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Key debates in the scholarship on TIP and SOM


Critical anti-trafficking scholarship

Since the early stages of what can be called a field of studies on Trafficking in Persons (TIP), a critical anti-trafficking scholarship has developed.

In this section, two key lines of discussion are explored that have been important for many scholars: first, the critical analysis of the predominant and mainstream representation of TIP and its implications in practice (and policies), and second, the interconnections between sex work/prostitution in general and TIP for sexual exploitation. Both issues are closely related with gender considerations. The choice of the language and terminology is contentious, either using the term prostitution or sex work. For this Module, when referring to non-consensual (forced) involvement into the sex industry, the term prostitution is used. The Module also follows the language used in law texts or official documents (most of legislation use the term prostitution, not sex work). In all other contexts, the Module uses the terms sex work or sex workers, to respect and reflect the chosen language by the persons involved in sex work. Further, when it comes to children, it is child sexual exploitation.


Predominant narrative and representation of TIP

Many scholars have raised a critical perspective in the discourses and narratives that surround TIP and attempt to bring a more nuanced picture (Doezema, 2010; Kempadoo, 2012; Sanghera, 2012; Andrijasevic 2010). Beyond the legal definition of TIP, the way TIP is understood and perceived is greatly influenced by the way it is represented in mainstream narratives (media, policy statements, NGO anti-trafficking campaigns, etc.). Not only is TIP often equated with sex trafficking, there is also a powerful imagery about who is the ideal victim.

First, one common argument is that the predominant representations of TIP conveys the idea of an archetypical victim who is mainly viewed as young women and girls, vulnerable and naïve, and readily falling prey to trafficking. As argued by Kempadoo and Shangera, among others, victims of trafficking are embodied by the image of (migrant) women, powerless, helpless and passive, poor migrants from third-world countries, and in need to be rescued by organizations and people from 'developed countries'. (Kempadoo 2012; Shangera 2012). Hence, there is also a strong racial component.  

One key aspect of the mainstream views on TIP are the anti-trafficking campaigns. Either governmental or from NGOs and international organizations, anti-trafficking campaigns use imageries that portray images of suffering and violence, and often of being physically held against one's will. Rutvica Andrijasevic has examined anti-trafficking campaigns in post-socialist Europe which point to the "highly symbolic and stereotypical constructions of feminity (victims) and masculinity (criminals) of Eastern European nationals." (Andrijasevic 2007: p. 24). Indeed, the image of the woman from Eastern European countries being trafficked for sexual exploitation in Western Europe and North America - represented in the 'Natasha story' - became a stereotype with which TIP was often associated. Indeed, the 'Natasha story' embodies the current proverbial image of the trafficking victim.

In sum, the predominant narrative brings a narrow representation of the victim (Andrijasevic and Mai 2016: p. 1):

What we are seeing therefore is a persistence of the figure of the trafficking victim. Despite decades of research and activism that put forward a convincing critique of the passive and enslaved trafficking victim and replaced her with the figures of the active migrant, worker and political protagonist, the trafficking victim continues to dominate public and policy debates. The stereotypical image of the victim is of a young, innocent, foreign woman tricked into prostitution abroad. She is battered and kept under continuous surveillance so that her only hope is police rescue. (Andrijasevic and Mai 2016: p. 4)

Second, closely linked with the mainstream representation of TIP, is the fact that female migration is often portrayed as being a source of vulnerability. As argued by some scholars, while the migration of women -particularly irregular - is often associated with the risk of exploitation and trafficking - men who are irregular migrants are more readily seen as economic migrants, especially smuggled-migrants, who voluntary choose to migrate and use the services of smugglers (See van Liemp, 2011; Schrover et al. 2008). In other words, when thinking of unsafe and irregular migration, men are seen as active in deciding to undertake risky journeys, as for women the emphasis is on their vulnerability or on situations in which they migrated against their will. However, this dichotomous view also divides between deserving victims and criminals (Andrijasevic 2010; Plambech 2014). While both face exploitation, female migrants will be more promptly seen as victims of trafficking, and male migrants as irregular migrants, and criminals, given that they have violated national immigration laws (Surtees 2008a).

Scholars have sought to examine and give visibility to the realities of men in trafficking situations. Research on the experiences of men in seeking assistance has shown that masculinity is often hardly associated with victimhood, even more so in situations of trafficking (Surtees, 2007, 2008a, 2008b, 2018). To self-identify as a victim may be difficult for everyone, given the idea of powerlessness that it conveys. Yet, social constructions of masculinity impact the narrative as well as men's willingness or propensity to seek help.

Box 16

Masculinity and trafficking

To be a man in many communities is to be strong, self-sufficient and able to care not only for oneself but also for one's family:

"Men think that they are stronger, and they have to find a way out of a difficult situation by themselves without asking for help. Many men don't tell about what happened to them. They are ashamed of the fact that they were tricked and lied to. They would never request assistance from organizations because they will be mocked and laughed at by their relatives. A man must manage his problems by himself."

Decisions about assistance link not only to self-image but also to social perception. Assistance potentially identifies men as failed migrants or trafficked persons to others in the family and/or community, neither of which are socially acceptable. Here again, social constructions of manhood are salient:

"(…) In general, in our community men are not to complain about anything. A man should be strong, to overcome all of the difficulties with fortitude.''

Source: Surtees 2007, p. 213

Third, in turn, these gender stereotypes and simplistic representations may have implications in terms of practices. The current discourse on trafficking, portrayed and conceived as a new form of slavery, depoliticizes the debate on migration and labour (Andrijasevic, 2010). Cases of extreme violence and suffering are used as stereotypical examples and illustrations of trafficking. However, by doing so, these representations of TIP may leave more complex issues of human rights violations and labour exploitation in the dark. TIP does not always involve physical violence, physical confinement and situations of being 'enslaved'.

Besides, this elides the experiences of men and boys as well as LGBTI persons - who may also face inequalities, little access to employment opportunities, and be victims of violence, labour rights' and human rights violations.

Some scholars have also criticized the rescue-based approach in response to TIP (e.g. rescuing victim through law enforcement raids). By rescuing vulnerable and powerless victims, such intervention may target certain groups over others (women in in sex work), and it may perpetuate a paternalistic view over women involved in sex work by disregarding their life decisions (Kempadoo, 2012, Plambech, 2014).


Trafficking in persons and sex work: a divisive debate

Closely linked with the issue of mainstream representation of TIP, is its association with sex work - or prostitution according to the terminology being used in the different streams of literature.

The unsettled and sensitive debate around different approaches to sex work which has long divided feminist scholars permeates research and literature on TIP. In the literature on TIP, on the one hand, feminist scholars and activists, based on an (neo)abolitionist perspective of prostitution, conceive trafficking as being hardly dissociable from prostitution. From their standpoint prostitution is viewed as intrinsically exploitative and abusive, blurring the distinction between forced and consensual forms of prostitution, and hence with trafficking (Barry, 1984, 1995; MacKinnon, 1989; Farley 2003). According to this view, prostitution constitutes the objectification of women's bodies, which emerges from and reinforces patriarchal domination (MacKinnon, 1989).

On the other hand, from a perspective based on considerations for women's, labour, migrants' and sex workers' rights perspectives, sex work is considered as a form of labour. Scholars and activists have raised the concern that the anti-trafficking campaigns deny women's choice to work in the sex industry. In addition, anti-trafficking campaigns and responses (policies/rescue interventions) that are based on such views (that do not distinguish sex trafficking from sex work), may be harmful to sex workers (Kempadoo 2012; Shangera 2012; Andrijasevic and Mai 2016; Segrave, 2008; Agustin, 2005). A strong focus has been dedicated to female migrants within Asia, and from Asia or Eastern Europe to Western Europe, working in the sex industry.

This unsettled discussion around the linkages between sex work and trafficking has implications in terms of the gender considerations (e.g. is sex work inherently a form of gender-based violence or not). It has implications in generating knowledge, starting with data collection (the sampling is based on differently defined categories), but also in terms of policies orientation, and interventions.

Literature provides divergent (and opposing) views on whether more repressive or more liberal regimes on prostitution (that criminalize parts or all sex work-related activities, clients and persons selling sex alike) will contribute in decreasing or increasing the risks of exploitation and trafficking. One line of argument highlights that liberal policies on prostitution contribute to fuelling the commercial sex market in general, including the occurrence of exploitation and trafficking. Another line of argument rather shows that by criminalizing sex work, the risks of violence and exploitation increase giving that it pushes sex workers to hide, to work underground and unprotected.

Scholars and advocates have shown through the experiences of persons involved in the sex industry that anti-trafficking interventions may be harmful to the same people it seeks to protect, by criminalizing sex workers and denying them their agency (Kempadoo, 2012, GAATW 2010). Worldwide, sex workers have created organizations or associations to promote and defend sex workers' rights and make their voices being heard. On the topic see OpenDemocracy report ' Sex workers speak: who listens?', edited by P.G. Macioti and Giulia Garofalo Geymonat.

Box 17

Escaping a trafficked situation from a brothel to work independently with other sex workers

Bee (not her real name) was sold by her brother to one of his friends who owned a brothel in the Narathiwat province in Thailand. Bee was determined to help her brother and was not afraid of going away to work as she knew who her employer would be. However, after some time passed, she discovered she was bonded to her employer and "in debt" as her brother had been regularly withdrawing her pay from the owner. She fled the brothel and started working independently in sex work with other sex workers: "Some of the girls who couldn't stand the pressure and exploitation, joined together to work. We rented a room together and worked without having anyone take a cut in our earnings or forcing us to do anything. We would look out for each other and find our own customers, like a self-reliant group. When some of the girls had saved enough money, they left the group to return home." About a year after earning money as a sex worker, Bee decided to return home.

Source: Self-Empowerment Program for Migrant Women (SEPOM) (2010). 'Trafficked' Identities as a Barrier to Community Reintegration: Five Stories of Women Rebuilding Lives and Resisting Categorization, cited in GAATW 2010: p. 28.

SOM and critical scholarship

The smuggling of migrants has come to be one of the most mediatized and politicised dimensions of contemporary migration. Global media frequently shows a supposed migratory crisis at border zones - particularly at European and US extended fringes - or at zones of transit towards both destinations. In those spaces an apparently state of lawlessness prevails due to the arrival of poor, irregularised migrants brought by smugglers. ( Alvarez-Velasco and Ruiz, 2016)

Common representations on Smuggling of Migrants (SOM) mostly portray smugglers as ruthless criminals who use violence against and abuse migrants.

Similar to what we have seen regarding Trafficking in Persons (TIP), there is also a body of research and literature on SOM that challenges the dominant narrative on smuggling and explores the more nuanced and diverse realities. Research has shown how smuggling - or facilitating irregular migration - activities are socially and locally embedded, meaning that they are closely linked with local economies (as a source of revenues) and socio-economic realities. The profile of the smuggler is heterogeneous. Scholars have shown through qualitative research that facilitators of irregular migration can also be viewed by migrants themselves as a service provider and a helper (Achilli 2018). There are also situations of humanitarian smuggling in which individuals help migrants to cross borders. Alternative views on smuggling cast light on the various forms it can take and recall that under the penal category of smuggling there are solidarity dimensions (Zhang, Sanchez and Achilli 2018). However, current policies tend to criminalize facilitators of irregular crossing regardless of these nuances. (See the Special Issue of the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science , Migrant Smuggling as a Collective Strategy and Insurance policy: View from the Margins, 2018, vol. 676).

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