Two decades after the United Nations adopted a protocol against human trafficking (the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime), enough time has passed to comment on the most salient aspects of what has gone right and what has gone wrong.
During these decades the international community could have made great strides towards ending the types of exploitation included in the protocol as human trafficking, namely “the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.”
However, the balance sheet after twenty years shows something else. This is in part because the protocol was linked to a convention against organised crime as well as a second protocol aimed at penalising ‘people smugglers’ for helping migrants to cross borders illicitly. Most measures taken since 2000 have focused on strengthening law enforcement agencies and prosecuting criminals. They have not addressed the causes of exploitation or sought to reduce its occurrence. The smuggling protocol furthermore made it harder to distinguish the benevolent brokers helping irregular migrants to cross borders from the sharks preying on migrants, while legitimising government attempts to equate the two. As a result, the past two decades have seen the world’s wealthy countries institute a range of hostile measures to prevent refugees and irregular migrants from entering their territories.
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