Reflections on initiatives to address human trafficking

Many organisations, politicians and celebrities have joined the fight against human trafficking but have they stopped to consider the causes of the phenomenon and the human rights of those affected by it and/or by ill-judged actions to suppress it?

For many, including authors of some of the articles which follow in this issue of FMR, anti-trafficking activities should prioritise strengthening the criminal justice response and enabling those affected to testify against those who have exploited them. Some in the anti-trafficking community focus only on trafficking for purposes of sexual exploitation and naively believe that criminalisation of prostitution would end trafficking. Those who focus on repatriation of trafficked persons or who ‘rescue’ them from brothels or other workplaces often fail to ask ‘victims’ whether they want to be stopped from working and sent home – or would prefer to remain if they could find legal, paid employment.

It has recently become fashionable for researchers and activists to address the ‘demand side’ of trafficking. However, once again, a conflation between ‘demand for paid sex’ and ‘demand for the labour/services of a trafficked person’ is seen in many of these studies. If it is not clearly conceptualised, ‘demand; can be an extremely problematic term. The pioneering work of Bridget Anderson and Julia O’Connell-Davidson, and the recent work of the International Labour Organisation on demand, are valuable resources for anyone conducting research or developing programmes on demand.[1]

Current international law on trafficking in human beings is shaped by the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and a supplementary Protocol (the Palermo Protocol) to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children.[2] The protocol was adopted by a resolution of the UN General Assembly in November 2000 and came into force in December 2003. It has now been ratified by 97 states. Many major nations – including the US and UK – have only recently ratified the Palermo Protocol. India, Germany, Japan, Indonesia and France are among the major states which have signed, but not ratified. China and Pakistan have done neither.[3]

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC)[4] – which is almost universally ratified though not by the US – provides the main reference for the situation of trafficked children. The CRC’s Optional Protocol on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography[5] draws attention to these serious violations of children’s rights and emphasises the importance of fostering increased public awareness and international cooperation in efforts to combat them.

For many of us who have worked on human trafficking for several years this is a critical time. We have talked a lot about what we are against; perhaps it is time to state clearly what we are for. Migration is a reality of today’s world but it is still unsafe for many people. Paid work is a necessity for everyone and yet many people do not receive fair wages for their work or, even worse, are exploited at their workplaces. Even if we had an ultra-efficient identification system to determine who is trafficked, they would constitute a much smaller number than the migrant workers who also need protection. So if we envision a world where all migrating people can work in fair and safe workplaces, then we must shift our focus to migration and labour and address the crime of trafficking within that context.

In the last two years important initiatives have come from the international community and civil society to understand migration and labour from a human rights perspective.[6] Migrant rights groups are better organised now and even workers in informal economies are forming collectives. Traditional trade unions are willing to take up the issue of undocumented workers. These are positive signs which must be built on.


Bandana Pattanaik is the International Coordinator of the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW) 191/41 Sivalai Condominium Soi 33, Itsaraphap Rd, Bangkok-yai, Bangkok, Thailand 10600. Tel: +66 2 864 1427/8. Email:

[1] Anderson, B and O’Connell-Davidson, J,  Is Trafficking in Human Beings Demand Driven? A Multi-Country Pilot Study, International Organization for Migration,

[6] Report of the Global Commission on International Migration, Global Alliance Against Forced Labour  International Labor Organization



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