When media and experts talk about human trafficking, attention immediately zooms in on what happens to people when and after they leave their homes. You have heard variations of the stories in the media: it’s usually about women or children and occasionally men in sweat shops. They are tricked and trapped, sent abroad, sexually exploited or sold into slavery. These are tragic stories. But have you ever heard about the stories of those very men, women and children before they left their homes? What happened to them? Why were they willing to leave their homes often knowing about the perils ahead? That’s something we don’t hear about but does need equal attention. Here’s why:
- A narrow focus on human trafficking can mislead policy makers and activists into believing that tackling human traffickers and protecting migrants will root out the problem. The crude reality is that as long as wages are higher in some places and lower in areas afflicted by poverty, conflict or disasters, people will migrate. The more wages differ between source and destination areas, the more migration will occur and increase incidences of human trafficking. In other words, to understand human trafficking one has to look into labour market dynamics and the social, economic and gender factors that are prompting people to go on the move.
- Another reason why a holistic understanding of human trafficking is necessary is that media portrayals are almost never based on factually verifiable trends. They tend to be based on specific events. The media has its own incentives to broadcast information that grabs attention. Law enforcement have their own incentives to report the latest police raids or border patrols. And aid agencies have their accountability incentives to report on the work they do to tackle human trafficking. Unbalanced media information on human trafficking can easily mislead audiences into perceptions of the problem that are inaccurate.
- The third reason why a holistic understanding of human trafficking is necessary, is that a narrow understanding of human trafficking can legitimise policies and practices that actually harm migrants. Social and gender stereotypes employed by individuals and institutions that work to combat trafficking can lead to the isolation of women and children in shelters and the abuse of migrants particularly from the poorest sections of society, including those who are women, children and discriminated minorities.
So the next time you hear about a human trafficking story, ask yourself the questions that are usually not asked about the people in those stories. What about making ends meet when others in the family can’t? What about the miserably low income opportunities in rural areas as compared to the promise of cities? What about the patriarchal behaviour and domestic violence that pushes women out of their homes?
Answering those questions, in addition to the ones usually raised, is important. It will help identifying more effective ways of preventing human trafficking. I hope that these questions will help to stimulate further thoughts and discussions.
Igor Bosc is Chief Technical Adviser at the International Labour Organization (ILO) working on the Work in Freedom Programme - a UK Aid funded partnership initiative to find effective ways of preventing trafficking of women in South Asia and the Middle East. His questions and thoughts on the framing of the human trafficking discourse are outlined here as a contribution to the Migrating out of Poverty International Women's Day panel debate Labour trafficking? Understanding the use of brokers in women's and girls' labour migration in the global South on 6 March 2015.