‘Your luggage is too sexy’: Immigration officials’ bias about trafficking and suspicious non-citizens

Friday, 8 November 2013 20:17 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

How do airport authorities identify a woman arriving on a tourist visa as a potential sex worker? Mostly it has been through scrutinising women’s luggage. ‘Sexy’ lingerie prompts questioning of women as potential victims of trafficking or unauthorized sex workers.

By Julie Ham, Marie Segrave and Sharon Pickering

Immigration officials rely on simplistic stereotypes when making decisions about ‘suspicious’ non-citizens. The consequences of these decisions are serious.

 Two studies (one with immigration officers at two major Australian airports, the second with victims of trafficking and authorities in Australia and Thailand) have revealed consistent findings of authorities’ use of stereotypes about sex work and trafficking when they are determining whether a non-citizen is a potential victim of trafficking or a potential offender.

Looking for Lingerie

The first research study looked at how immigration officers decide that a person entering Australia on a tourist visa is ‘suspicious’. Someone is ‘suspicious’ if it is believed they may breach visa conditions by overstaying or by working when this is disallowed. Authorities explained they are suspicious of sex workers, who they say are the main example of the ‘problem women traveler’. Women suspected of coming to Australia to be involved in sex work were identified by authorities as presenting two risks: risks that they would be victimized (i.e. trafficked) and/or the risk that they would work illegally (i.e. breaching tourist visa conditions).

 How, though, do airport authorities identify a woman arriving on a tourist visa as a potential sex worker? Mostly it has been through scrutinising women’s luggage. Authorities said that they assess what is packed, what the woman is wearing when travelling and decisions about whether the type of clothing in her luggage is perceived to ‘fit’ the visa she was travelling with and where she is from. The inclusion of ‘sexy’ clothing (e.g. underwear, lingerie) leads to further questioning of women as potential victims of trafficking or unauthorized sex workers, particularly if women are Asian, as this airport immigration officer explained

 “we have to find evidence…. [when] we are doing a baggage search [the question is]… what are their motives. If you’re coming here for a holiday, why do you bring…sexy lingerie and so many [items], like…a sex worker?”

 This finding raises concerns about entrenched racial and gender discrimination. Further interrogation does consider whether there was evidence of sufficient involvement in travel arrangements and knowledge of the intended destination, but discrimination and bias remain. Immigration judgments about women travelling with sexy underwear suggest that race and gender are key considerations when predicting victimization or the intention to work illegally. Despite evidence to the contrary, it is assumed Asian women form the bulk of women entering Australia to work in the sex industry as well as being the group most at risk of trafficking.

 Is She Sad Enough to be a ‘Real Victim’?

In the second research project examining counter-trafficking efforts in Australia and Thailand interviews with authorities- including police and immigration authorities- found that the way women behave when they come into contact with authorities is critical. As this Thai support worker explains:

“I think that [they] are a victim [of]… trafficking… but the authorit[ies] will not recognise [this], they think that…women lie and some women don’t cry and don’t seem vulnerable enough to be victim… [When I reported a case to an authority, he] said [to me] ‘I don’t feel she’s a victim she didn’t cry’”

 This is in direct contrast to government agencies arguing that a process or a checklist is in place for determining whether someone may be a victim of trafficking. Consistently, over the course of these projects conducted in a five year time frame, those most likely to be identified as potential victims are those perceived by authorities to be closest to an innocent and passive stereotype: women who subject to extremely exploitative conditions. The women not identified as potential victims; like suspect travelers, are the most proactive, independent, experienced sex workers.

 The findings suggest that there remain certain groups of people who are subject to more scrutiny by authorities and whose ability to travel across borders may be reduced as a consequence. Their experiences of exploitation may also be ignored. These projects indicate the need for a more thorough review of immigration decision-making processes.

 --Excerpted from ‘In the Eyes of the Beholder: Border enforcement, suspect travellers and trafficking victims’ Anti-Trafficking Review, 2 (Sept 2013) Julie Ham, Marie Segrave and Sharon Pickering.

The study was originally published in the Anti-Trafficking Review (www.antitraffickingreview.org), a journal that promotes a human rights based approach to anti-trafficking. A peer-reviewed, open source publication with a readership in 78 countries, the Review offers an outlet and space for dialogue between academics, practitioners, trafficked persons and advocates seeking to communicate new ideas and findings to those working for and with trafficked persons

 

Julie Ham is a PhD Candidate in Criminology in the School of Political and Social Inquiry, Monash University. Email: julie.ham@monash.edu

Marie Segrave is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology in the School of Political and Social Inquiry, Monash University. Email: marie.segrave@monash.edu

 Sharon Pickering is a Professor of Criminology in the School of Political and Social Inquiry, Monash University and holder of an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship undertaking research on Border Policing and Security and Gender. Email: sharon.pickering@monash.edu

 All three researchers are involved in research relating to gender, trafficking, sex work and border regulation. They are contributing members to the Border Observatory, an independent research forum on border crossings which aims to enhance scholarly and public policy debates at local, regional and international levels (www.borderobservatory.org ; Twitter @BObservatory ; https://www.facebook.com/BorderCrossingObservatory )