Collateral Damage: The Impact of Anti-Trafficking Measures on Human Rights around the World

Collateral Damage: The Impact of Anti-Trafficking Measures on Human Rights around the World

Collateral Damage: The Impact of Anti-Trafficking Measures on Human Rights around the World

Since a new UN convention on the issue of human trafficking was adopted in 2000, many hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on efforts to stop people being trafficked. While the intentions behind this spending appear good, the effects of the ways the money has been spent have, in many cases, been much less positive. Both human rights defenders and others have been concerned that some initiatives to stop trafficking have proved counter-productive for the very people they were supposed to benefit. Indeed, this concern was so strong that, as early as 2002, in a set of guidelines issued about human trafficking and human rights, the United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights noted that a key principle for all anti-trafficking measures was that they “shall not adversely affect the human rights and dignity of persons, in particular the rights of those who have been trafficked, and of migrants, internally-displaced persons, refugees and asylum-seekers”.1

This anthology reviews the experience of eight specific countries and attempts to assess what the impact of anti trafficking measures have been for a variety of people living and working there, or migrating into or out of these countries. The eight are: Australia, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), Brazil, India, Nigeria, Thailand, the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States (US). The chapters look specifically at what the impact has been on people’s human rights. Have significant numbers of people been able to exercise their human rights better as a result of the initiatives that have been taken (and the money spent)? Or have anti-trafficking initiatives had a markedly negative impact on many individuals’ human rights – not just traffickers, but others, precisely the people who are generally supposed to be helped by anti-trafficking measures, rather than to suffer as a result of them?

It is five years since then UN High Commissioner, Mary Robinson, emphasised to governments that anti-trafficking measures should not “adversely affect” human rights. She started with the principle that “the human rights of trafficked persons shall be at the centre of all efforts to prevent and combat trafficking and to protect, assist and provide redress to victims”.2 Nevertheless, the priority for governments around the world in their efforts to stop human trafficking has been to arrest, prosecute and punish traffickers, rather than to protect the human rights of people who have been trafficked.

This approach is consistent with that adopted by governments over the past two centuries in the context of efforts to stamp out slavery, forced labour and slavery-like practices (of which trafficking is regarded as one): they have given higher priority, both in international agreements and national law, to declaring slavery and similar abuse illegal, than to spelling out how such forms of abuse are to be eradicated or how, when doing so, to safeguard the human rights of the individuals who have been subjected to abuse. Such individuals are victims of crime and of abuse of power, but their victim status routinely leads governments to treat them as powerless pawns. Rather than label them as ‘victims’ in this anthology, we consequently refer to them as ‘trafficked persons’.

Many government agencies doubtless assume that the two objectives – enforcing the law and upholding human rights – amount to the same thing. However, in the case of human trafficking there is now substantial evidence that they are not. The evidence available suggests that especially marginalised categories of people, such as migrants, internally-displaced persons, refugees and asylum-seekers, have suffered unacceptably negative consequences and that anti-trafficking measures have been counterproductive for some of the very people they are supposed to benefit most directly.

The methods used to compile this report

Nine different authors were commissioned by the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW) to prepare the eight chapters in this anthology about individual countries. They were asked to review the laws of the country concerned, both laws concerned with trafficking and also others which have an effect on people who have been or might be trafficked (such as laws concerning immigration, employment and, quite specifically, sex work). They were also asked to review any publications which might contain information about the impact of these laws or indicate what was happening to trafficked persons who ended up in the hands of the police or in shelters run by the authorities or by non-governmental organisations (NGOs). In a few cases (such as Australia and Brazil), the authors interviewed government officials and others responsible for providing assistance to trafficked persons. However, the authors were not asked to interview individuals who have personal experience of the effects of anti-trafficking initiatives.

Fortunately, the findings of other researchers who have interviewed specific groups to find out the effects on them of anti-trafficking initiatives have already been published. As early as 2002, for example, researchers in one West African country (Mali) told the UN children’s agency, UNICEF, about a wide range of negative effects for Malian children resulting from government initiatives two years earlier to stop children being trafficked to neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire (Castle and Diarra, 2002). The authors explained how ‘vigilance committees’ at village level to prevent child trafficking had ended up trying to stop all young people from leaving their villages under any circumstances, violating their right to freedom of movement. These and similar findings were available to GAATW’s authors as they set out to assess the human rights impact of anti-trafficking measures.

The authors of the eight chapters are individuals with professional experience of anti-trafficking work themselves, or of related human rights work. Their initial findings were the subject of peer review by authors writing other chapters.

Each of the chapters describing a particular country is structured along similar lines. They start by considering what constitutes ‘human trafficking’ in the country concerned. Section 2 sets out the current legal framework concerning all aspects of trafficking (in relation to protection and assistance, prevention of human trafficking and the prosecution of suspected traffickers). In most countries, government agencies and NGOs have focused their efforts on cases of trafficking involving women or girls forced into prostitution. However, the scope of the anthology is not limited to trafficking for the purpose of forced prostitution, but also considers cases of trafficking for other forms of exploitation, as well as cases involving men and boys.

Section 3 focuses on the specific laws and policies of the government of the country in question and comments on the adequacy and implications of these. Section 4 addresses laws, policies and practices surrounding immigration or emigration and efforts to prevent the abuse of migrant workers, focusing on measures which have an effect on trafficking and which make it more or less difficult to traffic people, or which have an impact on individuals who have been trafficked (for example, leading to their rapid deportation).

Section 5 discusses the human rights impact of these laws and policies on the persons affected. It looks specifically at the impact on people who have been trafficked. It also looks at the impact on migrant workers in general (both before and after they migrate) and more specifically at the impact on migrant sex workers and non-migrant sex workers. Wherever information is available, it also looks at the impact on child migrants. No effort is made to assess whether the benefits of anti-trafficking policies outweigh the negative consequences. In every case, our argument is that the negative consequences are unnecessary: they are not an essential by-product of anti-trafficking efforts, but rather the result of negligence on the part of government and other actors.

In some cases, the concluding section 6 recommends measures to remedy the negative or counter-productive effects of anti-trafficking measures that have been identified in the chapter. All in all, the chapters suggest that a huge amount needs to be done to remedy these negative effects.

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