Along with shifts in the global economy and a new presidential administration in the U.S.A., 2008 also brought the possibility of change in international policies and perspectives on human trafficking. The debates among feminist organizations and governments on the definition of and response to human trafficking are well documented. In the late 1990s, these debates focused on whether prostitution in and of itself constitutes “trafficking,” and on the criminalization of prostitution and poor migrants. These concerns remain current, and constituted the basis for a series of two two-day meetings recently held in New York on policy responses to sex work and human trafficking.
The first of these meetings, called “Donor Dialogue on Sex Work and Trafficking,” was sponsored by the Open Society Institute (OSI), based in New York, and Global Rights, based in Washington, D.C., with participation from CREA (Creating Resources for Empowerment and Action) and the Network of Sex Work Projects. It brought a dozen experts on trafficking and sex work together for a briefing with Joy Ezeilo, the newly appointed UN Special Rapporteur On Trafficking. Ms. Ezeilo, who teaches law in Nigeria, comes to her new role with years of experience in advocacy within the international human rights system. The briefing consisted of discussions on the core areas of the Special Rapporteur’s mandate. These discussions included the impacts of laws and policies that govern prostitution and trafficking, the introduction of “end-demand” anti-prostitution laws in several countries, and the impact of the continued conflation of prostitution and trafficking on non-prostitution related anti-trafficking work. Despite the relatively small number of participants, this discussion facilitated a loosely structured and ultimately productive set of presentations and discussions among the participants and Ms. Ezeilo.
The second of these meetings, entitled “Sex Work and Trafficking: A Donor/ Activist Dialogue on Rights and Funding,” consisted of a series of panel presentations and small group discussions with a decidedly larger number of participants. The meeting was also sponsored by CREA, the Network of Sex Work Projects and OSI’s Sexual Health and Rights Project (SHARP). The purpose of this meeting was to bring experts on human trafficking and prostitution together with representatives of foundations who work in these areas in order to promote information exchanges, and to help elucidate areas of interest and concern for donors seeking to promote effective interventions in these areas. Both of these meetings included discussions on the impacts of the current U.S. polices on human trafficking, including the effects of the U.S. State Department’s Trafficking in Person’s (TIP) Report. The TIP Report is issued annually, and includes a three-tier ranking system which assesses almost every country’s efforts to “combat trafficking.” (“Almost,” because the U.S.A does not assess itself in this ranking system.) The potential consequence of a “tier three” ranking in this system is the withdrawal of all non-humanitarian aid from the U.S.A to the country in question until it increases both the criminalization of trafficking, which is understood to include all prostitution, and the number of prosecutions of so-called “traffickers.” Although no country has suffered economic sanctions as a result of their TIP Report ranking thus far, the TIP Report regime has already resulted in severe consequences for sex workers in Cambodia and South Korea. Those countries passed legislation banning sex work altogether in the past few years in order to improve their TIP Report standing. This legislative move was supplemented by brothel raids and police sweeps of sex workers that resulted in hundreds of people being held without charge in remand and rehabilitation facilities.
In addition to discussions on the impacts of the U.S. global anti-trafficking perspective and “end-demand” legislation, both meetings covered several other key areas for policy making on this issue. These included an examination of policies such as raids and rescues, the health consequences of anti-trafficking laws as they currently exist, and the long term implications of a set of policies that rely largely on the criminalization of prostitution to end human trafficking. A discussion of the theoretical and historical contexts that facilitate this reliance on criminal law was also relevant here. Ultimately, many meeting attendees described the reliance on criminalization as a failure in terms of, both, data collection on human trafficking, and preventing or reducing the problem itself. In other words, with so many disputes on the definition of human trafficking, standardized parameters that would enable viable data collection on this phenomenon have been difficult to achieve. This has resulted in the over representation of “prostitution” within figures that enumerate trafficking, and the under representation of trafficking into other labor sectors. Some participants suggested that conflating prostitution and human trafficking actually impedes anti-trafficking efforts into sex industries, and into other industries, such as domestic work, piecework, manufacturing, and construction work, as well.
As a response to these problems, participants advocated a rights-based approach, in which criminalization is one of several strategies, but not the key strategy, used to address human trafficking. A rights-based approach would also entail that anti-trafficking interventions would not themselves enable human rights abuses, such as extrajudicial detention, suspending habeas corpus, and police violence and harassment. The legal exceptionalism, which allows interventions like street sweeps and warrant-less police entry into private homes, has been the subject of academic and legal debate for some time because of the increasingly pervasive ways in which it is used by governments that are engaged in urban expansion and “renewal.” Ultimately, governments may use legal exceptionalism with the ostensible agenda of curbing prostitution and trafficking, but with the effect of evicting poor migrants from urban areas without due process. Brothel raids, for example, may be helpful when used in a crisis situation. However, raids and rescue are being used as a normalized strategy for dealing with prostitution, especially when prostitution and human trafficking are conflated. Raids, and the “rescues” which usually end in extrajudicial detention in government facilities, are the endpoint in a rationale that excludes livelihood and migration from the purview of reasons why someone may be living and working in a red light area. Instead, participants suggested that 1) disaggregating prostitution and human trafficking are critical for initiating any data gathering or policy efforts in either arena, and 2) understanding human trafficking as a subset of migration would facilitate understanding why poor people are moving, and are being moved, within and from the Global South. The second insight must be understood within the context of economic globalization, which has changed the ways in which poor, landless communities all over the world negotiate their daily survival. This insight also entailed a dissection of the term “agency,” which is often mistakenly conflated with the notion of “choice” or “free will.” Agency, a nineteenth century term that emerged from theories of class and class based inequality, may be used within the context of discourses on trafficking to describe some of the negotiations for survival that poor migrants, for example, may undertake in order to try to secure viable livelihoods.
Participants were clear that disaggregating all of these terms is necessary to craft research that defines the issues and enumerates the problem. They were also clear that, along with using a rights-based approach, these two approaches would serve to reframe human trafficking and prostitution altogether. The current approach seems to be favoring the eradication of urban, brothel based sex work, while delimiting research and resources that could be used to understand the complex nature of trafficking into a number of economic sectors. This approach has also been buttressed by any number of representational practices that promote the criminalization of sex workers. The suggested approaches would expand current policy priorities regarding prostitution to include non-brothel based sex work, which also tends to be more episodic. These new anti-trafficking perspectives would enable a broader perspective on who is trafficked, where they are being sent, what they are doing upon arrival, and when and how governments, and the international human rights system, can effectively intervene.
* Svati Shah is Postdoctoral Fellow, Program in Sexuality Studies, Department of Women’s Studies, Duke University
:: Posted in 01/23/2009 ::