Human Trafficking and Border Control in the Global South

Maggy Lee[1]


The promotion and development of international counter-trafficking norms and programmes over recent decades have transformed human trafficking from ‘a poorly funded, NGO women’s issue in the early 1980s’ into ‘the global agenda of high politics’ of the United States Congress, the European Union, and the United Nations (Wong 2005: 69). To many policy makers and law enforcers, such expansion of trafficking control exemplifies a ‘global prohibition regime’ (Nadelmann 1990: 526) directed at activities which threaten ‘the safety, welfare and moral sensibilities of international society’. Yet as Andreas and Nadelmann (2006) remind us, historically, through international prohibition efforts (for example, against slavery and drugs), metropolitan powers export their own definitions of crime for political and economic reasons as well as to promote their own morals from the metropolitan ‘centre’ to the ‘periphery’. To paraphrase Aas (2011a), criminal justice ‘exports’ are not a natural, functional response to human trafficking as a growing crime problem; instead, they are infused with ‘geo-political imbalances ofpower’ between ‘exporters’ and ‘importers’ ofparticular discourses and practices of crime and crime control.

In the field ofhuman trafficking, critics have pointed to a Eurocentric framing of the issue and its troubling consequences, notably through the intersection of trafficking and immigration control. There is now a growing body ofcriminological literature on the criminalization and securitization of trafficked victims, refugees, and asylum seekers (Green and Grewcock 2002; Pickering 2004; Huysmans 2006; Gerard and Pickering 2012). Considering human trafficking as an immigration crime problem casts those who are trafficked as unwanted ‘Others’, to be dealt with first and foremost as illegal immigrants who have to be ‘rescued’ and returned home, to where they belong or, better still, immobilized before they arrive at the borders in the global North. Within this milieu, border policing is widened into ‘border spaces that are not primarily defined by territory’; it ‘becomes global and predictably homes in on the most vulnerable and the most desperate for the unmitigated use of force and practices of exclusion’ (Pickering 2004: 221).

This chapter seeks to add to the critical work on criminology of mobility by examining trafficking control and border policing currently taking place in the global South. To date, most ofthe criminological literature on trafficking control has tended to focus on Western models ofborder policing, the fortification ofborder surveillance in a global regime of mobility control, and the violent technologies of state control and collateral damage brought on by the ‘war on trafficking’. Criminologists have paid relatively little attention to those international programmes, transnational migration and development aid agencies, and non-state actors whose business it is to implement and promote particular norms and standards about border control in the name of trafficking prevention and migration management, notably in what Walters (2011) has termed the ‘humanitarian border’ in the global South. It is here, in the unstable zones of the world system—or what Mark Duffield has termed the global ‘borderlands’—where one can witness a significant ‘internationalisation of public policy, privatisation and marketisation’ (Duffield 2001: 309) via the thickening of public-private contractual and international aid networks between metropolitan and borderland areas, the growing involvement ofnon-state and private organizations, and the casting of the border as a particular terrain of expert knowledge and intervention. Metropolitan states may be reluctant to intervene directly in the internal affairs ofthird countries, but they are learning to govern the borderlands ‘at a distance’ through a reworking ofinternational power and its projection through ‘new non-territorial networks’ and new technologies of control within the broad framework where security is redefined as development (Duffield 2001: 310-314).

To some extent, the lack ofcriminological attention to the global borderlands may reflect what critics have referred to as the longstanding Northern epistemic hegemony and geopolitical imbalances of academic knowledge production (Agozino 2003; Connell 2006; Cunneen 2011; Aas 2012). As Chen (2010: 237) suggests in the context of Asian cultural studies, ‘Western-centrism’ and its discourse of universality has constituted a ‘solid structure of desire and knowledge’, but this should not stop us from exploring ways to advance an alternative mapping of criminology that foregrounds the situated context ofmobilities and control in Asia. As a tentative response to the rallying call to expand criminology’s geopolitical imagination and ‘to see from the peripheries’ (Aas 2012: 11), this chapter considers the dominant human trafficking discourse, norms, logics, and forms of border control that have been extended from countries of destination in the North to countries of origin in the South. How does the dominant trafficking discourse become dispersed and institutionalized, especially through international agencies and non-state actors? How can we make sense of the novel alliances and power configurations that international agencies and non-governmental organizations bring into play in border policing in the Asian context? And how can the development of a ‘peripheral vision’ of trafficking and border control inform a truly global criminology of (im)mobility?

  • [1] I am indebted to Katja Franko Aas and Mary Bosworth for their insightful suggestions andextremely helpful comments on earlier drafts of this chapter. I would also like to thank SharonPickering and Marie Segrave for their support and Ben Bowling and many others for their feedbackat the Borders of Punishment Conference, University of Oxford, April 2012.
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