The British Government’s recent decision not to renew its funding for the Poppy Project, an initiative of the feminist charity Eaves, which provides specialist shelter, support and legal assistance to female victims of trafficking, has once again raised questions over the way in which anti-trafficking policy is formulated in this country. When the announcement was first made, cries of outrage were heard across the media. Since Poppy had lost the government tender to the Salvation Army, accusations of ideology clouding sound judgement were multiple, and were accompanied by claims of austerity trumping justice for those in need.
Within days, however, the simple picture built around this decision had become more complex. Nichi Hodgson, writing in the Guardian, echoed critiques of activists from across the anti-trafficking field when she highlighted that Poppy’s work is itself highly ideological (and highly contested), given that it has long centred around a campaign to prevent trafficking by outlawing the sex industry entirely. Beyond Poppy, commentators and activists are increasingly asking serious questions about the government’s claim to be ‘victim-centred’ or to have adopted a ‘rights-based’ approach in preventing trafficking and protecting people from it. I have sought to draw on both my own and related research in examining these claims.
Great debates rage over how, and indeed whether, the crime of ‘trafficking’ should be defined. Some argue for a broad definition encompassing any involvement in the process of exploitation, whereas others opt for a simpler focus solely on the ‘end-use’ mistreatment certain individuals face. Despite the debate, international agreement has coalesced around the basic UN ‘Trafficking Protocol’ formula that ‘trafficking = movement + exploitation’. In Britain, the government has adopted the UN definition, and has passed a series of Acts in order to give it the legal platform to prosecute, both in the case of sex trafficking and trafficking for forced labour. Beyond this, it has mandated the Serious Organised Crime Agency to tackle the underworld elements of the crime and has trained police officers and immigration officials in how to spot what it sees as evidence of it. As the Poppy controversy has highlighted, it also funds certain safe-houses for victims.
Notwithstanding the government’s legal and administrative measures, lead practitioners in the anti-trafficking field have identified a number of major problems with the British response and lament a huge gulf between the Government’s approach in principle and the effects of that approach in practice. Chief among civil society complaints is what many argue is an excessive focus on immigration – the movement component of the trafficking definition – despite Home Office commitments to tackle forced labour and the exploitation that waits at the end of the trafficking chain. In this regard, it is worth nothing that the Government’s anti-trafficking team is staffed almost entirely by UK Borders Agency officials trained to deal with immigration offences. Police interventions have focused heavily on ‘rescuing’ foreign women trafficked into prostitution and have done little to address either victims of non-sexual exploitation or those British or non-British individuals who are in the UK legally but whose working conditions equate to trafficking. Prevention strategies have largely encouraged people not to migrate as a means of protecting them from eventual exploitation, rather than offering them safe channels to move and ensuring they can work in safety when they arrive.
Relatedly, health care professionals working with victims of trafficking have suggested that the authorities’ approach is so aggressively anti-migratory that it re-traumatises victims when in questioning. One commentator told me that the desire amongst UKBA staff to repatriate was so extensive as to disincline him to work with the authorities any further.
If, as was explained above, the crime of trafficking equates to movement plus exploitation, and if, as the Government has stated, its intent is to employ a human rights-based policy, many believe that the operational focus principally on the migratory aspects of the crime fundamentally reverses the order of priority, in a way that is detrimental to victims and their well-being. Organisations working in the field therefore suggest that anti-trafficking policy should be re-aligned to focus on forced labour, where the priority response is in increasing the power and reach of labour inspectorates such as the Gangmasters Licensing Authority in order to eradicate exploitative working conditions across the British economy. To do this, one commentator suggested, would be ‘to ignore the one immigration criminal in order to save the 99 victims of trafficking/exploitation, as opposed to dealing with the one at the expense of the 99’. Added to this, academics and activists have repeatedly argued that more attention is needed to address the causes of trafficking. Given that, as studies show, most ‘trafficked people’ choose either to migrate or to engage in exploitative labour (even when they are aware that the consequences may be negative), questions must be asked as to why migration is such an attractive option and why people would tolerate exploitative working conditions in the first place.
Fundamentally, as Canadian academic Nandita Sharma has suggested, the answer lies in the fact that global neoliberal economic policies which promote the free movement of capital whilst simultaneously restricting the movement of labour have led to an ever-increasing impoverishment of non-Western workers and a destruction of the political and social safety-nets that may once have protected them. Until it takes steps to change these realities, whatever the British government does in the fight against trafficking will remain little more than window dressing.