Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Modern Slavery Inside the EU

10 minutes.

Most people associate "slavery" with the transatlantic slave trade, abolished in the 19th century. One estimate puts the number of Africans enslaved in that trade at over 11 million. But slavery did not end in the 19th century. It's still with us in the 21st.

Zambia, human trafficking posterImage by mvcorks via Flickr

As with most statistics on crime, calculating the extent of the problem is difficult. Victims are unlikely to be reported unless they are actually discovered by authorities. The United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking (UN.GIFT) admits that:

"Available information is often based on estimates with little explanation on how figures were calculated." (UN.GIFT, 2008, p.3)

Nonetheless, UN.GIFT fears the problem is growing each year and might even be "reaching epidemic proportions" (ibid). Those sources that do cite figures, despite running into the methodological problems outlined by UN.GIFT, can at least suggest the scale that modern slavery is operating on.

The UN International Labour Organization (ILO) published a "Minimum Estimate of Forced Labour in the World" in 2005 and came up with the figure of 12.3 million (Belser et al, 2005, p.1). Another study, published by Dr. Kevin Bales of the NGO Free the Slaves, puts the figure higher at 27 million (Bales, 2007, p.2).


There is, of course, still the problem of how to actually define "slavery." Free the Slaves has published a list of 12 terms commonly used in place of the word "slavery" by journalists, academics, politicians, etc. These terms vary from "debt bondage" to "human trafficking" to "slavery-like conditions [popular with journalists]." The problem is, most of these terms actually are technically distinct: debt bondage is not the same thing as human trafficking!

By making these technical distinctions clear, is the power of the word "slavery" lost? Does it become easier to disconnect emotionally from the topic? And if it does become easier to disconnect, is this necessarily a bad thing? Does it not, in fact, provide needed objectivity? Or does it just encourage people to ignore the issue?

Certainly, we only seem to make these technical distinctions when discussing modern instances of slavery. "Debt bondage" and "human trafficking" have existed since the institution of slavery was first recorded, yet we still speak in more general terms of "slavery" when we refer to the practices in Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and Greece (Greene, 2000). Why then is there such a language bias today? Is it because we conceptualise slavery as belonging to the past? Or is there a more complicated reason?


One of the terms used most often when describing modern slavery is "trafficking in persons" (or "human trafficking"). Some commentators, though, have strongly criticised this term for being too detached:

“The transatlantic slave trade from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries involved the trafficking of eleven million Africans across thousands of miles to work as slaves on plantations. Why is this historical practice termed a slave trade and the same practice today termed trafficking? This linguistic attenuation scrambles global attention and blunts abolitionist policies.” (Kara, 2008, pp.4-5)

Even the Executive Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Antonio Maria Costa, has written about the problems of terminology, arguing that:

"The term trafficking in persons can be misleading: it places emphasis on the transaction aspects of a crime that is more accurately described as enslavement." (Costa, 2008, p.1)

If it is misleading, then why does "human trafficking" still persist as the term of choice used to describe modern slavery? The critics certainly seem to have a convincing argument: describing it as "human trafficking" makes it sound like the crime is in the moving of a person across borders, rather than in the enslavement of a person against their will.

Perhaps a part of the reason for the continued use of "human trafficking" might be the increasingly blurred boundaries between what is actually human trafficking and what is just "human smuggling" (i.e. "illegal" or "irregular" migration, as it is also known). Some critics point to a "migration-crime-security continuum" that sees "migrants themselves... criminalized and their experiences of victimization [overlooked]." (Goodey, 2003, p.416). In other words, according to this argument, politicians are eager not to be seen as being too "soft" on illegal immigration, and this can also unfortunately result in victims of trafficking being prejudiced against legally as a result.

The UN's legal definitions of both human trafficking and human smuggling are set out in the two "Palermo Protocols" adopted in Palermo, Italy, in the year 2000. The Palermo Protocols replaced an earlier definition of human trafficking from 1949 that had proved less than successful:

"Few countries had signed the 1949 Convention, partly because of controversies over its definition. (Skilbrei and Tveit, 2008, p.11)"

The definition of human trafficking is a sensitive subject for a lot of countries (including the United States, Germany and the UK, none of which had ratified the 1949 Convention), but the ILO argues that the distinction is now (post-Palermo Protocols) legally clear:

"The distinction between smuggling and trafficking, now firmly anchored in international law, has clarified that irregular migration processes can involve violation of human rights as much as they are a violation of state borders. Those who have suffered human rights violations are seen as trafficked victims and should be afforded protection measures." (Andrees, 2008, p.1)

So whether a victim is deemed to have been "trafficked" or merely "smuggled" (and also, therefore, the nature of the legal protection they are afforded) is dependent upon the treatment of the victim by the trafficker/smuggler. Specifically, according to the Palermo Protocols, the determinate of whether or not a victim has been "trafficked" or "smuggled" is whether or not the victim is being "exploited" commercially through "sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs" (Article 3a) and whether that exploitation is being achieved through illicit means (such as force, deception, abduction, fraud, etc.).

This goes right to the heart of the controversy surrounding the definition of "human trafficking," because by defining human trafficking as being essentially the same thing as human smuggling with the caveat that trafficking involves the infringement of the individuals' rights, this definition is potentially offering extra legal rights to "illegal immigrants."


Elizabeth Pisani, author of The Wisdom of Whores, warns of the dangers of taking the worst-treated victims of human trafficking and generalising their experiences across the entire sex industry. She believes that, in the context of protecting sex workers:

"[T]reating all sex workers as though they are the helpless victims of trafficking is short-sighted and counterproductive." (Pisani, 2008, p. 227)

Furthermore, she argues:

"The 'victim' thing takes us back to the religious convictions of right-wing voters in the United States. In recent years they have launched a crusade to equate prostitution with human trafficking... I don't doubt that some pimps and brothel owners hold women and young girls against their will, forcing them to sell sex and sometimes even keeping all of the payment for themselves. But these cases of slavery appear to me to be relatively rare." (ibid, pp.213-217)

By challenging the identification of prostitution with "victimhood," Pisani's argument serves to further blur the boundaries between human trafficking and human smuggling. Is a woman who is smuggled for sexual exploitation with her consent not necessarily a victim of trafficking? Should she be treated as a criminal or as a victim?

A closer reading of the Palermo Protocols does not help matters. Sub-paragraph (b) of the definition of human trafficking states:

( b ) The consent of a victim of trafficking in persons to the intended exploitation set forth in subparagraph ( a ) of this article shall be irrelevant where any of the means set forth in subparagraph ( a ) have been used;

So even if a victim consents to being smuggled, they should still be considered trafficked if certain means are employed in their recruitment. These "means" include not only force and deception, but also the abuse of a "position of vulnerability" over the victim. This immediately raises certain complications.

Martin Wyss, for example, Chief of Mission of the International Organisation for Migration in Moldova, has argued that in Moldova (one of the poorest countries in Europe) most victims of trafficking come from:

"vulnerable, broken families... [they] have looked for an alternative in Moldova and didn't manage to find one... [and they] act out of despair." (IMO, 2007)

Does this mean that, because of their especially vulnerable economic and social environment, irregular migrants from Moldova should automatically be considered victims of trafficking and not smuggling?

Wyss argues that a fixation on the question of consent is, at best, unhelpful:

"[The] question is always: how well did the victim know before she entered the trafficking trap. How 'guilty' she is... It is completely unfair to blame the victims, because even if they knew that they had to work [as a prostitute] in a bar, they never imagined the working conditions and they were always promised things that they didn't get." (IOM, 2007)


Human trafficking/slavery is always a highly complex issue in any regional context. But the nature of the European Union, with relatively poor countries in Eastern Europe sharing borders with the wealthy countries of Western Europe, and especially with the porous nature of national borders following the Schengen Agreement, makes for a particularly complicated situation (Kara, 2008, p.11).

In addition, the status of human trafficking in Europe is not a static, unchanging thing. It is constantly evolving in response to the new possibilities of globalization, the pressures of economic forces and the reactions of states, NGOs and law enforcement agencies. Anti-trafficking policies, if properly targeted and implemented, can have a real impact. Martin Wyss reports, for example, that:

"The statistics show that there are now very few victims from the Balkans these days. We believe that a concerted action from the international communities has had an effect." (IOM, 2007)

But just as fast as old trafficking routes are closed down, new ones open up. Lilia Gorceag, a psychologist working with the IOM Mission in Moldova, explains:

"At the beginning it was Kosovo and the Balkans. Today it has shifted to the Middle East, especially Turkey, as well as Russia and Ukraine. There is also internal trafficking." (IOM, 2007)

So what is the correct approach to take? Critics of the current international response have argued that "the international community has been... obsessed with stretching out their hands to the victims of trafficking" at the expense of a concerted focus on prevention (IOM, 2007). More effort needs to be spent addressing the root cause of trafficking, i.e; the conditions of poverty in developing countries that make people so desperate. But is this goal at all realistic? Elizabeth Pisani thinks not:

"To wipe out prostitution, you'd have to wipe out the poverty that fuels the supply side. A noble goal. But [some studies] suggest that prostitution is driven by demand more than suppply. So you'd also have to wipe out whatever it is that makes men buy sex." (Pisani, 2008, p.220)

Pisani is speaking in the context of international prostitution but her argument could equally be applied to human trafficking in general. Trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation is by far the most common form of trafficking (representing 79% of all victims) - although it should be pointed out that there could be a statistical bias at work here (Costa, 2008, p.2).

Pisani's argument is that it is essentially not possible to eliminate prostitution. In an age of increasing globalization, people will always cross borders, whether legally or illegally - and they will travel to anywhere better paid jobs can be found. Pisani thus calls not for prevention, but for more attention to be paid to targeting those factors that make life for prostitutes so dangerous and unbearable. These measures could be better distribution of condoms, funding for sex-education programs, and possibly even the legalisation and regulation of prostitution.

Would the legalisation of prostitution and increased representation of the rights of prostitutes (for example, through unions) help ease those factors that generate the violence against and mistreatment of victims of human trafficking? It's not completely clear that it would. Trafficking also takes place for the purposes of exploitation of manual labour (Costa, 2008, p.2) and labour is not prohibited like prostitution. Slave labour is exploited because it is cheaper than normal labour, and likewise sex slaves would always be cheaper than well-protected prostitutes.

Siddharth Kara, in his book, Sex Trafficking, argues that:

"The best short-term tactics against the industry are those that reduce the aggregate demand of consumers and slave owners. The most effective way to reduce aggregate demand is to attack the industry's immense profitability by inverting its risk-reward economics, that is, by making the risk of operating a sex slave operation far more costly." (Kara, 2008, p.200)

In other words, a greater emphasis on effective law enforcement and punishment. So where should the emphasis lie? On prevention, on protection (of victims rights) or on enforcement? In a perfect world: on all three. But in a real world of limited resources and political attention, the solution is unclear.

The difficulty in finding a definition of modern slavery is not just a side-argument, though. It is absolutely fundamental. It represents the current divided political opinion about modern slavery. Are modern slaves innocent victims of violence and intimidation? Or are they immigrants trying to cross borders illegally and fully aware that they will be entering into prostitution or other forms of exploitation?

In the middle of a global economic recession, it is entirely possible that views on modern slavery may harden even as increasing poverty drives more and more people into the hands of traffickers. If anything is clear from my investigations into the status of modern slavery, it is that more needs to be done to promote a general understanding of the realities and problems of the situation.

Beyond that limited suggestion, it is difficult for me to fully endorse one approach over another (especially given my limited knowledge of the subject). International institutions such as UN bodies have produced many considered and well-researched suggestions, but their hands can still be tied politically as they depend upon governments for support and funding. Opinions from academics and activists depend on who you are talking to and what their political beliefs are.

The fundamental question, then, is still one of definition. How you respond to human trafficking will depend on politics, and politics depends on how you define human trafficking. We seem to be getting closer to a consensus (with more countries having signed up to the Palermo Protocol than the 1949 Convention) but until clarity is achieved, we may find ourselves continuing to work at cross-purposes.


Andrees, B. (2008) Forced Labour and Trafficking in Europe: How People are Trapped In, Live Through and Come Out, International Labour Office, Geneva

Bales, K. (2007) Defining and Measuring Modern Slavery, Free the Slaves, (Accessed April 2009)

Belser, P. et al (2005) ILO Minimum Estimate of Forced Labour in the World, International Labour Office, Geneva,
(Accessed April 2009)

Costa, A. (2008) Global Report on Trafficking in Persons: Executive Summary, UNODC

Goodey, J. (2003) "Migration, Crime and Victimhood: Responses to Sex Trafficking in the EU," Punishment Society, 5 (415)

Greene, J.D. (2000) Slavery in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, Franklin Watts

IOM (2007) Testimonies of Victims of Human Trafficking (DVD), International Organisation for Migration, Mission to the Republic of Moldova

Kara, S. (2008) Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery, Columbia University Press, New York

Pisani, E. (2008) The Wisdom of Whores: Bureaucrats, Brothels, and the Business of AIDS, Boydell & Brewer

Skilbrei, M. and Tveit, M. (2008) "Defining Trafficking through Empirical Work: Blurred Boundaries and their Consequences," Gender Technology and Development, 12 (9)

UN.GIFT (2008) Human Trafficking: An Overview, United Nations, New York, (Accessed April 2009)

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Eurocentric said...

An impressive article.

Did something prompt you to write on this subject, or are you just interested in the whole immigration/border control/trafficking area?

Josef Litobarski said...

Cheers, Eurocentric!

I wrote this as part of an assignment for Uni. It was for an English language class (most of my classmates are Italian) so I had freedom to be a bit journalistic-y (although it's still pretty dry and academic). The main part of the assignment is actually still coming up - to give a presentation about blogging.

I'm playing around with the format and style of my posts a bit. Experimenting with breaking up the text, using coloured text, adding citations (although that's more to do with it originally being an essay), etc.

I saw the "Reading Time" gimmick on another blog, and tried it out... but I'm not sure I'll use it again. I can't really see it being useful for anybody.

Anyway - thanks for the feedback!