Is Human Trafficking a security threat? Why and to whom?

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Opening her remarks to the Studies/Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice Conference on the 'Future of Europe', Doris Peschke, of the Churches' Commission for Migrants in Europe, placed before us the awful spectre of the many humans who die in desperate circumstances each year as they are trafficked or smuggled into 'Fortress Europe'. Entering Europe has become a life-threatening undertaking for many people as the member states of the Union, possessed by the sense that unregulated migration from beyond European borders poses a threat to the security of states and societies, have reinforced, even semi-militarised'  those borders against unwanted migrants. Yet the irony of this situation is that neither the people who resort to being smuggled (or who find themselves trafficked), nor the populations of Europe (who live with a state-inculcated fear of irregular migration), gain any sense of security from these toughened borders. Instead, the tendency of European Union member states to treat migration as a security threat to their states only heightens the insecurity of people vulnerable to being trafficked or smuggled and creates the sense of insecurity within European populations, which comes from casting migration as a threat rather than an opportunity. It is this strange dynamic by which state security policies contribute to the creation of widespread human insecurity which is explored in this article, illustrated by particular reference to the experiences of women trafficked from Eastern to Western Europe for the purpose of sexual exploitation.

Securing the State or Securing the People?

In discussions in the academic field of International Politics, security has traditionally been understood as something that states seek to acquire and achieve in relation to one another. In this understanding, a state is secure if it can deter or defend itself against any possible attack or any intrusion of its sovereign integrity by another state. Achieving this kind of security rests on possession of material resources, in particular, the military capability to deter, defend - or even in today's scenario, pre-emptively attack - any other state that poses a threat. The accompanying assumption is that the citizens of a state are secure when the state is secured in this fashion. This was the understanding of security which held sway in international relations for a long time and seemed to make commonsense in the world of the Cold War. Many accepted that hot war between states was averted and societies secured from nuclear annihilation by the balance of military capabilities existing between states. 

 Even before the end of the Cold War (but certainly accelerating with its demise), critical academic voices were asking if this understanding and approach provided fundamental security. Is security really and only achieved by building 'good fences' between states? Does resting security on military capability enhance or actually endanger security, creating an irresolvable sense of insecurity, one that can only be mollified by continuous escalation of weaponry? Is it problematic to assume that a state's citizens are secure if they are protected from external threats? Perhaps states are the biggest security threat to their peoples in some contexts. Questions like these led to a rethinking of the very concept of security throughout the 1990s. One example of such rethinking is offered by Bill McSweeney in his argument for the revival of a second image of security. In contrast to the prevailing negative understanding of security as freedom from threat achieved through militarised stand-off, he draws on the positive connotations of the term, refocusing on security as something found in good relationships from the personal to the political and as a quality of relationship which allows for human freedom, order and solidarity. And, challenging the view that states are the object and instrument of security, he writes that, on the contrary 'security must make sense at the level of the individual human being for it to make sense at the international level'.

        Further contributions to this debate have come from scholars of many differing perspectives in the field of International Politics. One set of important interventions has been that of feminist thinkers, who again point up the tensions between state security and human security. Placing women as the subject of security rather than the state, feminists question whether states provide security for them, given that the greatest threats many women face to their own security may come from domestic violence or the ways in which discriminatory gender policies practiced by states undermine women's economic, social and personal security. Moreover, in the pursuit of national security, some states practice international policies which increase the insecurity of women, such as the South Korean government's agreement with the US to organise and regulate prostitution camps around US military bases as one way of keeping those bases in Korea or the Philippino government's overt exportation of female migrant labour as a source of necessary foreign remittances. 

Such thinking in the world of academia has found its international political expression in the promotion of a concept of human security, which has percolated into the United Nations in particular. While not denying that states have a role to play in the provision of security, the UN advocates that it is the lives of human beings which must be secured. In the recent Final Report of the Commission on Human Security, a positive vision of security is outlined which envisages security as: 

            An all-encompassing condition in which individual citizens live in freedom, peace and safety and participate fully in processes of governance. They enjoy protection of fundamental rights and have access to resources and the basic necessities of life.

 Yet, while the present rhetoric of the UN resonates with the thinking of those who would challenge the orthodox comprehension of security, there is a persistent tendency in the world of international relations for state-centred security thinking and practice. Absent the Cold War, a series of new security threats have been identified as necessitating state-led responses, including the alleged threat to 'societal security' posed by migration, which is understood as a threat because it might lead to the over-running or dilution of a host society by outsiders. This understanding of migration as security threat has only been compounded in the post 9/11 world, where suspicions surrounding the movement of many people around the globe has been heightened, provoking increased surveillance of borders and the 'semi-militarisation' of security. As suggested at the outset of this article, however, the ironic twist to this 'securitisation of migration' is the increased vulnerability of migrants to exploitation and a heightened sense of fear, rather than security, in the West. 

Human Trafficking as a Threat to State Security

One key instance in which we see this tendency on the part of Western states to regard irregular migration as a security threat is in their response to human trafficking. Over the last decade concern about the existence and scale of trafficking in human beings for exploitative purposes has grabbed international attention. The most commonly cited (although unverifiable) figure comes from the US State Department which estimates that up to 800,000 people were trafficked globally in 2004. Of these the majority were women and children, trafficked for the purposes of sexual exploitation. On a European scale there are similarly vague estimates. One piece of research by the European Parliament suggested there could be as many as 500,000 women and girls trafficked from Eastern to Western Europe each year. In Ireland the scale of the problem has not been satisfactorily determined to date; however the NGO Ruhama reports encountering 33 women trafficked for sexual exploitation over the last two years, along with 17 more suspected cases.

             Political concern about such figures has resulted in the development of a plethora of domestic and international law designed to end this practice. In 2000 the United Nations promulgated its Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children, which has provided a widely referred to definition of the problem. In essence it defines trafficking as the deceptive recruitment, illegal harbouring, transporting and finally enforced exploitation of a person. The forms such exploitation can take include sexual exploitation, labour exploitation and the exploitation of bodies for their organs. Although this Protocol implicitly recognises the human rights violation done to the trafficked person throughout their experience, the tendency in both international and domestic law has been to treat trafficking as primarily a criminal rather than a human rights issue. For example, the UN Protocol goes on to demand of signatory states a strenuous law enforcement effort against traffickers but only encourages them to respond to the needs of victims. This ordering of priorities at the global level is replicated at the national level as countries of destination develop laws to combat the practice. Thus in many European states, trafficking is defined primarily as a violation of migration law, and efforts to counter it rest on the prosecution of traffickers and the stiffening of border controls. The use of Carrier's Liability legislation in recent years, for example, has been another move aimed at preventing the arrival of irregular migrants in Europe (whatever their circumstances be they smuggled or trafficked, asylum seekers or migrant labourers). The sad consequence of this focus on trafficking as a crime against states and the integrity of their borders is not only the very weak protection given to the victims of trafficking but, indeed, their criminalisation. A woman suspected of being trafficked is far more likely to be treated as an illegal immigrant, liable for deportation, than as someone whose human rights have been violated. This is the legal situation in Ireland today, for example, where the current legislation (the Illegal Immigrants (Trafficking) Act, 2000) emphasises the necessity of fighting the crime and prosecuting traffickers, but treats the victims as illegal immigrants. In this approach Ireland is in line with most other European states, as exemplified by Germany, where in 1997 of the 1,500 women identified by the police as trafficked, 95% were deported.

             Across Europe lobby groups are beginning to have some success in pressing the argument upon governments that states should do more to protect trafficking victims, by offering them safe housing, welfare services and short term residence. Yet, even as such ideas come into law (as may well be the case in future Irish legislation), such rights and residency are likely to be made dependent on a victim's willingness to engage in supporting the criminal prosecution of their traffickers, rather than as of right because of the violations they have suffered. Again this approach reinforces the dominant framing by states of trafficking as a criminal threat, subverting the ability of states to secure their borders against irregular migration. Arguably however such a framing is misconstrued, because it fails to recognise the ways in which the securitisation of migration and the viewing of trafficking exclusively through a criminalisation lens actually exacerbates human insecurity and enhances the vulnerability of people to trafficking. 

European Migration Policies and the Creation of Trafficking

As discussed above, international political concern about trafficking and smuggling has had the effect of a move to securitise migration by European states. Governments have enacted laws designed to prevent trafficking by criminalising the act and tightening constraints on all entry into states. Yet, while it is right to define trafficking as a crime, the great irony of these rigorous approaches to combating trafficking through stiff migratory policies is that such policies probably increase the incidence of trafficking and create more recourse to traffickers and smugglers on the part of migrants. This is because such policies are forged on a failure to recognise the existence of the pressures which create global migration in the first instance; pressures which exist both in countries of migratory origin and destination. As Mike Kaye of Anti-Slavery International notes, 'the vast majority of people who are trafficked are migrant workers'  ; that is they are people - more specifically women and children forming the majority of the trafficked - who make the difficult decision to migrate for work, often due to social change and economic troubles at home and demand for (feminised) labour abroad, but whose chances for undertaking such movement legally are minimised by the migration regimes practiced in 'Fortress Europe'.

             Such pressures are well illustrated by the experiences of women trafficked from Eastern to Western Europe over the last decade. Many of the states of the region remain infrastructurally weak, caught in the throes of an inevitably fraught 'triple transition' involving the fundamental restructuring of economy, state and nation. In some states this gives rise to tendencies towards corruption amongst poorly paid state officials, such as border guards, who may then comply with the activities of traffickers. But this is not the only reason why certain states become countries of origin for the trafficking of women. Another underlying reason is the 'feminisation of poverty,' which has become a marked facet of these changes. Gender analysis of the transition from state socialism has revealed that women have been the primary economic losers in the forced march towards the neo-liberal market economy. Without legislative frameworks in operation to guard against gender discrimination, research has shown that women have been more likely to be made unemployed than men. One example from Ukraine suggests that women compose up to 90% of those made unemployed in the transition. In South Eastern Europe the shock of economic transition has been compounded the experience of war in the former Yugoslavia. The use of gender-based violence in these conflicts, the profiteering which persists in destroyed economies and the on-going presence of international peacekeepers have interacted to create a market for trafficked women. Given these circumstances it is no wonder that many women, often concerned to ensure family survival, are seeking to migrate for work, to the extent that analysts now talk about a 'feminisation of migration' occurring from Eastern Europe, as well as globally. Some find ways to make these journeys within legal frameworks. For example 80% of the 39000 visas issued to Georgians for working abroad in 2001 went to women. Yet the ways in which migration policies are constructed mean it is very difficult for many migrant workers to get access to the European labour market.

             As Geddes points out, Western states' attempts to restrict migration take several forms including the draconian type measures such as the deportation of trafficking victims already mentioned, but another strategy involves being very selective in terms of those who will be allowed legal entry. This is usually restricted to certain types of highly skilled workers (in the Irish case nurses, butchers and IT professionals). Yet the fact remains that there is labour demand throughout the Western world for 'unskilled' workers. As Sassen has analysed, the globalised world economy has created a strong pull on migrants from poorer parts of the world to fill jobs in the lower rungs of Western economies. A pull felt particularly strongly by women, whose gendered labour is required in care work, domestic/cleaning work and 'sex work'. Moreover this is a pull that is only predicted to increase as the population of the West ages, with Europe needing perhaps 68 million migrant workers by 2050. Yet these are current realities and future trends which Western states ignore, with their highly restrictive visa regimes and their failure to acknowledge the discrepancy between their pursuit of a neo-liberalised world economy and their simultaneous restrictions on the movement of workers.

             The construction of a 'fortress' designed to impede irregular migration and the pursuit of only very selective entry possibilities are the migratory policy options currently practiced throughout the West - but these are policies that are actually responsible for creating a nexus between migration and trafficking. Devoid of options to move legally, many women, children and men are liable to enter into the experience of being smuggled and/or trafficked in order to migrate for the work that is available in the West. Thus, as Geddes writes, the irony is that, 'state attempts to restrict migration can often be counter-productive with new controls producing new evasions (with) people smuggling and human trafficking operating as a lucrative but illicit branch of the migration business'.

Human Trafficking: Who is insecure?

This paper began by suggesting that there is a strange dynamic at work in international politics whereby state centred security policies create human insecurity. The workings of this dynamic are clearly displayed in relation to human trafficking. Policies which prioritise securing the state and society against irregular migration have the strange side effect of pushing many migrants into accessing the services of smugglers or becoming vulnerable to the deceptive ways of traffickers. Such policies also do little to create a sense of security amongst the peoples of host societies, who are persuaded by state security discourse that irregular migration is rife as a crime against the state and poses a threat to the dilution of that society's identity. Such discourse leads to an 'imputation of bogusness to all migrants'. 

            And yet, who is insecure in all of this if it is not those very migrants? As has been argued above, the root causes of the trafficking of women and children lie in insecure lives. People vulnerable to being trafficked are people whose lives have been made insecure by harsh economic conditions and state breakdown. The experience of being trafficked from start to finish involves a violation of personal security, from the initial deceptive relationship to the physical violence used to enforce compliance with exploitation. These insecurities are only compounded in the country of destination where the trafficked persons, aware of their illegal status and liability to deportation, fear both their traffickers and the state authorities.

             It seems, therefore, that neither states nor people are secured in this current dynamic. States remain vulnerable to the border violations which will always be created by the inventiveness of smugglers and traffickers. The insecurity of human lives is only magnified by the impossibilities of migrating to the simultaneously closed but demanding West. Thus in order to create real security there is a need for a rethink which would take seriously McSweeney's suggestion that, 'security must make sense at the level of the individual human being for it to make sense at the international level', rather than vice versa.

             In order to create such human security, the West needs to reassess the effectiveness, consequences and ethics of its current migration policies. There is a need to recognise the realities of the demand for migrant workers beyond those with prized skills and to open up possibilities for legal entry. As Jana et al remark bluntly, 'trafficking will only become redundant when poor third world women can travel legitimately to the first world for employment'. The question of political willingness in the West to broach this policy option is of course, fraught. Nor does it address the remaining ethical dilemmas surrounding transnational migration such as whether it is morally right for the prosperity of the West to rest on the work of second or third world women, denied their own family life and homes, by the imperatives of the economies and gender/social orders of the Western world. Yet, despite these political doubts and ethical caveats, the need to reform approaches to migration is obvious if human and international security is to be realised. Such policy reform would require a liberalisation of migration options, accompanied by a changed public discourse by governments and a commitment to a rights framework for all migrants. Given such a set of reforms there would be some chance to create secure human lives, giving people the possibility to live in 'freedom, peace and safety…with their fundamental rights protected and access to resources and the basic necessities of life'.