Is it possible to turn a critical eye into human trafficking reports?

flexibeast sent me a link on Twitter (incidentally, if you are on Twitter, consider following flexibeast, always interesting and thought provoking conversations).  The link, People trafficking ‘under-reported’ in Australia via ABC News makes a few points I find difficult to deal with because I know I might fall prey to the limitations of my own writings and leave the door open to possible misinterpretations or accusations. However, here are a few facts that caught my eye in this report:

The Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) says Australians are largely unaware of a problem which is just as sinister as people smuggling – people trafficking.

The AIC has presented research on the problem to the International Serious and Organised Crime Conference in Melbourne.

An anti-people trafficking group says the number of people brought to work in Australia against their will each year is probably in the hundreds and there are growing reports that the construction and agriculture industries are involved.

and this:

“In terms of known victims, I think the last numbers I’ve seen… there were 113 odd in the Australian Government’s support program.

"That’s just looking mainly at the sexual exploitation. There’s also issues around trafficking for the purpose of labour exploitation and we could see more numbers there as well.”

And here’s the thing: I don’t believe for a second people are trafficked only for the purpose of sexual exploitation. I would contend that slave labor is, at least, a number equally chilling. However, forced labor victims (victims of modern day slavery, dehumanizing practices, trafficking, etc.)seem to be more problematic for reporting purposes because of a number of factors. To start with, speaking about victims of modern slavery would force reporters and authorities to cast light on the people who actually employ them. It would not be possible to report on the victims of forced labor without interrogating on the obvious: who is behind the trafficking? Who is profiting from these indentured servants? Since the answer is almost always “someone powerful enough”, the issue becomes uncomfortable, almost an annoyance to the status quo. When the BBC documentary about slavery in Dubai came out, I was working in the Middle East. It was uncomfortable for the local government. It was an annoyance. A PR nightmare. Once the uproar faded away, nobody spoke of the issue anymore. Bringing to light the cases of slavery and associated human trafficking for the purpose of forced labor would require a deep examination of the capital interests behind them. Nobody in mainstream media seems to want to go there. And for authorities, it also becomes a burdensome issue, particularly in a world where brown people (almost always the victims of such practices) are peddled as slightly less than human. They seem to be the victims of nobody’s blame.

Then there is, I suspect, a second issue at play: everyone loves the narrative of the poor victimized woman. Women trafficked for sex work make for colorful stories. Feminist groups, social organizations, human rights advocates, religious leaders, all united to “save women”. It’s noble. It sells. It moves consciousness. I am, in no way, downplaying the importance of working to free these women. However, I am questioning the motives behind the efforts. At the end of the day, it is the results that matter and I am not going to actively seek those working on the issue to point fingers, but none of these initiatives are free from moral judgement. And almost always, the stories are reported like an epic triumph of morals over the inhuman conditions in which the noble savage was submerged. This noble savage (the trafficked prostitute) is almost always depicted as a being lacking in autonomy, in self determination, in will of her own. She needed saving. Their personal stories eclipsed by the pornography of suffering, the erasure of their past and the perpetuation of their victimhood, a victim now free because of the efforts of the well intentioned westerners who could not just “do nothing”. The efforts of the activists in the countries where these women come from hardly ever mentioned, as if they didn’t exist at all and these women had no other resources than the Hollywood narrative of “happy endings”.

Is one group underreported? I have almost no doubt, simply because victims of sex traffic are the new territory to colonize, the one area with the least reporting inconvenience. And who doesn’t like happy endings with moral undertones?

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