Knee-jerk reactions to human trafficking harm lives - academic

Friday, 6 December 2013 20:34 GMT

Pardis Mahdavi, an academic and expert on human trafficking, at Thomson Reuters Foundation conference in London December 3 2013 THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Magda Mis

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LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Panicked policy reactions to human trafficking and an over-emphasis on the issue of sex trafficking can cause more harm than good for human trafficking survivors, academic, author and human trafficking expert, Pardis Mahdavi said.

Following her panel discussion at the Trust Women conference in London this week, Mahdavi spoke to Thomson Reuters Foundation about panicked reactions to human trafficking, why sex trafficking receives so much attention and why not everyone wants to be “rescued”.

Mahdavi’s latest book, From Trafficking to Terror, was released in October. 

Q Could you speak about the panic around human trafficking that you discuss in your book and what the implications of that are for the anti-trafficking movement?

A Sometimes policies are made as a knee-jerk reaction based on moral panic. It’s not to draw away from the heinous crimes that are involved in trafficking, but when we panic and implement policies and responses such as rescues, brothel raids, and forced deportation, they can be experienced as harmful rather than good. So, when we craft policies around human trafficking that are focused exclusively on the sex industry, that effectively turns all female migrants into sex workers and therefore criminals, whereas actually most women who are survivors of trafficking are not in the sex industry, but are domestic workers, garment workers, agricultural workers, etc. 

Q Is this panic around sex trafficking a moral impulse?

A The reality is it’s much more complicated. People like to put distance between themselves and the sex industry, whereas forced labour, the domestic workers who clean our homes, the nannies who care for our children, the people who pick the tomatoes that we eat, these are often people who are involved in forced labour and that makes us somewhat complicit in this system. It’s very difficult to think about forced labour without thinking about one’s own role. 

Q What will it take for people to be able to address forced labour head-on?

A Recognizing the ways in which currently the discourse around human trafficking is designed to evoke an emotive response.  Thinking about how we get our minds involved. I think the problem has been that in this debate on trafficking people say either forced labour or sex trafficking.  People talking about forced labour are accused of overlooking the heinous crimes of sex trafficking. But over ninety percent of trafficking is not in the sex industry, it’s forced labour. 

Q You discuss the confluence of human trafficking, terrorism and Islamophobia. What impact does that have on the way people understand the problem of human trafficking?

A I think people like to carve the world into victims and villains. So, in the 80s you have the Russian accents, you’ve got the eastern European threat, the “red threat.” With the re-emergence around the panic on trafficking, it happens to have coincided with the 9/11, so what I’m arguing in the book is that the war on trafficking is the hyper-feminized antidote to the hyper-masculinized war on terror. So you had this war on terror side-by-side with this war on trafficking and people got sloppy with linking the two, saying essentially that there was one villain, one bad guy, who was a dark-skinned man with a Middle Eastern accent.

Q In the panel, the issue of rescue was raised, there’s another aspect to anti-trafficking that is not clear-cut.

A Something I write a lot about is how many women experienced rescue as abusive, as terrifying. I’ll give you an example of several Iranian sex workers whom I interviewed who were not trafficked, who came to generate income. I’ll never forget when I asked a woman interviewee why she did what she did and she said to me “well, I’m too pretty to scrub toilets.” So for her, it was either I change dirty diapers, or I scrub toilets, or I can be in the sex industry making five times what I would make as a domestic worker and I control my own destiny. These were mostly women who did not work with pimps, who were on their own. Many of these women were raided and forcibly deported. The idea was that they needed to be rescued, but they experienced it as a raid and forced deportation. One of the women was beaten so badly by her family when she returned to Iran that she died. It was her rescue that led to her death. I question this rubber band approach where everyone in the sex industry is “rescued” and the idea being that everyone wants to go home. Home is not a safe place for everyone. 

Q What do you see for the future of the anti-trafficking movement?

A There’s been a lot of conversations about “follow the money,” and I think that’s obviously very important.  But we also need to “follow the data.” As we move forward, we need to take a hard look at the data and figure out how to understand it. Then ask how we can create policy that is flexible and robust enough to empower people who are in these grey areas. What we really need is to think before we jump.

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