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The Palermo Protocols at 20: a missed opportunity for ending trafficking


The trafficking protocol focuses on what is supposedly a quite different form of abuse: the recruitment (which sometimes involves crossing borders) of people (women and girls, but also men and boys) “for the purpose of exploitation”. It has resulted in countless law reforms and tens of thousands of police being trained to identify and investigate the crime of trafficking. This has led to an increase in prosecutions and convictions of traffickers. However, the structural causes of exploitation remain unaddressed: the vast inequalities in income and power within and between countries, the systematic discrimination practiced throughout the world against migrant workers, and a continuing trend to abandon conventional employment relationships and regulation of the labour market.

A fig leaf for repression

In practice, many of the actions taken in the name of stopping trafficking have had the effect of harming migrants and people who have been trafficked. Measures against irregular migrants have been repeatedly justified by politicians as ‘rescuing’ trafficking victims. Rich country governments have exploited the issue of trafficking (and the related one of ‘modern slavery’) to advance their own interests at the expense of the very people they claim to be protecting. Several countries have used their anti-trafficking or anti-slavery agendas like a fig leaf, while simultaneously implementing repressive policies that violate human rights. The USA embarked on an anti-trafficking crusade while putting its version of Hitler’s ‘Nacht und Nebel’ order into action, creating terror through disappearances and torture in the aftermath of the September 2001 attacks on New York and Washington DC. The United Kingdom started focusing on ‘modern slavery’ after its government made it a priority to create a ‘hostile environment’ for migrants and to deport as many as possible.

Countless governments have been selective about which types of exploitation they want their criminal justice system to target. Before the provisions of the trafficking protocol had even been finalised, it was clear that the USA, Sweden, and various other countries wanted to use it to stop prostitution in general (claiming that all or most sex workers were trafficked). Predictably, sex workers who have not been trafficked have protested that anti-trafficking measures seek to deprive them of an income or to push them into more hazardous working conditions. The two decades since 2000 have not resolved the differences in approach between the anti-prostitution crusaders and others.

The preoccupation with commercial sex has been less dominant since 2010. The International Labour Organization adopted a convention about domestic workers in 2011 and a protocol on forced labour in 2014 (supplementing its original 1930 Convention on Forced Labour). In theory this should have resulted in more action to protect migrant workers who were forced to work, whether in private homes, workshops, fields or at sea. Yet implementation has been once again influenced by the priorities and inclinations of governments. Big business has also been more concerned with the steps they are supposed to take under the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (2011), which have been side-tracked to a worrying extent by the requirement to publicly state what is being done to ensure that suppliers do not exploit workers. So far these statements, which can be crafted to sound marvellous, have divulged little about what is happening in practice.

Lessons not learned

Many hundreds of millions of dollars and euros collected from taxpayers in industrialised countries have paid for projects around the world to ‘stop trafficking’ or ‘stop modern slavery’. However, instead of building on knowledge and experience, these have repeatedly reinvented the wheel. Instead of choosing the most effective implementing partners and the methods most likely to succeed, many governments have preferred to channel funds to organisations with an ideology of which they approve. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been channelled to avowedly Christian organisations, in effect subordinating the anti-trafficking and anti-slavery agendas to that of Christian churches.

Projects also suffer from the way in which they are handed out. They often go to the cheapest bidder rather than to groups with real expertise, and the inexperienced staff of the former frequently do not apply or are simply unaware of previous lessons learned. Sometimes no lessons are learnt at all. The lifespans of individual projects are generally short and they rarely achieve their objectives. As a result, after two decades it is still common to see comments such as “we haven’t had time to learn what works”.


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