Last year in Washington D.C. at a one-day conference on human trafficking held at the Woodrow Wilson Center, the new Ambassador to Combat Trafficking in Persons, Lou CdeBaca, spoke about the need to re-conceptualize 'human trafficking.' He emphasized that it is not just an issue rooted in the sex industry, but a larger problem of forced labor and migration worldwide. Many academics and activists lobbying for this reconceptualization for the past decade gave a silent cheer. Ambassador CdeBaca seemed committed to recognizing two important points that many have highlighted: 1) that 'human trafficking' is not synonymous with sex work, and 2) that instances of force, fraud and coercion which characterize trafficking are experienced by many men and women outside the sex industry -- simply put trafficking is about migration and labor (regardless of the industry) gone wrong.
But, two steps backward often accompany one step forward. The 2011 TIP report was released earlier this week. It is true that the 2011 TIP features an increased focus on forced labor, and this is to be commended -- one step forward. However, unfortunately, the TIP still falls quite short of expectations -- there are at least two steps back. The TIP ranks over 180 countries into three tiers (Tier 1 being the best and so on) according to perceived trafficking challenges and governmental responses. This year the number of countries on the dreaded Tier 3 list (which can be subject to non-humanitarian sanctions) have increased from 13 to 23. Once again the rankings seem to align more closely with U.S. foreign policy considerations than actual trafficking problems. Consider the cast of characters on Tier 3: North Korea, Iran, Cuba, Venezuela, Yemen, Algeria, Burma and Libya, among others. Contrast this with the coveted Tier 1 ranked nations: Canada, Germany, Denmark, South Korea, Australia, and of course, the U.S. Critics point out that U.S. foreign policy considerations and conflicts influence tier designations, further compromising the integrity of the reports.
The language of country narratives throughout the report is suffused with overt U.S. nepotism. This is manifest in the contrast between the country descriptions of Venezuela (Tier 3) and neighboring Colombia (Tier 1). Colombia is able to enjoy Tier 1 status and is credited with making "continued robust prevention efforts" which included one conviction for forced labor. Venezuela, by contrast, is castigated in Tier 3 when "the government arrested at least twelve people for trafficking crimes during the reporting period." Beyond the somewhat neocolonial intent manifest in the report lurks a moralized rhetoric about Muslim majority countries in particular that could be said to fuel a 'clash of civilizations.' None of the "TIP heroes" come from the Middle East or countries where Islam is the majority religion. Within Tier 3 rankings, the country narratives for Muslim majority countries such as Iran and Yemen stand in stark contrast to their fellow Tier 3 compatriots. For example, descriptions of sexual depravity (forced marriage of young girls, sexual exploitation of very young women, boys being sold into brothels etc.) infuses the language about Iran's Tier 3 ranking, while the language about the Democratic Republic of Congo (also in Tier 3) focuses on labor abuses ("a significant number of miners -- men and boys -- are exploited in situations of debt bondage by businessmen"). Furthermore, the descriptions of the trafficking situation in places such as Iran are based on very little evidence. Buried in the third paragraph, the TIP authors admit that "lack of access to Iran by U.S. government officials impedes the collection of information on the country's human trafficking problem and the government's efforts to curb it," leaving us to question on what the previous paragraphs -- or even Tier 3 ranking -- is based upon.
Indeed, this points to another major shortcoming of the report, namely the opaque nature of its compilation. The scope of the trafficking problems or governmental efforts to combat them is "not known" in several countries. In many of the country descriptions it is written that governments "seem" to be addressing the problem, while other countries "seem" not to be doing enough. What constitutes "enough," however, is not clear. Furthermore, there are messy slippages with the use of numbers and statistics. In her introduction to the report, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton talks about the over 27 million people who are trafficked each year. When looking at the TIP, however, the number of victims identified worldwide in 2010 does not even reach 27,000.
Human trafficking is a global phenomenon rooted in rising inequalities and the new economic world order. That the TIP focuses on individual governmental responses reveals the micro lens through which the report casts this macro problem. As many academics and activists have shown, unilateral policies and governmental efforts to address forced labor and migration do not work. Rather, sending and receiving countries must work both bilaterally and multilaterally along with institutions such as the IMF and World Bank, to address root causes of abuse that transnational migrants experience. The current global focus on human trafficking, cast as a trope of individual, gendered and raced failings or the moral decay of the impoverished global South, functions to let states off the hook when assessing the most pressing challenges experienced by migrants globally. Policies like the TIP allow states to focus misdirected attention on issues such as "prosecution," organized crime, and criminalization, legitimating deportation as a regime, and eclipsing the larger issue of migrants' rights.
The paradigm of human trafficking, which remains part of a larger conversation seeking to account for and respond to particular aspects of human mobility at the beginning of the twenty-first century, must remain dynamic and flexible if it is to prove relevant to policy makers, advocates, and citizens of the world. If the concept remains myopically centered around unrealistic, over-individualistic ideas of migration rooted in a force/choice dichotomy, it will prove increasingly irrelevant to lived experiences.