The anti-politics of anti-trafficking

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Neil HowardCurrent discourses and dialogues about trafficking are denying many migrants autonomy over their actions.

Mainstream trafficking narratives are creating victims out of independent actors while simultaneously denying them support structures according to Neil Howard, Marie Curie Fellow with the Migration Policy Centre.

In contrast to the traditional view of trafficked migrants as tricked, kidnapped or coerced by malevolent smugglers, Howard’s research demonstrates that a large number of supposed ‘victims’ are actually willing migrants whose migratory motivations are economic and social.

The anti-trafficking “pathological paradigm” ignores many of the decisions made by individuals on the ground, and imposes a template of helplessness onto their lives which is constantly replicated and re-enforced by policy structures that stick rigidly to the idea of the “(neo) liberal woman or child”, living within the boundaries of the nation-state within a neoliberal economy.

Howard claims a politics of silence has fallen within anti-trafficking institutions and political agencies, resulting in a failure to criticise the dominant structural politics responsible for labour exploitation, including that of migrant labour, whether it be trafficked or not.

Aid agencies, NGOs and government departments fear criticism of the system will see their funding cut but the system remain unchanged.

This “playing of the game” has resulted in flawed and reductive policies helping to self-perpetuate the current system.

Much of Howard’s previous work has focused on Benin, where low skilled migration to different areas is often welcomed by teenagers and their families, but are nonetheless portrayed as victims of trafficking and encouraged (or forced) to return home, despite the inevitable loss of wages. “There is a creation of anti-migrationary narrative where all migration by the young is seen as dangerous and unwilled,” said Howard.

“Mainstream anti-trafficking discourse and policy fails to address the structural politics of poverty”, Howard said. “Political hypocrisy appears necessary for institutions that are supposed to protect the vulnerable. The major question I am now asking myself is whether these bodies have to promote the conceptual figure of the trafficking victim, like that of the slave, in order to maintain the fictions that lie at the root of liberalism, liberal capitalism and the nation-state itself.”