Trafficking Report: Less Sensationalism, More Reality

The State Department's new Trafficking in Persons report suggests that the Obama administration will opt for evidence-based responses to trafficking over putting restrictions on women "for their own good."

Last Wednesday, the US released the 2009 Trafficking In
Persons Report
. The significant differences between this year’s report and
reports missed under previous administrations offer insight into the ways Obama’s
State Department may address trafficking in persons.

The U.S.’s
attempts to address human trafficking have typically been based on emotional
reactions to horrific situations and events, rather on research showing what
works. The tendency in the past to focus exclusively on "sex trafficking," while neglecting labor
trafficking, illustrates the U.S.’s
willingness to allow emotional issues to override concerns about workplace
abuses that are less sensational but no less grave. The focus on sex has led to
many examples of misguided efforts to protect "women and children," while men, women
and children who experience force, fraud and coercion, the hallmarks of
trafficking, in other kinds of work are too often overlooked.

This year’s TIP Report addresses forced labor and debt
bondage in greater detail than earlier reports. US government efforts under
Bush emphasized sex trafficking, and anti-trafficking task forces in the US
were criticized by
the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children
for their
near-exclusive focus on brothel raids while ignoring trafficking in other
workplaces, including those workplaces where there were immigration raids.
This year’s report cites men trafficked into construction work in Russia and the Gulf States,
agricultural workers in Africa, domestic workers in Asia, and fishermen in Asia.

The 2009 TIP Report criticizes numerous examples of
anti-trafficking efforts restricting women "for their own good." For one, Cambodia was influenced by the Bush
administration to pass legislation addressing, and Cambodia has made it illegal for
its women citizens to marry foreign nationals, lest they be trafficked. But
restricting people’s movement forces determined migrants to seek assistance to
travel, sometimes from others who take advantage of their positions of relative
power.  In other words, it may contribute to the very problem it seeks to resolve.

Efforts to protect people by preventing them from going where they want
to go are not unique in the history of trafficking.  For example, in the US, the people most often prosecuted by the US
White Slave Traffic Act, passed in 1910, were women who crossed US state lines
to visit men, many of whom they later married. 
To this day, women who travel from countries associated with trafficking
or sex work may not be permitted to leave their own countries and have
difficulty securing visas for other countries, forcing them to use the services
of people who may procure falsified travel documents or guide undocumented
migrants as they cross borders.

Another poor response to trafficking is the detention and
imprisonment of people who have been victims of crime. The new TIP Report
chastised governments including Cambodia,
Gabon and others for
imprisoning people who have been trafficked, including children, but the US also
imprisons trafficked persons, usually as a result of raids on brothels and
places where immigrants work. I wrote a report for the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice
Center documenting the ways raids
discourage people in the US from cooperating with the government’s prosecution
.  Raids deter people from cooperating with
investigations–people who have been rounded up in raids do not trust the agents who
have detained them–and so people who may be effective witnesses or who
are victims of crime may be deported.

Media figures have engaged in sensational stunts while
covering trafficking. For example, a century ago, publisher William Stead set
out to "buy" a young girl to prove that sex trafficking was occurring in
Victorian London. The girls’ parents and other Londoners protested and their
daughter was returned to them from France, where Stead had taken her.
He served no jail time, but his assistant did. Nicholas Kristof, op-ed
contributor to The New York Times, recreated this stunt when he "bought" two
girls out of prostitution in Cambodia.
The new TIP Report states, "By ‘purchasing’ a victim’s freedom, well-intentioned individuals
or organizations may inadvertently provide traffickers with financial incentive
to find new victims."

The critiques offered in the TIP Report reflect the
intentions of the Obama administration. I’m encouraged by the greater
recognition of trafficking into a wide variety of workplaces, the concern for
people who have been unjustly imprisoned, and the lack of sensationalism when
discussing sex work. The emphasis on effective responses gives me hope that
change is already underway. The Sex Workers Project documented that people who
left trafficking situations without law enforcement – leaving on their own,
with the help of colleagues and friends. Service providers and trafficked
persons described the ways that leaving situations of force, fraud and coercion
without law enforcement intervention were better because people chose to move, exercising
self-determination after having been coerced into their situations. Enforcing
existing labor laws such as wage and hour provisions is one way to address
abuses in many workplaces, particularly in factories and agriculture. Expanding
these provisions to address domestic workers (they are not offered such protections
now) would benefit maids and nannies and other live-in employees. Obama
emphasized evidence and efficacy in his inauguration speech – these are a few
examples of opportunities to act.