Narrow Viewpoints and Conflicting Interests Undermine Anti-Trafficking Efforts: Q&A | Part I

Illegal Immigration, Human Trafficking

By Helga Konrad

[#Government] cooperation in anti-trafficking has been focused on notions of #NationalSecurity & #NationalSovereignty

Helga Konrad is a former minister for women’s issues and federal parliamentarian in Austria. She chaired the EU Stability Pact Task Force on Anti-Trafficking for South Eastern Europe from 2000-04 and was the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Special Representative for the Fight Against Trafficking in Persons from 2004-06. She now works as an independent consultant on anti-trafficking. This is the first of a three-part in-depth interview with Dr. Konrad that will be published on Beyond Trafficking and Slavery over the coming month.

Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: According to politicians and the popular media, the kinds of extreme exploitation evoked by words such as ‘slavery’, ‘trafficking’ or ‘forced labour’ has been on the rise for some time. Do you think this is so? What factors explain it?

Helga Konrad: In recent years, human trafficking has become one of the most globalized criminal businesses worldwide – one that no country is immune from. It concerns by no means only countries of origin. It affects us equally in East and West alike, as countries of origin, of transit and of destination, and very often as a mix of all three.

For several years now it has received concerted international attention. Broad enactment of new anti-trafficking laws is under way. The funding for anti-trafficking projects and programmes has begun to flow, and more governments, organizations and actors have dedicated increasing attention to this problem. At the same time, there is a continuing stream of commentators, researchers and analysts attempting to inform on the problem. Hundreds of anti-trafficking recommendations have been formulated. Checklists and indicators have been crafted for the identification of trafficking situations, standards for victim protection have been developed, training material has been produced, countless conferences, symposia, meetings have been organized.

However, the focus of authorities, NGOs and international organisations has been mainly on sex trafficking. Such pronounced attention has been well-placed because of the severity of this problem, and this form of trafficking will certainly remain on our agendas. However, we have finally come to realize, albeit only after appalling tragedies such as the death of 23 Chinese cockle pickers in northern England some years ago, that we need to pay attention to the labour dimensions of human trafficking. Authorities need to move from the almost exclusive attention to trafficking for sexual exploitation to other forms, which have until now suffered from a certain lack of attention.

Nowadays we have come to understand that these other forms of exploitation represent a similarly grave problem that has been underestimated. This not only includes trafficking for labor exploitation in sweatshops, construction sites, agriculture, textile and garment factories, the transportation industry, restaurant chains, etc. It also encompasses trafficking into domestic servitude, trafficking for forced marriages, trafficking for begging. The last of these is something which frequently affects minors and children who are forced to steal and commit other petty crimes. Many victims are simultaneously affected by various forms of human trafficking: they are sexually abused, exploited as domestic servants and/or as bonded workers.

In contrast to the free movement of goods and capital, the free movement of people has remained a sensitive political and social issue in Europe and beyond. This is the case even though more and more countries are coming to realize that they will need foreign labour if they wish to maintain their current growth rates and respond to demographic developments.

Very often, the desire to migrate has its origin in social and economic conditions that cause individuals to seek alternative opportunities abroad. This leads to an increasing number of vulnerable persons. They are often willing to risk their lives in order to escape from dreary situations and poverty, and to earn money for themselves and their families elsewhere. This creates a constant supply of persons prone to becoming victims of trafficking. And, where the desperate need for work meets the pull of the cheap – often unprotected – labour market, the traffickers and their accomplices are the link between demand and the exploited people who can satisfy it.

Owing to the fact that most industrialized countries wish to restrict immigration to the absolute minimum and that they seem to compete (at least in Europe) for the ‘most restrictive asylum regulations’, the only choice left to the majority of migrants is irregular migration. In recent years migration in general has been more and more associated with criminality and organized crime, and this fact impacts most negatively on attempts to fight trafficking in human beings. Migrants in general – and irregular migrants in particular – are most vulnerable and most likely to become victims of trafficking. Many of them work under very exploitative conditions: without health care, unaware of their rights, subject to physical and mental abuse, underpaid, or their wages withheld by recruiting agents. Often they take up jobs that they would not accept in their home country.

The traffickers and their accomplices take advantage and ruthlessly exploit the almost total lack of social and legal protection. This process – in addition to the fact that it does harm to people – involves an enormous loss of human resources in the developing, so-called ‘countries of origin’ of human trafficking. It also reveals the paradox that, despite relatively high unemployment in many western European countries and restricted access to the labour markets for foreigners, irregular migrants are able to find jobs easily in the unprotected labour market.

BTS: What do you think of current protection and prevention policies? The last 10 years have seen a huge spate of anti-trafficking and anti-slavery legislation, as well as large amounts of money spent on policies and projects. Do they work?

HK: Looking back at the last 10-20 years, one might be tempted to say that trafficking in human beings seems to be a quasi-intractable problem. It seems that more and more stakeholders (governments and officials) are getting weary of criticism, of hearing always the same arguments, complaints and problems.

But, despite all these anti-trafficking activities, there is no tangible evidence that we have come to grips with this complex, multifaceted, multidimensional global problem. We seriously need to test the assumptions on which we have been conducting this fight so far, if we wish to make meaningful headway against the traffickers and provide the lifeline needed for the victims of trafficking.

There is no tangible evidence that we have come to grips with this complex, multifaceted, multidimensional global problem. We seriously need to test the assumptions on which we have been conducting this fight so far, if we wish to make meaningful headway against the traffickers and provide the lifeline needed for the victims of trafficking.

What we certainly must admit is that a tendency to brush off certain problems has remained a constant over the years – a ping-pong between institutions and countries, also confused perceptions between trafficking and related areas such as illegal migration, prostitution, smuggling. Very often, action is being taken simply for the sake of action, neither leading to nor producing meaningful results. We have so far not progressed from a ‘curative’ role towards a greater focus on prevention.

We have not moved away from the typical one problem/one instrument approach and towards greater integration into other areas of policy making, such as development cooperation, technology transfers, trade, investment – just to name a few. The way the anti-trafficking field (I am tempted to call it the anti-trafficking industry) deals with human trafficking very often reflects only simplistic (mis)interpretations. For quite some time now we have continued to rehearse over the importance of three ‘P’s (prosecution, protection, prevention) in addressing human trafficking.

But some time ago now we added a fourth‘P’, namely ‘partnership’. Partnership, in general, means or should mean cooperation and coordination between partners at eye level and based on mutual trust. It must be mutually beneficial, while following one and the same goal: namely the eradication or at least the decrease of this crime. This requires a distinct and clear focus on human survival, human wellbeing and human freedom – known and recognized as the three main elements of human security.

The question is how effective can anti-trafficking measures be, when the current model is based on a) the de facto predominance of the needs of state security above human rights concerns; and b) the interests of the countries of destination to suppress migration.

Anti-trafficking programmes should be seen as components of sustainable development, anti-discrimination and anti-violence programmes. They should support the development of long-term, comprehensive programmes and seek long-term solutions – which, of course and unfortunately – they do not.

On the contrary, funding of anti-trafficking programmes has increasingly resulted in shifting attention and support away from issues of development, equality and human rights and toward issues of state security and anti-migration. Even independent foundations and UN agencies have drifted away from supporting human rights, development and non-discrimination programmes.

They have instead turned to supporting anti-migration projects reflecting the short-sighted interests of countries of destination, rather than seeking long-term solutions.

In theory, inter-agency cooperation/partnership is well-developed and covers all types of organizations and aspects of human trafficking. In actual fact, coordination gatherings often merely serve the purpose of presenting one’s own activities. They are frequently not used to set a new course or to change approaches.

The countless anti-trafficking projects claiming to address the 3 ‘P’s (prevention, protection, prosecution) have failed to reveal the hidden agendas and diverse interests of sponsors and donors that are determined by specific expectations, dependencies and not least power games.

Moreover, various coordination structures work in closed loops. They fail to network or partner with coordination structures focused on different aspects or perspectives. This has failed to lead to meaningful concerted action.

While all institutions/bodies are supposed to cooperate, their involvement varies significantly depending on their human and economic resources. In most cases, funding is provided by the countries of destination for work on issues related to their own priorities. Those who provide the money (the donor organizations) strongly influence the anti-trafficking agenda and define its type and scope.

This is to say that while on the level of rhetoric, cooperation is supposed to cover all types of institutions – including those responsible for protecting victims and addressing root causes of trafficking in the countries of origin – in practice it is very much focused on anti-migration measures prioritized by the countries of destination.

In fact, intergovernmental cooperation in the field of anti-trafficking has been single-mindedly focused on prevailing notions of national security and national sovereignty. This has increased border controls and subordinated human rights protection to control and anti-crime measures. This has adversely impacted not only on the protection of victims, but on anti-trafficking in general.

If we wish to move forward, we must understand that problems with anti-trafficking responses are not only related to the complexity and international nature of the crime. They are also to a large extent the result of the conflicting approaches, agendas and mandates of the involved states/governments/institutions.

On the one hand there is the prevailing focus on state security, which is interpreted narrowly and in relation to nation-states instead of people. On the other, there is the subordinated issue of human security, where people’s concerns with self-preservation and protection from threats, diseases, unemployment, social conflicts, repression and crime are addressed. There is a basic disconnect between these two approaches.

To a large extent the difficulties we face in anti-trafficking are part of a much broader debate on labour migration and the protection of migrants’ rights. Unless we integrate human rights standards into migration frameworks, the effectiveness of anti-trafficking cooperation in the area of protection and prevention will not improve.

I would also like to point out that surprisingly little is known about the impact – intended or not – and the effects – expected or not – of anti-trafficking responses on trafficked persons, vulnerable groups, the trafficking industry, and our societies in general.

Governments and institutions tend to perceive assessments as threats, since they may reveal that programmes have not yet worked or that measures taken were even harmful. We must admit that no one really knows what measures are effective.

So far, evaluation has been little more than an afterthought. At best it is conceived as self-edited reporting on project outcomes by governmental and non-governmental actors alike.

This is not enough. Evaluation must be an integral part of all anti-trafficking work. In the long run, governments, institutions, and societies at large will benefit from systematic impact assessments. They will help, after all, to avoid pouring good money into bad projects.

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