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22 November 2004updated 24 Sep 2015 11:46am

How looking for work turns you into a victim

By Brendan O'Neill

By Brendan O'Neill

All the time we hear of people-trafficking. It is, by all accounts, one of the great evils of our time. On 17 November, the Solicitor General, Harriet Harman, agreed with her Nigerian counterpart on “measures” to “trap more human trafficking gangs and help their victims”. On other occasions in recent weeks, the Daily Mail reported the arrest of 18 people on suspicion of “trafficking hundreds of Turkish people into London”; Unicef, the United Nations Children’s Fund, called on the government of Laos to clamp down on the trafficking of children; and Channel 4 broadcast Sex Traffic, a tale of two Moldovan sisters kidnapped and smuggled across Europe to be pimped in London.

But what does “trafficking” actually mean? And is it really as big a problem as we are told? Unicef claimed last year that “over a million children around the world” are being trafficked, and that “there may well be hundreds, if not thousands, of children in Britain who have been brought here for exploitation”.

Yet, earlier this year, the Metropolitan Police noted that, during a three-month period, only 1,738 “unaccompanied minors” from non-EU countries passed through Heathrow airport. The vast majority could be traced subsequently either to educational institutions or to relatives in the UK. Only 12 remained unaccounted for.

Unicef itself admits that “there is little hard statistical information”. Its report says there is a dearth of both “registered cases” and “anecdotal evidence”, as “victims are reluctant to report their experiences for fear of being deported as illegal immigrants”. Yet it somehow came up with the figure of a million-plus children being trafficked each year.

Trafficking seems to cover just about any kind of movement across borders, especially those that involve under-18s. Unicef says “human-trafficking is a relatively simple term for an undoubtedly complex reality”. It can include movements within borders, such as when African parents “send their children to work in other households, sometimes entrusting them to better-off relatives”, or movements across borders, such as the reported movement of 49,000 young people from Benin to Ivory Coast in recent years to work on plantations and in domestic service.

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Unicef calls on governments to outlaw child-trafficking not only for sexual exploitation, but also for benefit fraud, forced or early marriage, adoption and exploitative labour. When I asked Scotland Yard what constitutes trafficking, a spokesman described it as the “movement of individuals” where they are “assisted by others” and then exploited as “cheap labour”.

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In other words, so many things are lumped together that movement itself becomes redefined as “traffic”. Many people would much prefer to work for low pay in a London takeaway than remain on the poverty-stricken streets of Bucharest or Abuja. And often they have little choice but to turn to unscrupulous individuals to assist them. Describing these immigrants as “victims of trafficking” does them no favours.

The anti-trafficking campaign will make the harsh reality of life for a migrant from the developing world that bit harsher. In encouraging further state suspicion of migration involving the young or women, the anti-traffickers make international movement more difficult still for those who rely on it for their lives and livelihoods – without doing a single thing to challenge the conditions that make such movement necessary.

Brendan O’Neill is Assistant editor of spiked (