Racism and counter-trafficking

The problem of human trafficking within and across borders was recognized as early as 1928 by the League of Nations. However, in the last two decades, focus on the issue has increased. In 2000, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) was passed in the United States by Congress and entitled victims to legal protection (including possible visas and work authorizations), crisis care (including emergency shelter and medical attention), and casework (including mental health services, job placement, welfare, and refugee services). The TVPA also mandated prevention, outreach, training, and research. In the original TVPA, victims of human trafficking were only recognized if they had been transported across borders; however, in the 2005 renewal, domestic trafficking was included. This is one of the few humanitarian projects that Bush’s government has really jumped upon, spoken out against, and is funding. Besides increased visibility in the political arena, laws, and legal courts—human trafficking has also become a buzz topic in the media.  Newspapers are now reporting on stories—even focusing “in depth investigations” on human trafficking cases. Additionally, popular media has joined the bandwagon with shows like CSI, Law and Order SVU, and many others depicting fictional cases—generally of sex crimes against children.

Human trafficking is not a new phenomenon. It is a complex phenomenon based in sexist and racist views that allow humans to become commodities and markets with large clientele to operate. Since the 1990s, mass media, international organizations, governments, and NGOs have paid more attention to the issue. Unfortunately, there is still relatively little empirical data about patterns of human trafficking, how to prevent it, and how to effectively help survivors of trafficking reintegrate into society. Why is it that until recently, people have not paid attention to the plight of victims of human trafficking?

            I hypothesize that the increased interest in human trafficking (at least in the states), is based on an underlying racism.  In the past, (1928, when it was recognized, through the 80s) the majority of “victims” were people, generally women, of color.  They were African, Asian, or Latin America.  In the early 1990s with the fall of the Soviet Union, suddenly thousands of white women (and men) in Eastern Europe became vulnerable to human trafficking.  Now, trafficking rings in the former USSR, are strong and growing.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the racial make-up of the victim population shifted a bit and soon after public attitude and attention did.  Further proof comes from the name of an early document on human trafficking: “the white-slave traffic act”, which although technically refers to the crime of indecent behavior with transport across state borders; nonetheless, has the underlying racial themes that permeate the counter-trafficking movement’s upsurge.



  1. Clare:
    Good to read your blog. I have to agree with you on the racism implicit in the attention that is paid to trafficking. Did you hear about our recent prosecution here? It was another domestic case. No less tragic, but we need to rescue and restore the victims among other populations.

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