Notes from the Field

Shaking up Global Fight to End Human Trafficking

February 6, 2013

Over the weekend, academics and practitioners from across the U.S. gathered at the University of Southern California for a conference that aimed to challenge some of the bedrock assumptions and rhetoric that underpin the movement against trafficking in persons.

Hosted by Professors Rhacel Parreñas and Alice Echols, and the USC Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration (CSII), the conference “From Prosecution to Empowerment,” addressed how the war on trafficking can be a vehicle for promoting the human and worker rights of migrants, how to reduce their vulnerability to abuse, and how to empower them in the process of labor migration.

Experts highlighted the complexity of the fight against trafficking in persons, discussing issues ranging from the legal framework to service provision, from domestic trafficking to international. A common thread heard throughout the conference was the potential for the anti-trafficking framework to be a powerful policy tool to promote migrant rights and empowerment. But the interpretation of the term “human trafficking” needs to be understood in a broader context of ending all forms of severe exploitation.

Some participants argued that the number of trafficked persons in the world – 2.4 million according to the United Nations – is actually a small subset of the total number of people suffering under forced labor and other exploitative conditions, but only those who meet the legal definition of “trafficked” are entitled to receive a range of services. Moreover, because the Convention on the Rights of All Migrant Workers is among the weakest of all human rights conventions, the potential for the relatively strong Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children (otherwise known as the Palermo Protocol) to protect a broader population of migrants is vast. One interpretation of the Protocol that could hold promise is to focus on the “harboring” aspect of the definition rather than “transporting,” as there are few if any cases of labor or other exploitation where the perpetrator does not confine the victim in some sense.

By moving away from a “transportation” focus, anti-trafficking approaches could also become disentangled from the issue of undocumented migration, allowing a greater focus on what truly matters at the end of the day: eliminating severe forms of exploitation and helping the women, men, and children who have suffered through horrific abuse in fields, homes, and brothels to rebuild their lives.

This, of course, is far easier said than done, as most governments are loathe to acknowledge the need for, much less provide, services and rights for migrant (particularly undocumented) populations – regardless of whether they have been exploited or not. Moreover, the situation becomes even more complicated when anti-prostitution laws and child labor laws come into play.

The perennial dearth of data on human trafficking and forced labor was also a significant focus of attention at the conference. Better understanding at-risk populations, how survivors have fared over time, and how to provide quality services for a broader population are pieces of an emerging research agenda that focuses not on obtaining global figures, but rather conducting empirical, in-depth studies that contribute to a more holistic and reliable narrative on human trafficking.

Of course the discussions unearthed more questions than answers – but these discussions elevated important new ideas and boldly questioned some of the long-held assumptions driving the global fight to end human trafficking. Thus, USC not only advanced this important conversation in innovative ways, but also made new connections among diverse members of the anti-trafficking community. Now organizations like The Asia Foundation have an exciting and daunting task ahead: put these new ideas into action.

Kate Francis is associate director of The Asia Foundation’s Women’s Empowerment Program in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at kfrancis@asiafound-dc.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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