Playing the trafficking card

“NATO Will Send Ships to Aegean Sea to Deter Human Trafficking” reported The New York Times recently (Feb. 11, 2016). The title is just the latest attempt to re-brand human smugglers into more insidious “traffickers”. But redefining the flight of refugees into Europe as “trafficking” only muddles the debate and can certainly not justify sending naval warships into Mediterranean waters.

We usually associate the word “trafficking” with the plight of migrant women forced into prostitution by violent gangs of men who then lock them up in seedy brothels. So how did Syrian war refugees, desperate to escape war in their home countries, ready to pay a smuggler for a place in a rubber raft, become the kind of “trafficking victims” that we need to save with warships? Indeed, the term “victims of trafficking” is now being used to designate both these groups by the EU Council of Ministers.

The EU Council of Ministers is now formulating a policy that will equate smuggling migrants with human trafficking. According to the draft document, available on the website, the EU justifies its policy by saying that “smuggling of human beings has increasingly become a violent type of crime involving serious physical and psychological violence and human rights abuses.”

But the EU has it wrong. Look at the UN’s Anti-smuggling Protocol, which states that “smuggling is illegal transport of a person across a State border for the purpose of profit.” Smuggling is a one-off transport transaction. Unlike trafficking, smuggling does not involve the exploitation, coercion, and violation of human rights. The migrant or refugee freely consents to the smuggling, and the payment. As for the definition of trafficking, The UN’s definition emphasizes the coercive dimension. Trafficking occurs when “one person has control (without consent) over another person for the purpose of exploiting that person.” Exploitation and consent are two, quite different phenomena. Trafficking is about exploiting. Smuggling is about consent, consent to pay in order to cross a border illegally. Traffickers remain with their victim after the crossing; smugglers disappear as fast as they can, sometimes leaving their victims to die. Trafficking and smuggling are fundamentally different. Syrian refugees know this better than anyone, which is why they pay smugglers to get them to Europe.

Refugees and trafficking victims may both be vulnerable, of course. And it is certainly the case that refugees trying to reach the shores of Europe, or Australia or trying to cross into Texas may be subjected to violence by their smugglers. But this is not trafficking. The smuggling contract typically stops once the client has crossed the border. Trafficking, on the other hand, does not always occur across borders. It can take place within the same country, as when a teenage runaway from Iowa winds up in a brothel in Newark, or an illegal Mexican woman is moved from one U.S. city to another (see fx. this story)

Whereas smuggling is a short-term transaction lasting a matter of hours, trafficking typically runs over a longer period. The trafficker wants to get the most profit out of the vulnerable migrant, who typically must work off a debt. Trafficking is thus a state of prolonged coercion and/or unfair exploitation of a person’s labor. The trafficking victim may be smuggled in from abroad, like the refugee, but the border-crossing is only the beginning of the trafficking nightmare for the victim.

“The fight against criminal trafficking networks and smugglers continues to be a priority, and the EU welcomes the next step towards the EU’s military operations in the Mediterranean (EUNAVFOR SOPHIA) welcome,” wrote the Council of Ministers in the leaked draft.

Why equate smuggling — paying someone to take you across a border – with the prolonged coercion that is trafficking? The intentional conflating of the two concept is understandable, considering that many of the people officially identified as trafficking victims from so-called “third countries” (outside the EU), have paid smugglers to get them inside the EU. But payment to cross a border is only a small part of the trafficking situation. Distinguishing smuggling from trafficking is not simply an academic issue. When the two concepts are confused or conflated, it also affects the kind of policies we develop. The EU says it is fighting “trafficking” because it cannot distinguish it from smuggling.

Should the “trafficking” concept be dropped?
Like so many social policy issues, “trafficking” is difficult to define, hard to identify and generates morally charged responses. Trafficking as the coercive variant of migration certainly takes place, but the inflation of the terms “trafficking” and “trafficking victim” has led to a sloppy use of the term. “Trafficking” now seems to apply to any sort of movement by an undocumented migrant to anywhere for any reason: from Romanian prostitutes on the streets of Europe to Mexican agricultural workers in California to the migration of desperate Syrian refugees into Greece.

Migration researchers, especially those studying economic or forced migration, are now debating whether it would be more productive to drop the term “trafficking” completely, now that the concept has become both diluted and politicized. In some ways, use of the term “trafficking” has done more harm to the people it was intended to help, turning them into helpless victims when they are not. “Trafficking” often creates the kind of moral panic or political fear that leads to demands for military or police action to combat it. The “trafficking card” can also be played when other concepts are no longer effective enough to attract the attention of the media or decision-makers. “Trafficking” is a red flag. After all, what politician or EU bureaucrat would want to be held responsible for allowing someone to be “trafficked”? The designation “trafficking” automatically leads to a search for the “victim of trafficking”. And Europe’s human rights mission is to help victims of all kinds.

The calls to fight trafficking in recent years (especially trafficking of women for the sex industry) can partly explain why we see the trafficking being conflated with smuggling of migrants. Trafficking evokes powerful images of people in chains, brutal criminal networks and sex slavery on innocent victims. Who would not want to eliminate what seems to be a modern form of slavery? Trafficking thus takes on a symbolic significance, drawing on a much larger reservoir of emotions than does smuggling. Smuggling is illegal. Trafficking does harm. Why fight something illegal when you can carry out a truly moral mission by re-branding smuggling as trafficking?

What will this conflation of smuggling into trafficking mean in practice? Should the assistance normally offered to trafficking victims also be offered to refugees who have paid smugglers? What difference will the overlap of the two terms mean for the volunteers who, in trying to help refugees in the journey onward to their country of destination, can now be arrested not only for smuggling but also for human trafficking? The EU Council, in its draft policy statement, acknowledges that smuggling and trafficking are two different types of crimes with different legal frameworks. But those who now conflate these concepts need to know that they mean different things according to the law, that they reflect different policy practices, and that there are differences in the approach to the problem and the kind of assistance that can be offered to the victims.

Does the fight against trafficking justify the use of military force?
In 2015, the EU and UN discussed whether the smugglers’ boats transporting refugees out of Libya’s ports should be destroyed using military force (NY Times & Washington Post) . Several politicians cited “trafficking” and “traffickers” as justification for these drastic measures. That they were simply smuggling refugees to Europe was no longer sufficient justification. The impending military operation in the Mediterranean, EUNAVFOR, was then re-christened as the “fight against smuggling and criminal trafficking networks”. An article on the openDemocracy research platform entitled “Beyond Trafficking and Slavery” argues that the confusion between smuggling and trafficking makes it possible for EU leaders to discuss and legitimize the use of military force as if it were a moral imperative. Smuggling is just a victimless crime, much like purchasing drugs. Trafficking, however, is evil. Which politician would dare say “No” to fight something as evil as the human trafficker?

The Italian Prime Minister contributed further to the confusion, and the justification for the use of military force, when he exclaimed that “Human traffickers are this century’s slave traders, and they should be punished”. Remarks like these compelled the English slavery scholar Julia O’Connell Davidson to point out that EU’s leaders, in their struggle against smuggling and so-called trafficking, had grossly perverted the concept of slavery.

The refugees from Syria are neither slaves nor anything resembling trafficking victims. Slaves were forced onto ships and their labor exploited in European colonies. Syrian war refugees, seeking a secure life, choose to pay enormous sums to be smuggled into Europe. As Davidson points out, if the Syrians cannot buy a plane ticket and fly directly to Europe for one-tenth the cost of paying a smuggler, this is not the fault of any “slave traders” and “traffickers”. It is the airlines themselves who insist that the Syrians have a valid visa in order to board the plane.

The muddled debate by which smuggling has morphed into trafficking and trafficking into slavery prevents us from seeing the real causes of refugee deaths at sea: war at home and border controls in Europe.