The myth of trafficking

Most migrant women, including those in the sex industry, have made a clear decision, says a new stud

It is always refreshing to read a book that turns an issue on its head. Laura María Agustín's trenchant and controversial critique of the anti-trafficking crusade goes a step further: it lays out the matter - in this case, "human trafficking" - on the operating table, dissects it, unravels its innards, and shows the reader, in gory, sometimes eye-watering detail, why everything we think about it is Wrong with a capital W. It's a jarring read; I imagine that those who make a living from campaigning against the scourge of human trafficking will throw it violently across the room, if not into an incinerator. Yet it may also be one of the most important books on migration published in recent years.

Most of us recognise the ideological under pinnings of old-style baiting of migrants. When newspaper hacks or populist politicians talk about evil Johnny Foreigners coming here and stealing our jobs or eating our swans, it does not take much effort to sniff out their xenophobic leanings. Agustín's contention is that the new "discourse" on migrants (in which many of them, especially the women and children, are seen as "victims of trafficking" in need of rescue) is also built on ideological foundations. Like its demented cousin - tabloid hysteria about foreign scroungers - the trafficking scare is based on a deeply patronising view of migrants, rather than any hard statistical evidence that human trafficking is rife.

Agustín begins by challenging the idea that there is a "new slave trade" in which hundreds of thousands of women and children are sold like chattels across borders. The US state department claims that between 600,000 and 800,000 people are trafficked for forced labour or sex worldwide every year; Unicef says a million children and young people are trafficked each year. Upmarket newspapers - which have embraced the seemingly PC "trafficking discourse" with the same fervour as the tabloid newspapers screech about fence-leaping job-stealers from Sangatte - tell us that "thousands" of women and children have been trafficked into Britain and "traded for tawdry sex", and that some of them (the African ones) "live under fear of voodoo".

Agustín says the numbers are "mostly fantasies". She does not doubt that there are instances of forced migration, or that, in a world where freedom of movement is restricted by stiff laws and stringent border controls, many aspiring migrants have little choice but to seek assistance from dodgy middlemen. Yet, having researched trafficking and sex workers' experiences for the past five years, both academically and through fieldwork in Latin America and Asia, she concludes that the figures are based on "sweeping generalisations" and frequently on "wild speculation". "Most of the writing and activism [on trafficking] does not seem to be based on empirical research, even when produced by academics," she notes. Many of the authors rely on "media reports" and "statistics published with little explanation of methodology or clarity about definitions".

Agustín points out that some anti-trafficking activists depend on numbers produced by the CIA (not normally considered a reliable or neutral font of information when it comes to inter national issues), even though the CIA refuses to "divulge its research methods". The reason why the "new slavery" statistics are so high is, in part, that the category of trafficking is promiscuously defined, sometimes disingenuously so. Some researchers automatically label migrant women who work as prostitutes "trafficked persons", basing their rationale on the notion that no woman could seriously want to work in the sex industry. The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women argues that "all children and the majority of women in the sex trade" should be considered "victims of trafficking". As Agustín says, such an approach "infantilises" migrant women, "eliminating any notion that women who sell sex can consent". Ironically, it objectifies them, treating them as unthinking things that are moved around the world against their will.

The reality is very different, the author says. Most migrant women, including those who end up in the sex industry, have made a clear decision to leave home and take their chances overseas. They are not "passive victims" who must be "saved" by anti-trafficking campaigners and returned to their country of origin. Rather, frequently, they are headstrong and ambitious women who migrate in order to escape "small-town prejudices, dead-end jobs, dangerous streets and suffocating families". Shocking as it might seem to the feminist social workers, caring police people and campaigning journalists who make up what Agustín refers to as the "rescue industry", she has discovered that some poor migrant women "like the idea of being found beautiful or exotic abroad, exciting desire in others". I told you it was controversial.

One of Agustín's chief concerns is that the anti-trafficking crusade is restricting international freedom of movement. What presents itself as a campaign to protect migrants from harm is actually making their efforts to flee home, to find work, to make the most of their lives in often difficult and unforgiving circumstances, that much harder. She writes about the "rescue raids" carried out by police and non-governmental organisations, in which even women who vociferously deny having been trafficked may be arrested, imprisoned in detention centres and sent back home - for the benefit of their own mental stability, of course. It used to be called repatriation; now, dolled up in therapeutic lingo, it is called "rescue".

For all its poisonous prejudices, the old racist view of migrants as portents of crime and social instability at least treated them as autonomous, sentient, albeit "morally depraved", adults. By contrast, as the author illustrates, the anti-trafficking lobby robs migrants of agency and their individual differences, and views them as a helpless, swaying mass of thousands who must be saved by the more savvy and intelligent women of the west and by western authorities.

Agustín reserves her most cutting comments for the flourishing "rescue industry", arguing convincingly that it is driven by a colonial-style, maternalistic attitude to foreign women. In its world, "victims become passive receptacles and mute sufferers who must be saved, and helpers become saviours - a colonialist operation". Bitingly, she compares today's anti-trafficking feminists with the "bourgeois women" of the 19th century who considered it a moral virtue to save poor prostitutes, who were "mistaken, misled, deviant". Like them, anti-trafficking crusaders see women as weak, easily victimised, and in need of guidance from a caring chaperone.

In truth, poor women - and men and children - migrate for many different reasons and have many different experiences, some good, some bad, some tragic. Such migrants are wise and wily, says Agustín; they have gumption, ambition and hope; they are often cosmopolitan, too, working, mixing and having flings with migrants from the other side of the world whom they meet in some big city in Europe or the United States. And many of them have far more liberal attitudes to freedom of movement than the westerners who campaign on their behalf. She quotes a Kurdish migrant to the Netherlands who thinks borders should be abolished: "I don't come from the sun or moon. I'm from earth just like everybody else and the earth belongs to all of us." Now that's an argument I can get behind.

Brendan O'Neill is the editor of "spiked" (

This article first appeared in the 31 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Is Boris a fake?

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Is the Catholic Church about to welcome the LGBT community?

Something beneath the surface is shifting in the Catholic Church regarding its attitude to gay people, as its Synod on the Family gets underway.

Is the Catholic Church reaching an LGBT tipping point? The short answer, for anyone so buoyantly optimistic as to expect the imminent arrival of Elton John whirling a thurible round his head and backed by a leather-clad heavenly choir, is: No!

The Catholic Church remains, for the most part, deeply suspicious of homosexuality: as for transgender, the word is that – despite the claims of mostly right-wing, reactionary evangelist types – the term, let alone the issue, has scarcely registered the quietest of blips on the Vatican radar.

Still, something is stirring: if this is not a tipping point, it may yet be the moment that the balance is beginning to shift towards greater, more open acceptance, which, by my calculation, might just break out sometime around 2030. And that’s 15 years hence – not half eight this evening...

Cause for optimism is the Synod of bishops on the Family, taking place in Rome on 4-25 October. Its theme is the distinctly unsexy “vocation and mission of the family in the Church and the modern world”.

Its scope, set out at the conclusion of a previous session in October 2014, includes “the importance of affectivity in life” and “guiding engaged couples in their preparation for marriage”.  Important, but in the end, quite dry stuff.

What has set secular speculation off is the fact that also on the agenda are the “pastoral care for couples civilly married or living together”, as well as “pastoral attention towards persons with homosexual tendencies”.  Note the p-word: “pastoral”. It's key to understanding what is at stake here: what the bishops might be debating, and what they cannot.

This body cannot change policy: cannot, in the jargon of the church, address “doctrinal issues”. Pastoral is about how we treat people: whether, for instance, the Church should exclude divorced and remarried couples from receiving Communion; whether a woman requires absolution at bishop level before she may be reunited with the Church, or whether her parish priest may suffice; whether a gay couple may attend mass together.

Secular readers may, at this point, shrug and decide the whole thing is beyond them. Yet that is to ignore the importance that faith continues to play in the lives of hundreds of millions of people the world over. These things matter: they have an impact on individual lives and they influence, and are influenced by, the politics of each country in which the Church exists.

Moreover, how these things are managed reflect two very different ideas of what the Church should be and the role it should play in people's lives. Reformers and liberals, one of which Pope Francis is widely considered to be, seek guidance in the New Testament. They look to  evidence, particularly in the gospels, that sin is an individual issue, a matter between God and the person concerned, and not for other humans, however imbued with book learning they are, to judge.

Others take a different, more dogmatic view. Some might even characterise it as pharisaic: a tendency towards strict observance of the rules with little regard for the spirit. This is why the constant drip of stories about how Pope Francis has extended the hand of welcome to those traditionally considered sinful – phoning a divorced woman and telling her she can receive communion, or hugging a trans man – are significant.

So much for the split – and it is significant – within the Church. Though you’d be hard-pressed to understand this in classic political terms. The accepted gloss is that this Synod is all about learned debate. There is no lobbying, and absolutely no playing out of the issues in the wider press arena.

Do not be fooled for an instant. Lobbying is going on behind the scenes. But not as we know it.

Over the weekend, the news lit up with the removal from office of Monsignor Krysztof Olaf Charamsa, a gay priest who rather unhelpfully came out shortly before the Synod. Far more significant was the launch in Rome of the Global Network of Rainbow Catholics (GNRC), attended by over 120 people, and including an interview with former Irish President Dr Mary McAleese and a keynote closing address by Bishop Raul Vera from Mexico.

Pressure is being applied, and the quieter the pressure, the more confident you suspect are those behind the pressure. The letter from the GNRC to the Synod contained no demands; was little more than a gentle wave, a nod to say that LGBT Catholics exist – and they are not going away.

In the wake of the 2014 Synod, the Pope wrote openly of the twin "temptations" that the Church needed to avoid. There was, he suggested, a need to "chart a middle course between 'hostile inflexibility' to the letter of the law and a 'false sense of mercy'”.

Hence the many, many cryptic references to be found, these past months, in the Catholic press to the “need for mercy” or, conversely, “the danger of too much mercy”.

In practical terms, this is about keeping the Church together, while managing expectations both inside and out as he does so.

The first Synod, attended by the most senior clerics in the Catholic hierarchy, still managed to open up some radical discussion around the issue of gay people within the Church. This second Synod, which includes input from bishops and lay people, is widely expected to be significantly more radical – and while that may find favour across broad swathes of the Western Church, it must also contend with the fact that in numeric terms, the Catholic Church now draws heavily from Africa and Eastern Europe, where views on LGBT issues are far more conservative.

Already, the Vatican press office has revealed that bishops have said they feel the need to change the language used by clergy with regard to gay people, cohabiting couples or, in the case of some African nations, polygamous marriages.

That may seem little to those of us used to the straightforward democratic battles for equal marriage and LGBT rights. It is, within the Catholic Church, a shift of tectonic proportions: and the Synod still has two and a half weeks to run!

Jane Fae is a trans activist who is also a practising Catholic. In the run-up to the synod, she co-ordinated the writing of a document on transgender in the Church for key attendees at the synod – and later this month she hopes, along with other trans Catholics, to be meeting with senior officials of the Catholic Church in England.

Jane Fae is a feminist writer. She tweets as @JaneFae.