LIVING from the forced labour, or unwillingly provided sexual services, of vulnerable people is a horrific business, and more should be done to punish the perpetrators and succour the victims. That is a sentiment to which almost all governments readily assent, even in the (quite large) slice of the world where links exist between officialdom, the police and the shady types who trade in flesh.
And at least in principle, cross-border trafficking is acknowledged to be so manifestly dreadful that every civilised state must be seen to help correct this wrong. As one sign of this feeling, a Council of Europe convention on trafficking went into force this year; 17 countries have ratified it.
The American government has for the past eight years been mandated by law to wage a many-fronted struggle against human trafficking, at home and around the world. And some hard arguments are now raging in Washington, involving politicians, lobby groups and rival government agencies, about whether the struggle should be escalated.
Why, one might ask, should there be arguments about an issue that, in moral terms, seems so clear-cut? Mainly because the precise definition of trafficking, and hence of trafficking victims, is in reality quite difficult—whether you are a policeman or a moral philosopher.
Among pundits, people-trafficking is distinguished from the lesser evil of people-smuggling—an uncomfortable but almost unavoidable part of social reality in areas that adjoin rich countries with a demand for labour. In Kosovo, it is an open secret that you can be whisked illegally to Vienna by paying €4,000 ($6,000) to a professional smuggler. The Bosnian town of Bijeljina, once a black spot for ethnic cleansing, is now a way-station for south Asians who pay around $16,000 per head to be smuggled into the EU heartland: half on departure and half on arrival.
People-smuggling is done with the consent of those involved; they have no further debt to the gangsters who abet them once they arrive. Trafficking means moving people under duress or false pretences—or in order to use them for forced labour (ranging from domestic work to commercial sex). So the theory goes; but in practice, as the latest State Department report concedes, there is an overlap between the two activities. It often happens, for example, that a poor Indian is hired for menial work in a Gulf state—only to find that his wage is much less than promised, and his passport is seized. This leads to a form of servitude, and that person’s treatment could be called trafficking.
Despite the grey area, public perception of the two problems often diverges. In Australia, for example, public opinion favours a tough line over people-smuggling—but there has been a surge of sympathy for the victims of trafficking (often brought to Australia from Thailand or Indochina) since the release last year of “The Jammed”, a film set in a Melbourne brothel.
And in recent years both the sharper definition of, and the fight against, human-trafficking have become a high priority for the State Department; its grading of other countries’ anti-trafficking efforts is an elaborate and closely-watched business. Countries in “tier 1” (including most of the EU but not Ireland, Greece, Estonia or Latvia) are deemed to comply fully with the minimum standards of American law. Those in “tier 2” don’t yet comply but are trying hard. A lower tier, labelled “Watch List”, consists of countries that are trying, but not hard enough or with good enough results. In the bottom “tier 3” (including American allies like Saudi Arabia) are those that are neither complying nor trying hard enough. Even rickety post-Soviet states (see chart) can improve their scores if they follow what is deemed to be the right advice.
As the State Department has found, it is hard to discuss cross-border trafficking without looking at what occurs inside countries. Its reports have thus broadened into a more general look at the ways in which people are forced to work or have sex against their will. Servitude, it finds, can take many forms: for example, children are mutilated and forced to beg—or else fight in ghastly wars. Slavery, the State Department suggests, happens in many successful emerging economies; it cites bonded labour in Brazil’s plantations, or children working long hours making bricks in China. Indeed, bits of the department’s 2008 report read as though they were penned by a left-of-centre NGO, decrying the dark side of globalisation.
And some of the other ideological issues now coming to a head in Washington are even more contentious. Behind them all is an emotive question: whether there can be such a thing as willing prostitution.
How far can you go?
Since 2002, the policy of the United States has been to oppose prostitution, and to urge all governments to “reduce the demand” for prostitutes through education and by punishing those who patronise them. But how far can this principle be pressed? As passed by the House of Representatives last year, a new bill on protecting the victims of trafficking could have made it illegal for Americans to consort with prostitutes anywhere in the world (even when the prostitutes are adults, and in countries where buying sex is legal). The House version of the bill would also broaden the obligations of America’s federal (as opposed to state) authorities to curb the trafficking of sex workers inside the country. The Justice Department (amid many other objections) said all this would place a huge burden on federal agencies that are already overstretched.
Supporters of stepping up the fight (who range from feminist groups to the religious right) compare their campaign to that of William Wilberforce, whose efforts to free the British empire’s slaves bore fruit 200 years ago. John Miller, an ex-head of the State Department’s anti-trafficking programme, has deplored the Justice Department’s campaign to modify the proposed legislation; its complaints, he says, imply leniency towards an absolute evil, slavery. But the American Civil Liberties Union, a lobby group, has praised the Senate for deleting language which, in its view, would make prostitution and trafficking virtually identical. Lots more arguments can be expected before the bill reaches the White House.
In fact, says Jorgen Carling, a Norwegian who has studied the trafficking of Nigerian women to Europe, it is rarely possible to draw the absolutely clear line that policymakers want between “innocent victimhood” and “willing participation” in sex work. For example, people may know that they are being taken abroad as sex workers, but have no idea of the harsh conditions, and the absolute loss of control over their lives, that they will face. This may be an area of life where most people can recognise evil when they see the details of one horrifying case—but where it will always be hard to make hard-and-fast rules that suit every country.