Human Trafficking: The White Hollywood Star’s Burden
ON the centenary of International Women’s day, in the swanky halls of Lancaster House in London, Oscar-winning actress and United Nations Goodwill Ambassador Mira Sorvino presented an art installation dedicated to victims of human trafficking. Made up of faceless, nude, dull-coloured mannequins trapped behind barbed wire, this conceptual piece of art, unveiled at a launch event for a new UN grants fund for trafficking victims, is not hard to interpret.
The message is that millions of people, mostly women and children, are trapped in dehumanising conditions and are in need of rescue. Queue western celebrities, international development organisations and crime prevention agencies dedicated to combating ‘modern-day slavery’. As Sorvino put it before cutting the ribbon:
“[Trafficking victims] can’t speak for themselves – yet. But that’s what we’re trying to do… The trust fund will hopefully help emancipate them and give them a voice.”
It was a clear expression of how the fight against trafficking is an updated version of the white man’s burden. Anti-trafficking activists may be well-intentioned, but they also tend to regard themselves as noble saviours on a mission to rescue millions of (mostly brown) people, even if those people never voiced any desire to be saved in the first place. By rendering migrants and would-be migrants ‘voiceless’, anti-traffickers can then step in to speak on their behalf.
“As a victims’ advocate in the fight against human trafficking, I encourage each and every person to work together in tackling this crime,” Sorvino proclaimed at Lancaster House. “Modern-day slavery only exists because we tolerate it.”
In truth, all this ‘slavery’ talk is only helping to put migrants into a submissive relationship with a motley crew of celebrities, charities, police forces and feminist activists who have turned ‘human trafficking’ into one of the biggest issues of our time, and who fancy themselves as modern-day abolitionists. But while these self-styled rescuers may get a moral boost from campaigning against ‘modern-day slavery’, there aren’t many clear benefits for the victims they purport to be saving.
Making The Victim
In fact, in the name of trafficking prevention, states have perversely been able to make a humanitarian case for tightening border controls, extending surveillance of foreigners, conducting raids on workplaces and deporting migrant workers. Female migrants suffer the most as anti-trafficking activism has been directed mainly at women and is tied up with efforts to clamp down on the sex industry. Police rescue operations have received the blessing of feminists who somehow believe that labelling millions of women from around the world as hapless victims is ’empowering’.
There’s no denying that many migrants – men and women – put themselves at risk by taking roundabout routes across the world. Along the way, they pay hefty fees to smugglers and end up taking up work in the so-called shadow economy. Many work long hours for very little pay and in degrading conditions. This kind of exploitation is a consequence of a lack of legal means of moving about the world and earning money. Yet the aim of anti-trafficking campaigns is not to open up opportunities for free movement and decent labour conditions. Instead, the aim is to keep foreigners in their place – for their own good, of course. The anti-trafficking lobby as a whole has promoted a risk-averse view of migration as something dangerous and threatening, something that is preferably to be avoided.
Especially female migrants are seen, not as resourceful or brave adults moving around the world to earn money and improve their living conditions, but as desperate, tragic and pitiful. They are portrayed as victims, or potential victims, of abuse who are better off staying at home rather than take a risk by going abroad. Like the artist who created those faceless mannequin dolls, anti-trafficking campaigners imagine women from poorer parts of the world as a mass of voiceless, exposed and vulnerable creatures who are too fragile to explore the world without also being physically and psychologically damaged.
This view of migration as something that is rarely undertaken voluntarily by people from poorer parts of the world is reflected in the official definition of trafficking, outlined in the UN Trafficking Protocol. The definition leaves little room for consent and free will. In fact, in reports on trafficking, migrants are often described as being unaware or in denial about the fact that they’ve been trafficked.
The Trafficking Protocol puts special emphasis on women and children because they are seen as particularly clueless and vulnerable. In fact, the anti-trafficking lobby tends to reduce women to the level of children, constituting them as innocent, easily duped girls. This is quite strange considering that the anti-trafficking lobby is made up to a large extent of self-described feminists. Yet feminists have traditionally fought for women to be regarded as autonomous, free-thinking individuals, not as clueless idiots. Indeed, all this victim talk is a far cry from the outlook of Clara Zetkin, the socialist and women’s rights activist who initiated International Women’s Day in 1910 and fought for women’s economic independence and right to work on equal terms as men.
It is not in migrants’ interest to be described as slaves. This only gives a moral boost to their self-appointed rescuers, whose collective efforts amount to little more than a neo-colonial project. They tend to present a black-and-white view of the world as a place populated by villains – Dodgy Foreigners kidnapping and luring women across borders – and heroes – glamorous film stars, charities, feminists and police officers. Trapped in the middle are The Victims – impoverished women and children, adrift in the world and with no power to exercise personal agency.
What we really need rescue from is this simplistic, and harmful, Hollywoodesque view of global movement and labour.
Anorak readers: Our newest writer is Nathalie Rothschild, an international correspondent for spiked and Judisk Krönika, the Swedish Jewish Chronicle. She has contributed to publications around the world, including The Times, the Guardian, the Daily Telegraph, the Independent, and the Jewish Chronicle in the UK; the Christian Science Monitor and Jewcy in the US; the Hindustan Times in India and the Australian Down Under. Please make her feel welcome…