Talking Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery in the Context of Migration Negotiations

Dr Kasey McCall-Smith, Chair of the Association of Human Rights Institutes and member of the Global Justice Academy, discusses Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery in the context of the UN Global Compact for Migration.

In a previous post, I gave general overview of the UN Global Compact for Migration and a brief analysis of the Migration Compact thematic discussions on the distinctions between human smuggling and human trafficking. This note considers modern slavery, a topic with which the University of Edinburgh is highly engaged through both academic projects as well as its Modern Slavery initiatives. Following on from the distinction between migrants smuggled into a state for the sole purpose of evading legal migration and individuals trafficked into (or within) a state for purposes of exploitation, the following will present key debates about modern slavery and human trafficking that are highly relevant to the conclusion of a comprehensive Migration Compact.

Anne Gallagher (Doughty St Chambers), an expert on migration and human trafficking, introduced the subject for the assembly echoing the common NGO mantra that current approaches to migration undermine public support for regular legal migration. Many government policies and hyperbolic rhetoric focused on the criminalisation of irregular migrants (often referred to as ‘crimmigration’) ignore the reality that most migration takes place through legal channels and evidence demonstrates that this has been a great contribution to the economic development of states throughout history. Though trafficking does contribute to irregular migration, the underlying purposes breach international law and the rights of individuals who are trafficked into modern slavery. While much progress on addressing irregular migration that contributes to modern slavery has been made in the past decade, states are failing to seriously implement migration reception practices that are sensitive to the victims of this criminal activity.

There is no single definition of modern slavery in international law. Slavery in its traditional sense is prohibited under treaty and customary international law, but the nuances of contemporary practices are highly varied. One thing is certain; victims of trafficking never consent to the intended ends of exploitation, whether these ends are labour exploitation, sexual exploitation or any other form of exploitation or servitude. Poor labour practices where pay is withheld, passports are confiscated or freedom of movement is otherwise restricted amounts to modern slavery and these situations are often linked to highly stringent migrant worker policies. From the perspective of Migration Compact negotiations, the catch is that smuggled irregular migrants and trafficked persons often travel the same routes and many states are unwilling to develop programmes that enhance the identification of trafficked individuals. Furthermore, the power imbalance between the smugglers/traffickers and the migrants/victims are always out of kilter on the side of the former so identification is messy at best even if solely focusing on victimhood. The nature of those facilitating trafficking is also very blurred and generally focused on men and crime syndicates when there is substantial evidence indicating that family members and older children also contribute to the global trafficking epidemic.

A clear divide exists in approaches to tackling trafficking and modern slavery. Many of the origin states and some NGOs of the global south view trafficking as a strictly supply and demand binary, pleading that if destination states enhanced the punishment for end users then the demand would dry up and their nationals would not be trafficked. Very conservative, non-western states argue that no such activity exists in their highly virtuous societies and, again, foist the blame on capitalist economies. Western states point to the internal conflicts or failing economies that are common across the states of origin. The reality is that they are all wrong and they are all right. No state is untouched by the issue of trafficking and exploitation of vulnerable people and every state can take steps to protect future generations from the horrors that hundreds of thousands of people have suffered. It is estimated that from 2012-2014, over 63,000 trafficking victims across 106 states were reported (see the session’s Thematic Brief) though other reports put the number markedly higher. It is notoriously difficult to identify trafficking victims as it is often a coin toss between the greater evil, the trafficker or the state’s mishandling of a victim. This contributes to the lack of comprehensive information about the dynamics of trafficking victims’ journeys. If the Global Compact negotiations are successful, there is hope that the number of trafficking victims and modern slavery will be closer to zero in a future near you.

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More about the author: Dr McCall-Smith is a lecturer in Public International Law and programme director for the LLM in Human Rights at the Edinburgh Law School.