Queen's Policy Engagement

Lines of attack for the wicked problem of Human Trafficking

Dr Mariana Bogdanova argues that, in the fight to prevent human trafficking, it is vital that institutional actors in government and the voluntary sector are better organised than the criminals they are up against.

Lines of attack for the wicked problem of Human Trafficking

Human trafficking is on the rise and attracting attention to the issue of sexual exploitation of trafficked persons. NGOs recognise trafficking as an economic problem pushing individuals into the exploitation trap of organised crime. It is pushing people out in boats bound for European refugee camps, as well as to the lucrative European prostitution business. Human trafficking raises many questions around how to address the need to assist victims and balance this with the need to punish villains. In an effort to tackle trafficking Northern Ireland has passed a bill modelled after the ‘Swedish model’ which makes the buying of sex illegal. As Europe continues to see a growing number of modern day slavery cases, those voices opposing the criminalisation of sex on the grounds that there is a need to address trafficking and the sex industry separately should be heard.

A contested model

There are claims that the evidence for the model’s success is flawed as what gets measured is that which is visible, leaving those most vulnerable under the radar. There are also experts like Amnesty who in January 2014 called for more research into the local reality of the sex industry in Northern Ireland before a new policy is implemented – for example, are those involved trafficked or working voluntarily? Clause six of the bill has been debated and amended in October 2014 in response to concerns around the overlapping of trafficked and non-trafficked sex workers. Expert organisations have stated their position against the criminalisation of the sex trade on the grounds that it leads to inadequate counter-trafficking policies. Sex industry workers also oppose it on grounds of breaching the rights of those working voluntarily. Nevertheless, the bill received royal assent in January 2015 and policy-makers’ cross-border efforts in Ireland are underway.

Policy which blankets the sex trade as an evil, risks ignoring the complexity of the human trafficking problem. When the sex industry is criminalised it is even more difficult to protect workers’ rights, whether sex workers are identified as “victims” of trafficking or not. As for the immigrants taking part in an illegal activity, they could end up deported, returned to safety, or dead.

A wicked problem

Trafficking for work exploitation is a wicked problem which can be managed but not necessarily solved. NGOs frame sex trafficking clearly, as an outcome of economic inequality. Their focus is on protecting individuals plagued by poverty and address victims’ needs to be safe from their abusers, as well as the need for empowerment and reintegration into society. To this we add the complexity of self-determination: how do we know when to consider an individual trafficked? Is consent to working in the sex industry a one-off or continuous decision? What type of assistance do we dispatch to victims without further breaching their rights)? Framed as a legal issue, trafficking is then approached as an organised crime activity and proof of coercion is key. Here, identifying and implementing effective practices is necessary; for example, employing proactive investigation techniques to secure evidence rather than relying on the victim’s testimony which is difficult to obtain as they tend to fear the law will not protect them if they are illegal.

A cross-border and cross-sector challenge

Finally, there is the challenge of managing a cross-sector partnership in policy implementation in an effort to tackle the problem where partners have the capacity to make a difference. This issue is complex and needs those with expertise to lead the discussion.

Offering the necessary support for trafficking victims requires that NGOs have the expertise in caring for their beneficiaries, but also in providing specialist training to the police force, investigators, and the media on how to work with victims whilst preserving their rights and dignity. It is worrying that the only Northern Ireland-based NGO appearing in the strategic plan for 2013-14 is Women’s Aid, an organisation experienced in domestic violence but without an explicit strategy on working with victims of trafficking.

Among the actions identified in the plan for cross-sector collaboration is the need to encourage the sharing of expertise and the need for training NGOs. But NGOs should not be those that need special training when entering such partnerships; on the contrary, they should be providing this training. The La Strada International network for example has two decades of experience in countries where human trafficking is rife. It comprises NGOs who have developed their countries’ referral mechanisms and have been providing the necessary training to the public sector. Embedded in global knowledge-sharing networks, such organisations undertake the role of cross-sector institution builders where governments lack the necessary capacity or knowledge. In other words, the type of ‘expertise’ sought in the effort to tackle trafficking should be specified.

Prioritising the right actions for the right context is crucial in a resource-constrained sector. Campaigning to raise awareness is a vital part of prevention, especially for countries where trafficked persons come from. However, ensuring robust referral mechanism and effective collaboration in joint trafficking investigations and prosecution is even more important in countries recipients of trafficked persons.

One of the main tasks set out in Northern Ireland’s DoJ Human Trafficking Action Plan is to improve partnership working between Government and NGOs. At the same time the voluntary sector services are being cut back following the endemic decline in funding for the sector across the UK (see the case of the Council for Ethnic Minorities and Migrant Help). The sector’s capacity to deliver on the fight against trafficking will be challenged in future in Northern Ireland.

Dr Mariana Bogdanova is a Lecturer in the Management School at Queen’s University Belfast. Her research interests are in organisational contexts in transition settings and the third (not-for-profit) sector.

The featured image is published through a Creative Commons licence.


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