The Myth of Human Trafficking
I comment elsewhere on the issue of human trafficking, in response to this comment by Sanjay:
I really, _really_ don't grasp why you think activists are wrong to oppose human trafficking: most of the cases I'm aware of, and certainly the ones activists try to focus attention on, aren't about "options," they're about people backed into situations they didn't realize they were signing up for, and effectively jailed by the threat of violence. Worse, it often happens when people get trapped in (say) sexual slavery right here in this or another rich country. It seems like what we generally mean when we talk about human trafficking, isn't really in the kind of domain as the sweatshop thing.
The issue of human trafficking is overblown. Yes, it exists, and is wrong, insofar as it is coercive and harmful. And yes, there is certainly anecdotal evidence that it occurs. The problem is the statistical aggregate described by the term "human trafficking" is often bogus, and includes non-coercive, non-harmful cases of (often illegal) labor mobility lumped in with the coercive, harmful kind.
This is one of Kerry Howley's frequent topics of inquiry. Here she writes:
I’m inclined to see the hugely exaggerated statistics regarding human trafficking as driven by economic realities; sex slavery, thanks to evangelicals domestically and other social forces abroad, is where the money is. No one–least of all an NGO vying for that money–has an incentive to suggest that there are fewer victims than previously believed, or that the data suggests very few victims of trafficking are women sold into sex as opposed to men and boys forced into less titillating forms of labor; correct the misperception and you may shut off the tap. But clearly, there has to be some deeper will to believe among those who continue to parrot the now-discredited numbers.
In that same post she cites this Washington Post article:
Human Trafficking Evokes Outrage, Little Evidence
U.S. Estimates Thousands of Victims, But Efforts to Find Them Fall Short
And the money quote:
Ronald Weitzer, a criminologist at George Washington University and an expert on sex trafficking, said that trafficking is a hidden crime whose victims often fear coming forward. He said that might account for some of the disparity in the numbers, but only a small amount.
"The discrepancy between the alleged number of victims per year and the number of cases they've been able to make is so huge that it's got to raise major questions," Weitzer said. "It suggests that this problem is being blown way out of proportion."
Although there have been several estimates over the years, the number that helped fuel the congressional response -- 50,000 victims a year -- was an unscientific estimate by a CIA analyst who relied mainly on clippings from foreign newspapers, according to government sources who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the agency's methods. Former attorney general Alberto R. Gonzales told Congress last year that a much lower estimate in 2004 -- 14,500 to 17,500 a year -- might also have been overstated.
Also, the issue of human trafficking is closely tied to the issue of sex work, and so there are lots of biases and assumptions that predictably go along with any discussion of trafficking. For example, Howley often cites Laura María Agustín,
a sociologist who studies migrant sex workers. In her writings, she is critical of the conflation of the terms "human trafficking" with "prostitution" and "migration", arguing that what she calls the "rescue industry" often ascribes victim status to and thereby objectifies women who have made conscious and rational decisions to migrate. She advocates for a more nuanced study of migrant sex workers without pre-conceived notions.
Kerry interviewed Agustín for Reason here, in The Myth of the Migrant.
Kerry excerpts a piece by Agustín on the gender biases coloring our view of human trafficking here:
Single men’s decisions to travel are generally understood to evolve over time, the product of their ‘normal’ masculine ambition to get ahead through work: they are called migrants. Then there is the case of women who attempt to do the same…
It is striking that in the year 2001 women should so overwhelmingly be seen as pushed, obligated, coerced or forced when they leave home for the same reason as men: to get ahead through work. But so entrenched is the idea of women as forming an essential part of home if not actually being it themselves that they are routinely denied the agency to undertake a migration. So begins a pathetic image of innocent women torn from their homes, coerced into migrating, if not actually shanghaied or sold into slavery. This is the imagery that nowadays follows those who migrate to places where the only paid occupations available to them are in domestic service or sex work. The ‘trafficking’ discourse relies on the assumption that it is better for women to stay at home rather than leave it and get into trouble; ‘trouble’ is seen as something that will irreparably damage women (who are grouped with children), while men are routinely expected to encounter and overcome it. But if one of our goals is to find a vision of globalisation in which poorer people are not constructed solely as victims, we need to recognise that strategies which seem less gratifying to some people may be successfully utilised by others.
To sound the left-libertarian note, this is yet another case where patriarchal "traditional" cultural values about the proper role of women in society and the moral legitimacy of sex work leads to unlibertarian conclusions: millions of dollars wasted, mostly by governments, on essentially an urban legend popularized and believed by prudish traditionalists.