Another film on human trafficking
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!