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?

Photo: Getty Images
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The free market? There's no such thing

There's no such thing as the free market - it's a delusion of left and right, argues Bryn Phillips.

A very long time ago, some wide-eyed utopians dreamed a seductive dream. A dream of a perfect world. A world without coercive constraints on economic activities, where the intrusive hand of government would be eliminated. They conceived of an economy governed by the same laws that operate in nature. And they called it the free market. And over time the left began to believe in this fantasy as much as the right. For the right it is a call to arms against the domination of the ‘villainous’ state; for the left it is the rot at the heart of our ‘inequitable’ economic system. Yet while they disagree on its desirability, both positions assume that a ‘non-regulated’ market can even be possible. One of the key insights of the Hungarian philosopher Karl Polanyi, however, is that there is no such thing as a free market. There never has been, and there never can be. Let me explain.

The concept of an economic sphere completely divorced from government and civil society institutions, Polanyi argues, is a “stark utopia”—stark, because the attempt to bring it into being is destined to fail and will inevitably bring about dystopian consequences for human beings and nature alike. However, there is a gulf of difference between a market and what Polanyi calls a market society. The first is a necessary part of any functioning economy, one of many different social institutions on which the common good depends; the second imperils human society by attempting to subject almost everything that social life depends upon to market principles: health care, legal security, and the right to earn a wage. When these ‘commodity fictions’ (Polanyi’s words, not mine) are treated as if they are genuine commodities, produced for sale in the marketplace, rather than inherent rights, our social world is thrown before the lions and major crises inevitably follow on. The financial crisis of 2008 and the Wall Street Crash, arguably being just two examples. 

The flip side to all this, Polanyi argues, is that human beings tend to mobilise in response to such crises, but the resulting resistance is not always necessarily democratic (think the New Deal)—it it is just as likely to be authoritarian and nasty. For all their wickedness, the Nazi Party came to power on a protectionist ticket, promising to restore order in the face of the social chaos created by the crash of the early 1930s. Looking at today’s world through this prism, isn’t free market ideology the common thread that links many of today’s problems too—global warming, rising anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and economic instability?

To any rational thinker, then, the very idea that markets and governments are independent and autonomous institutions is clearly dangerous nonsense. Government action is not some kind of Orwellian “interference” in the autonomous sphere of economic activity. In simple terms, the economy just cannot exist without the mediating influence of government and social institutions. It’s not only that society depends on schools, a legal system, and other public goods that only government can provide. It is that every major input the economy needs in order to function—land, labour, and money—originate and are maintained through sustained government action. The supplies of money that enable us to purchase goods, the employment system, the arrangements for buying and selling land, all are supported and organised through the exercise of government’s authority, rules, and regulations. Put simply, there is no such thing as a “free market”.

In light of this doesn’t the quixotic left need to stop tilting at windmills and see the world as it really is? It’s time we changed the terms of political debate and made it clear that the frustrating economic problems we face today are exclusively political problems. This means rejecting the illusion of a deregulated economy altogether. Instead of parroting the fallacious ideology of the free market, we need to close the book on this myth and tell an alternative story. 

As the academic Margaret Somers has pointed out, what happened in the 1980s in the name of “deregulation” was, in truth, simply “re-regulation”, this time by laws and policies completely opposite to those of the mid-twentieth century—of Attlee and Roosevelt. Those older regulations laid the foundations for greater social equality, a thriving middle class and increased economic and political security. The reality is that, between the ‘Big Bang’ of 1986 and the present day, government continued to regulate, but instead of acting to protect workers and customers, it devised novel policies aimed to help multi-national corporations and the financial services industries maximise the returns on their investments, by reforming anti-trust laws, putting obstacles in the way of unionisation, and handing out bank bailouts without any conditions attached whatsoever. In 2008, 1.3 trillion pounds were transferred to the banks in the UK overnight—the biggest transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich in history—but nothing was asked for in return. You get the picture. 

The implications of Polanyi’s critique for the left are critical. If regulations are necessary features of markets, then surely we’ve got to stop fixating on the ‘regulation versus deregulation’ debate that has distorted political discourse for the last thirty years, and instead discuss what kinds of regulations we want to see put in place? Those designed for the exclusive benefit of capital and the billionaire class? Or those that jointly benefit workers, customers, and businesses? We must not ask whether the law should intervene in the market but rather what kinds of rules and rights should be expressed in these laws—those that recognise that it is the expertise and experience of employees that help make firms profitable and productive, or those that rig the race solely in favour of employers and centralised capital? 

The truth, of course, in the 1930s as now, is that the poor have always struggled to keep their heads above water in the face of forces that overwhelm them. Confronted by the economic failures and instabilities brought about by what political philosopher Maurice Glasman calls “market utopia”, we must be relentless in guarding against the threats which the advocates of free market ideology unwittingly present to democracy and peace. Unless there are some serious initiatives to chart a new course, we can only expect that the threat from the nationalist right and the anti-Semitic hard-left—that is currently growing across Europe— will grow stronger.

“Fortune is arranging matters for us better than we could have shaped our desires ourselves,” says Don Quixote, as he advances towards the windmills on the plain. Taking Polanyi seriously means the left needs to confront reality. Or the economic inequities it rallies against will prevail. Another major crisis will become inevitable. And we may well have no say in our destiny at all.