Upon crossing the border at London Southend airport, passengers are greeted by the usual signs. Injunctions not to take photos, not to bring certain goods into the country, information about the UK’s counter-terrorism and domestic extremism protocols. Adjacent to these notices are two large placards. The first, bright red, instructs onlookers to ‘Spot the Signs of Modern Slavery’. A smaller subheader reads: ‘There are millions of slaves in the world, including in the UK. Let’s change that.’ Below it, large semi-translucent letters stand out over a picture of a woman, who is crouching on the floor. ‘Can you see me?’ it reads.
These signs are a fairly typical presence at airports. They are the direct result of a growing concern about human trafficking, which has come to the rhetorical fore of many feminist humanitarian and human rights agendas since the 1990s. Anti-trafficking discourse further accelerated after the United Nations’ December 2000 Convention Against Transnational Organised Crime, where the ‘Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children’ was introduced. It emphasised an explicit focus on the protection of women and children within a criminal justice framework that would come to circulate throughout anti-trafficking campaigns and legislation. These campaigns have become key sites through which representations of innocent victims are produced and circulated, and it is therefore unsurprising that many hundreds of corporate, governmental, non‑governmental and grassroots campaigns are now dedicated solely to its eradication.
‘Good’ and ‘bad’ migrants
Despite the intense affective, political and economic investments organised around its prevention, trafficking – often cited as ‘the fastest growing transnational crime’ – is a surprisingly nebulous category. The desire to identify trafficking as a clearly-defined site of policy intervention is constantly undermined by the lack of available data, by the indeterminacy of the category and by the tenuous efforts to differentiate between the exploitative labour conditions many migrants find themselves in and those that are defined as crossing the line into ‘slavery’.
In the midst of these uncertainties, anti-trafficking legislation becomes a way of carving out a binary between ‘good’ non‑citizen bodies, brought here by force, and ‘bad’ ones, who have chosen to come. It obscures the realities of capitalism, flattening the complex realities of gender and migration, which blur the boundaries between forced and ‘free’ labour – particularly among people in situations of intense precarity or poverty. In order to survive, most people are forced to sell their labour, and this binary approach inevitably spills over into judgmental, often puritanical, notions of what forms of labour are legitimate and which are not. It’s a strategy that proves hopeless in tackling the abysmal, exploitative and dangerous conditions many workers are coerced into.
‘Trafficking’ may be a nebulous category – but force, exploitation, and captivity is a lived reality for some workers. Critiquing anti-trafficking initiatives is not about denying that reality, but about highlighting how initiatives against trafficking often make the populations they purport to protect more vulnerable. In practical terms, efforts to monitor and curtail ‘modern-day slavery’ in Britain have meant more raids, deportations and an expanded apparatus of surveillance. They have meant redoubling border policing initiatives that only serve to force people into vulnerable situations in which they are more easily exploited.
Anti-trafficking efforts almost always coincide with efforts to surveil and deport undocumented migrants. Force is axiomatic within almost all depictions of trafficking and slavery precisely because it is used as a means of delineating innocent, endangered victims, as distinct from dangerous, illegal migrants. The victim of trafficking or slavery is never a ‘migrant’ in this same, negative sense, because choice is never a component of their passage.
Thus the conception of forced labour is ideologically potent not only because it reinforces the idea that most labour conducted in the global North is ‘free’, but also because it works to re-inscribe the supposed deviance of undocumented migrant bodies. Survivors of sex trafficking may not be blamed like migrants, but they suffer under border regimes just the same.
This is compounded by a common misconception which conflates ‘trafficked’ labour with ‘foreign’ labour. This obscures the fact that not all migrant sex workers are trafficked, and the fact that one can be trafficked inside the borders of a single country – or indeed a single town, neighbourhood, or street. It implies a solution must always prioritise stemming or surveilling a transnational flow of labour – rather than combatting the conditions that make people more susceptible to exploitation.
The UK’s Modern Slavery Act, which came into force in 2015, is a case study in how anti-trafficking legislation mobilises feminist sentiments toward securitised ends. The Modern Slavery Helpline was established as a means of mobilising public participation in the government’s anti-slavery efforts. The central slogan of its campaign – ‘Slavery is closer than you think: help free the UK from modern slavery’ – asks British citizens to watch spaces that the state cannot. It works to produce an obligation and a desire to both watch and protect potential victims of trafficking. It is not coincidental that the campaign asks citizens to use skills already forged through Prevent, Britain’s counter-terrorism programme. Citizens are asked to look for people who are out of place, recalling the racialised practices of looking and reporting carefully honed through the past two decades of the ‘war on terror’.
Laws around trafficking not only reinforce racialised practices of surveillance, they are also a potent tactic of increased policing and regulation of the bodies of migrants and sex workers. Influenced by the dual pressures to be tough on immigration and to regulate and curtail instances of trafficking, British police and immigration officials have, for example, increased the number of raids on sex work establishments. Undocumented sex workers caught up in these increasingly frequent raids must prove that they have been forced to work against their will to avoid detention and subsequent deportation.
Further, given the need to assure that they are granting asylum to ‘victims’ rather than ‘migrants,’ British law enforcement has begun to insist on evidence of bodily harm to verify claims of trafficking. Thus, there is an often-unintentional collusion between an abolitionist discourse about force and expanding apparatuses of migrant criminalisation.
Some people have undoubtedly been protected by the anti-trafficking legislation. Yet, the cost of this protection is an intensification of systemic vulnerability. Exploitation cannot be fixed through punitive measures enacted by the very system that produces, profits, and continues to intensify those same conditions. Anti-trafficking legislation not only fails to address the exception it insists upon and defines itself through, but weaponises it to normalise the status quo of life under capitalism.
What then, does anti-trafficking legislation secure, if not safety for those it purports to protect? The answer lies in the positioning of the nation itself within the helpline’s campaign. ‘Help free the UK from modern slavery’ is a dual displacement – an evacuation of the history of British empire and the present realities of Fortress Europe, of Britain’s continued imperial forays, and of the material realities of ‘project fear’.
It leans on a narrative that centres Britain as the first country to abolish slavery, conveniently leaving out its previous role in its expansion. The campaign subtly positions Britain as a space that must be ‘freed’ from the scourge of slavery once again. Following the logic of this narrative, Britain is simultaneously caring and vulnerable – a space of refuge that must be defended.
The Modern Slavery Helpline asks us to ‘see’ victims of trafficking, but we need to look beyond the imagery of the campaign itself and toward the carceral practices those representations enable.
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