Anti-trafficking advocates often speak of the need to protect the “human rights” of trafficked persons, while the U.S. government touts its “victim-centered” approach to the problem. These catchphrases convey the genuine concern that trafficking elicits on the global stage, as tales of child labor, sexual coercion, and beatings in the workplace horrify a well-meaning public. However, there is little agreement in the advocacy community or government as to what it means to respect the human rights of trafficked persons, or what a truly victim-centered approach might entail.
One reason for this lack of clarity is the muddling of prostitution and trafficking. Some advocates and government officials argue that trafficking, which is coerced labor of any kind — including sexual labor such as prostitution — is really all about prostitution and not much else.
This position sets the stage for a largely criminal justice solution to the problem of trafficking in persons. It denies that people are vulnerable because of inadequate opportunities for legal migration; lack of comprehensive legal protections for many low-wage and immigrant workers, such as guest workers or undocumented persons; economic concerns that drive people to migrate to other countries to seek a way to support their families; and lack of understanding on the part of many immigrants as to the rights and protections that they can demand in their new country.
For example, a young woman from Mexico is convinced by her husband that if she comes to the U.S. to work for a few years, they can save enough money to build a house for their family. Only when she arrives does she realize that he is putting her into prostitution, and he coerces and pleads with her, promising that it is only for a short period of time, so they can build that dream house. She believes that she can endure long enough and will survive, if only she can earn him enough money for the house. In the meantime, she knows better than to disobey. Another example: an English-speaking teacher from Russia decides to visit the U.S. for a few months, hoping to work and save up a little money, given how little she can make as a teacher back home. Having overstayed her visa, she works for a man who promises to help her obtain legal status. Instead, he forces her to work in his home for almost no money, and regularly rapes her. Their level of education and facility with the English language are irrelevant for both of these women — they have both wound up trafficked, living in a climate of fear. As long as a steady drumbeat of people are willing to migrate, seeking opportunities for work, and the receiving countries do not ensure that immigrants’ rights are protected, there will be groups of people who are vulnerable to the threats, coercion, and assaults that are the hallmark of human trafficking.
While criminal justice responses such as prosecution of traffickers are essential in the fight against trafficking, they cannot be treated as the sole, or even primary, solution. The best way to effectively address the issue within a human rights framework is to promote sound economic policies that reduce the need for migration as people seek economic security. It is essential to examine the larger consequences of global economic policies, whether they are trade agreements, subsidies, development assistance, or the effect of capital markets on local economies. Related to this is the need for living wages to be paid to immigrant workers in receiving countries. Accessible venues of migration are also essential — desperation, combined with few opportunities for legal migration, create an atmosphere fraught with danger. Similarly, laws that protect migrants’ employment rights, regardless of their status (undocumented, guest worker, tourist, or permanent resident), will ensure that exploitative and coercive practices are kept to a minimum. Finally, outreach and education about legal rights and the practices of traffickers are critical to the prevention of trafficking and to finding and assisting trafficked persons.
Such policies will support, within a human rights framework, people who are vulnerable to trafficking. Also critical to a human rights framework are less invasive criminal justice tactics. It is essential that police have concrete information about trafficking situations before they conduct what may be a futile raid on a brothel. They must create long-term relationships with the immigrant communities who can provide useful information about trafficking in their midst.
It is clear that long-term solutions focused on the human rights of trafficked persons can reduce vulnerability. The real question is whether advocates and the government have the commitment to move from confusion around prostitution to promote such solutions.email print