Trafficking: new slave trade or moral panic?

Sunday 31 October, 1.45pm until 3.15pm, Student Union

Human trafficking has been labelled a ‘modern-day slave trade’ and is seen as one of the most pressing human rights issues today: 117 countries have signed the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking. The International Labor Organization has concluded that trafficking is a multibillion dollar industry, with millions of people being transported within and across borders through coercive and violent means. Yet there is little hard evidence out there. The trafficking and prostitution bonanza predicted to take place in South Africa during the World Cup this year simply failed to materialise. Meanwhile, Operation Pentameter Two, the UK’s largest ever crackdown on trafficking, failed to find a single person who had forced anybody into prostitution, despite hundreds of raids on sex workers over a period of six months. Campaigners say this is because trafficking is a hidden crime, with victims working in the shadow economy and scared to approach the authorities. Critics say it’s because trafficking is a misleading label, which, in actual fact, refers to diverse forms of migration and employment.

Campaigners for freedom of movement argue the best way to help migrants avoid taking clandestine and dangerous routes across the world is to ease up stringent migration laws. Anti-trafficking campaigners counter that whereas trafficked persons were often dismissed as illegal migrants in the past, now they have recourse to new claims in the asylum process. Critics believe ‘rescuers’ dehumanise migrants, compelling them to present themselves as victims lacking agency. A majority of anti-trafficking campaigns focus on rescuing people working in the sex industry, leading sex workers’ rights activists to claim trafficking has become a powerful, emotive tool for prostitution abolitionists to win wider support for their clampdowns on the sex industry as a whole.

When it comes to trafficking, how important are definitions and statistics – shouldn’t the focus be on ending abuse, wherever it occurs? Do anti-trafficking campaigns combat migrant exploitation or do they aid crackdowns on free movement? Is the trafficking industry even real, or is it a moral panic?

Listen to session audio:


Laura Agustín
author, Sex at the Margins: migration, labour markets and the rescue industry; researcher; blogger, Border Thinking

Julie Bindel
journalist, author, broadcaster and feminist activist; research fellow, Lincoln University

Dr Nick Mai
reader in migration studies, London Metropolitan University

Nathalie Rothschild
freelance journalist; producer and reporter for Sweden's public service radio

Klara Skrivankova
trafficking programme co-coordinator, Anti-Slavery International

Viv Regan
managing editor, spiked

Produced by
Nathalie Rothschild freelance journalist; producer and reporter for Sweden's public service radio
Viv Regan managing editor, spiked
Recommended readings
Britain's sex trade needs tackling

By opting out of an EU directive on sex slave trafficking, we continue to ignore the plight of vulnerable girls and women

Dennis McShane, Guardian Comment is free, 6 September 2010

Migrants in the UK Sex Industry

In an environment of increasing labour migration, ever more restrictive immigration policy and an increasingly globalised capitalism that favours ‘flexible’, and low paid, workers, migrants have come to form the majority of those who sell sex.

ESRC Project findings, Institute for the study of European Transformations, 2010

Buying sex abroad causes trafficking at home?

Flawed reasoning about the sex industry from Scotland.

Laura Agustin, Border Thinking on Migration, Trafficking and Commercial Sex blog, 28 August 2010

‘Rescue’: a new PC term for repatriation

As the sex-trafficking scare is exposed as a tissue of lies, Nathalie Rothschild spells out the need for full freedom of movement for migrants.

Nathalie Rothschild, spiked, 27 October 2009

Big Brothel research 'seriously flawed'

Poppy Project research into sex workers 'was based on flawed data' and 'cannot be substantiated'

Anthea Lipsett, Guardian, 4 October 2008

Revealed: the truth about brothels

A survey into London's off-street sex industry has exposed just how widespread it is - and documents in disturbing detail the plight of the women trapped in it.

Julie Bindel, Guardian, 11 September 2008

Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry

Rips apart distinctions between migrants, service work and sexual labour and reveals the utter complexity of the contemporary sex industry

Laura Agustín, Zed Books, 15 May 2007

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