusian guy and an American woman, who unwittingly get sucked into the mafia run world of human sex slavery. Vasilyeu says that his story has a surprising happy ending, that will challenge us to rethink our commonly held definition of love. He also has a blog at

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