lecturer1, Sarah Castle, lecturer1,
Aisse Diarra, independent consultant, Mali1
Centre for Population Studies, London School of Hygiene and Tropical
Medicine, London WC1B 3DP
Attempts to prevent
trafficking are increasing the problems of those who migrate
women and children is now recognised as a global public
health issue as well as a violation of human rights. The
UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in
Persons, especially Women and Children states that trafficking
involves force, threat, or fraud and intent to exploit
individuals.1 Intermediaries often smuggle victims across
international borders into illegal or unsafe occupations,
including agriculture, construction, domestic labour, and sex
work. A recent study identified trafficking to be associated
with health risks such as psychological trauma, injuries from
violence, sexually transmitted infections, HIV and AIDS,
other adverse reproductive health outcomes, and substance
misuse.2 These risks are shaped by lack of access to services
in a foreign country, language barriers, isolation, and
exploitative working conditions. However, as this article
shows, efforts to reduce trafficking may be making conditions
worse for voluntary migrants.
Response to trafficking
governmental, and non-governmental groups working to counter
trafficking sometimes misinterpret the cultural context in
which migration occurs.3 They often seek to eradicate labour
migration rather than target specific instances of exploitation
and abuse.4 5 Regulatory measures, such as introducing
new requirements for documentation and strengthening of
border controls, criminalise and marginalise all migrants,
whether trafficked or not. This exacerbates their health
risks and vulnerability by reducing access to appropriate
services and social care. Such approaches do not adequately
distinguish between forced and voluntary migrants, as it is
extremely difficult to identify the motivations of migrants
and their intermediaries before travel.6
these concerns with evidence from research conducted among
child migrants in Mali who had been returned from the Ivory
Coast and Vietnamese sex workers in Cambodia. The evidence
draws from studies conducted between 2000 and 2002.7 8 In
both settings, the international media has reported emotively
on the existence of "child slaves," "sex slaves," and
"trafficking" and oriented donors and nongovernmental
organisations to this agenda.9-11
Child migrants in Mali
substantiated figures exist, an estimated 15 000 Malian
children have been "trafficked" to the cocoa plantations in
the Ivory Coast.12 This study responded to a demand from
several international non-governmental organisations that wanted
to improve their understanding of the situation.7
We compiled a sampling frame with the assistance of
nongovernmental organisations working with children and their
governmental partners. It included young people from
communities deemed to be at high risk of trafficking, as well
as intercepted or repatriated children thought to have been
trafficked. However, a survey of nearly 1000 young people
from this list found that only four could be classified as having
been deceived, exploited, or not paid at all for their labour.
Rather, young people voluntarily sought employment abroad, which
represented an opportunity to experience urban lifestyles, learn
new languages, and accumulate possessions. For both boys and
girls, the experience provided a rite of passage with cultural
as well as financial importance.
For many of these
migrants, movement across international borders depended on
assistance from intermediaries, often family members. In Mali
there is a longstanding tradition of using intermediaries to
facilitate a range of social and economic activities, such as
looking for employment, negotiating purchases, handling disputes,
and even seeking a spouse. Our research found that intermediaries
could protect the migrants during their journey and help them
search for work. In destination areas, they advocated for young
people in cases of non-payment of salary or abrupt termination
of employment. Migrants also relied on intermediaries to negotiate
with corrupt authorities that demanded bribes at international
borders. Classifying such assistance as "trafficking" simplifies
a much deeper cultural reality.
anti-trafficking policies and interventions, however, have
not acknowledged these complex dynamics and have instead
posed obstacles to safe, assisted migration. For example, interviews
with Malian legal experts showed that new legislative measures
do not enable them to distinguish between a trafficker with
intent to exploit and an intermediary who, for a fee, facilitates
a young migrant's journey and search for housing and employment.
Local anti-trafficking surveillance committees have been
established; these have come to view all migration as
negative and local leaders seem to seek to arrest children if
they attempt to leave. At the national level, a new child's
passport is required for all children under the age of 18 who
wish to travel. In reality, young people find the document
difficult to obtain, and failure to possess it provides an
easy excuse for law enforcement officers to extort additional
bribes at borders.
discourage community members from assisting in traditional
labour migration and have the potential to force migrants to
rely increasingly on corrupt officials to waive travel
documents or provide forgeries. Clandestine migrants are
generally more difficult to reach at destination points, as
they may be reluctant to seek health care or other help if
they fear being forcibly repatriated or detained. Child migrants
who left home of their own free will report being returned home
against their wishes by non-governmental organisations, only
to leave for the border again a few days later.
The study found
that rehabilitation centres for trafficked children run by
two non-governmental organisations in the Malian town of
Sikasso were usually empty. Such interventions are neither
appropriate nor cost effective and do not tackle the exploitative
conditions encountered by children in the Ivory Coast. Children
would be better served through services offered in the Ivory
Coast or support through protective networks of intermediaries
and community members.
Vietnamese sex workers in Cambodia
As with Malians in
the Ivory Coast, it is difficult to obtain accurate data on
the number of Vietnamese migrants in Cambodia. Some estimates
suggest that up to 10 000 Vietnamese women are sex workers in
Cambodia.13 The research presented here was conducted
in collaboration with a local non-governmental organisation
as part of a wider investigation of sex workers' perceptions,
motivations, and experiences.8 The study formed one
component of a service delivery programme to about 300
brothel based Vietnamese sex workers in Svay Pak district,
Phnom Penh. Before the research, medical services, outreach,
and counselling had been provided to sex workers for over
five years, and a trusting relationship had been established
between non-governmental organisation staff and both sex
workers and brothel managers. Young, female, Vietnamese
speaking project staff familiar to the sex workers conducted
indepth interviews with 28 women and focus group discussions
with 72 participants to explore patterns of entry into sex work.
Most women knew
before they left Vietnam that they would be engaged in sex
work under a system of "debt bondage" to a brothel. The work
would repay loans made to them or their families. Some women
showed clear ambition in their choices to travel to Cambodia
for sex work, citing economic incentives, desire for an independent
lifestyle, and dissatisfaction with rural life and agricultural
labour. As in Mali, intermediaries from home communities were
instrumental in facilitating safe migration. Many women were
accompanied by a parent, aunt, or neighbour who provided
transport, paid bribes to border patrols, and negotiated the
contract with brothel managers.
Of the 100
participants in this qualitative study, six women reported
having been "tricked" into sex work or betrayed by an
intermediary. Many sex workers, however, expressed dissatisfaction
with their work conditions or stated that they had not fully
appreciated the risks they would face, such as clients who refused
to use condoms, coercion from brothel owners, and violence from
both clients and local police.
A policy focus on
combating "trafficking" again seemed to threaten rather than
safeguard migrants' health and rights. Local and
international non-governmental organisations conducted raids
on brothels during which sex workers were taken to "rehabilitation
centres," often against their will. Police sometimes assisted
in these raids, although they also conducted arrests
Our research found
that "rescued" women usually returned to their brothel as
quickly as possible, having secured their release through
bribes or by summoning relatives from Vietnam to collect
them. Furthermore, police presence in the raids scared off custom,
thus reducing earnings, increasing competition for clients,
and further limiting sex workers' power in negotiating improved
work conditions. Bribes and other costs were added to sex workers'
debts, increasing their tenure in the brothel and adding pressure
to take on additional customers or agree to condom-free sex
to maximise income. Raids and rescues could also damage the
relationship between service providers and brothel managers,
who restricted sex workers' mobility, including access to health
care, to avoid arrest. These findings mirror recent reports
from other sex worker communities throughout the region.14-16
Our research in
Mali and Cambodia shows disturbing parallels in ways that
anti-trafficking measures can contribute to adverse health
outcomes. Without wanting to minimise the issue of trafficking,
these studies show that a more flexible and realistic approach
to labour migration among young people is required. The needs
of vulnerable young migrants, whether trafficked or not, can
be met only through comprehensive understanding of their
motivations and of the cultural and economic contexts in
which their movements occur. Criminalising migrants or the
industries they work in simply forces them "underground,"
making them more difficult to reach with appropriate services
and increasing the likelihood of exploitation.
We do not dispute
that in both settings migrants have suffered hardship and
abuse, but current "anti-trafficking" approaches do not help
their problems. The agendas need to be redrawn so that they
reflect the needs of the populations they aim to serve,
rather than emotive reactions to sensationalised media coverage.
This requires deeper investigation at both local and regional
levels, including participatory research to inform interventions
from the experiences of the migrants and their communities.
From the research that we have conducted in Mali and Cambodia,
we recommend the following:
Policy makers need
to recognise that migration has sociocultural as well as
economic motivations and seeking to stop it will simply cause
migrants to leave in a clandestine and potentially more
dangerous manner. Facilitating safe, assisted migration may
be more effective than relying on corrupt officials to enforce
restrictive border controls.
Instead of seeking
to repatriate migrants, often against their will,
interventions should consider ways to provide appropriate
services at destination points, taking into
consideration specific occupational hazards, language
barriers, and ability to access health and social care
at improving migrants' health and welfare should
not assume that all intermediaries are "traffickers"
intending to exploit migrants. Efforts to reach migrants in
destination areas could use intermediaries.
that have established good rapport with migrant
communities should document cases of abuse and advocate for
improved labour conditions. In the case of sex work,
however, this can be politically difficult. For
example, the United States Agency for International
Development recently announced its intention to stop
funding organisations that do not explicitly
support the eradication of all sex work.
trafficking and other forms of exploitation will cease only
with sustainable development in sending areas combined with a
reduction in demand for cheap, undocumented labour in
receiving countries. Non-governmental organisations and government
partners therefore need to focus on the root causes of rural
poverty and exploitation of labour as well as mitigating the
health risks of current migrants. At the moment, trafficking
is big business not just for traffickers but also for the
international development community, which can access funds
relatively easily to tackle the issue without investing in a
more comprehensive understanding of the wider dynamics
shaping labour migration.
interventions often ignore the cultural
context of migration and can increase migrants'
risk of harm and exploitation
eradicate migration of young people for
work will increase their reliance on corrupt
officials and use of clandestine routes
In Mali and
Cambodia, intermediaries often assist
safe migration and should not necessarily
be seen as exploitative "traffickers"
provide migrants with appropriate
services and help advocate for better
work conditions in destination countries
sources: The authors have considerable practical experience
of research on reproductive and sexual health issues among
vulnerable groups. JB conducted operations research in South
East Asia from 1997-2001 on community based HIV prevention
interventions, primarily with migrant sex workers. SC has worked
in Mali for 15 years, mainly in the Mopti region which has high
rates of out-migration. AD has worked for many years in Mali
in women's health and women's rights.
interests: None declared.
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