And I have known the eyes already, known them all –
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin

The Love Song of Alfred J Prufrock – T.S. Eliot

“How do you recognise a victim of trafficking?” I once asked a senior immigration officer. This person headed a team at that time responsible for the majority of referrals into the recognised UK anti-trafficking support programme. Since I had spent several months exploring the tensions, ambiguities and contradictions around definitions of ‘force’, ‘exploitation’, ‘coercion’ and ‘position of vulnerability’ papered over by the 2000 Palermo Protocol, I was expecting a long answer. I thought she would say something about how difficult it is in practice to distinguish whether or not young women have been ‘forced’ into prostitution, when they are often faced with such limited options. How this is made even more difficult when sex work is so stigmatised that even acknowledging that it is ‘work’ that women and men can choose to do is highly contested. Her response took me aback: “You just look into their eyes,” she said, “and you can tell.” When pressed, my interviewee asserted the importance of experience on the ground, of gut feeling over academic hair-splitting. Practice trumps theory.

Trafficking is a rare patch of common ground where migrants’ rights organisations and states can agree. Even special interest groups and media outlets, generally hostile to migrants’ rights and ‘illegal immigration’, support victims of trafficking, and call for an end to ‘the modern day slave trade’. Indeed, calls for a more nuanced approach to trafficking can sound ridiculously over-privileged and removed when confronted by the heart-rending testimonies of migrants who have endured the extremes of human cruelty and abuse, and who have been ‘rescued’ by the committed graft of NGOs, ordinary people, and immigration officers who genuinely are horrified by some of the situations they come across. It is all very well talking about complexity and definitions, but what are we going to do?

In fact, academic concern with the challenge of definitions is experienced by frontline workers as a challenge of identification. Put at its crudest, when is a migrant woman ‘forced’ to work as a sex worker, and therefore a victim of trafficking, and when does she ‘consent’ to work as a sex worker? NGOs frequently criticise states for not having proper systems in place to identify victims of trafficking, and point to the high numbers claimed in the political rhetoric, and the low numbers actually granted any stay or compensation. For both states and NGOs, identification can be fraught, and it is easy to see how people might be thrown back on ‘gut feeling’. For the fewer one’s options, the more genuinely one will consent to a situation that might be, by others, labelled ‘unfree’. Getting caught up in definitions of ‘consent’ and voluntariness, and identifying whether individuals really were in a position to make certain choices can risk forgetting important questions of justice. That is while questions like “Did Ayesha consent to being a live-in domestic worker in a household where she knew the family abused their employees?” must go alongside, “Is it just that these working conditions offer a relatively attractive option for Ayesha and is it just that these circumstances are allowed to persist?” What is just, of course, is a question that is both theoretical and eminently practical.

Trafficking is an important laboratory in migration studies. Firstly, it demonstrates the importance of theory to practice. Too often, the relation between academics and practitioners is reduced to access and lobbying along such a formula as: you give me access to interviewees and data, and I’ll give you a lobbying document. Trafficking demonstrates that theory matters, and that academics have a responsibility to debate this with practitioners. This is not because practitioners and the general public have no theories. In my interview with the senior immigration officer it was clear that she was deploying theories of embodiment, of contract, of emotion and reason. The challenge was that she did not think that she was deploying any theories at all; rather she felt she was simply stating the obvious. Familiarity with the theories made them unquestionable. It is an important part of academic work to defamiliarise, and the very obviousness of trafficking, its uncontestability, should invite critique. And this relates to the second way in which trafficking is a laboratory. The victim of trafficking is, like the migrant, a policy subject, a figure to be enumerated, a problem to be solved, a bundle of circumstances and relations that is captured and enumerated in data. But a policy subject is not the same as political subject. Acknowledging the political subjectivity of policy subjects can entail challenging those very policies and studies, the ‘formulated phrase’ that defines them in the first place. This is particularly difficult in the case of ‘victims of trafficking’, who are defined by victimhood and by lack of political agency. But it is not confined to this topic. How both to work with the policy subject of ‘the migrant’ and ‘the victim of trafficking’, and challenge the reification of this subject, is a constant challenge for critical migration scholars, for activists, and for ‘migrants’ more generally. “Then how should I begin?”

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