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Project: Human Trafficking: Structural Approaches to Understanding and Combating

This research project aims to deepen understanding of the social, economic, gender, and political contexts of human trafficking. Upon this basis, the project will consider if an understanding of these structural factors can inform policy discussion regarding the fight against trafficking.

There is a significant, although still insufficient, amount of knowledge about the activities of human traffickers, and a range of policy options at the national and international levels is available to tackle this problem. This project approaches the problem from a different angle. The project begins with the assumption that it is important to understand human trafficking in the context of broad social, economic and political forces. It is only by doing so that it is possible to understand the distinction and interaction between structural variables (such as economic deprivation and downturns, attitudes to gender, and the demand for prostitutes) and proximate variables (lax national and international legal regimes, poor law enforcement, corruption, organized criminal entrepreneurship, weak education campaigns and low awareness amongst vulnerable communities) that enable individuals and organizations to deceive, coerce and exploit vulnerable women and children through trafficking. The importance of understanding these contexts - social, economic, and political - pertains to both source and destination societies, and in some ways to the international environment.

This project will assess the dynamics of the trafficking business, and existing/possible remedial efforts, in these contexts. Approaching trafficking in this way will help to understand the logic and appropriateness of current policy approaches. If structural variables prove to be fundamental conditions of human trafficking, then policies must factor this in and trafficking must be seen within a broader social and economic context. Rather than being confined to the normative academic sphere, the structural background to trafficking may well have real relevance for policy. This project will seek to identify such linkages.

In particular, the project will approach trafficking in the context of prevailing liberal forces and institutions of economics. It will focus on the proposition that in an era of globalization, neoliberal economic forces have resulted in a weakening of state capacity and a weakening of the provision of public goods. Thus, trafficking may be seen as a symptom of deprivation, as poverty is an important factor in making individuals and communities vulnerable to trafficking. Disparities in economic/social conditions provide a clear explanation of patterns of trafficking routes, in terms of source and destination countries. Trafficking, generally, occurs from poorer to more prosperous countries and regions. At the same time, modern forms of transportation and communication have aided the movement of people and enabled transnational organized crime groups to exploit vulnerabilities through which women and children are recruited.

Social/economic factors are clearly key explanatory variables in trafficking. Money drives every aspect of the trafficking industry. The prospect of significant financial gain is an attraction for the organizers, brokers, and recruiters of trafficking. In addition, this economic reality is a lure for women in source countries. The prospect of spending time in a more prosperous country to earn money to save and send home is a central driving force, for it makes potential recruits more vulnerable to deception. Deprivation brings with it vulnerability to deception and coercion. Deprived individuals are also powerless - physically, legally and politically - to extricate themselves from coercive exploitative labour.

At a different level, the emphasis upon the free movement of capital and deregulation may have consequences for trafficking: financial remittances are an important source of revenue for many countries, and especially those with large numbers of citizens living abroad as expatriate workers. To drastically clamp down on the free movement of people - as a consequence of combating trafficking - could jeopardize the free flow of these remittances. This is a move that many countries are reluctant to take.

Yet social and economic factors are not the only structural variables that might be at work. Many commentators have argued that trafficking in women, particularly for sexual exploitation, is a reflection of the sexual violence against females that is inherent in contemporary societies. According to this view, trafficked women are treated by male dominated institutions as a commodity to be bought and sold. Unless deeply ingrained attitudes change, trafficking - and all forms of discrimination against women - cannot be tackled.

Finally, some commentators have argued that trafficking also has racist connotations and reflects broader patterns of racial discrimination and alienation.

Structural factors help to understand the background to trafficking and the source of vulnerability that can lead to trafficking. But, of course, they do not constitute a cause of trafficking. All the structural factors reflected here apply to a significant proportion of women and children in various parts of the world, but most do not fall victim to trafficking. Moreover, it is not necessarily the case that those who are most afflicted by certain structural factors - such as poverty - are automatically most likely to become victim of trafficking. A certain alignment of variables is the key to understanding trafficking. The key focus of this project is on understanding the distinction and interaction between structural and proximate variables. How is the coalescence of risk factors reflected in patterns of trafficking? What specific combinations of structural and proximate factors promote trafficking? As a corollary, what form of intervention in terms of addressing specific structural and/or proximate variables obstructs trafficking?

Specific research questions will focus on:

  • The relationship between structural and proximate variables which result in trafficking
  • The social and economic background to trafficking, and in particular the relationship between underdevelopment/poverty - including sudden economic downturns - and trafficking
  • Understanding principal trafficking routes and dynamics in the context of structural variables
  • Exploring the interrelationship between trafficking and other 'human security' threats, such as HIV/AIDS and transnational organized crime, in order to gain a broad understanding of the challenge
  • Considering if, and how, a structural approach to trafficking is relevant at the national and regional policy levels. Special reference will be made to existing international instruments, such as the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, supplementing the U.N. Convention against Transnational Organized Crime; the International Labor Organization Convention 182 concerning the Prohibition and Immediate Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labor, and the Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography.

The project will raise awareness and promote recognition of trafficking as a fundamental affront to human rights and dignity; bring together individuals from different institutional backgrounds to explore the political, inter-institutional and ethical dimensions of tackling these issues; seek to offer suggestions reconciling the sometimes competing forces of globalization, free market economics, and trafficking. The project will result in a book and a policy brief.