The Naive (Non-Agentive) Child

At times, however, anti-traffickers are forced to acknowledge that entry into the world of the economy is a decision that children or adolescents do make themselves. And when they do, they discursively explain that choice away as either a function of the false consciousness belief that elsewhere will lead to riches or a result of the tricky tales of the devious trafficker. When minors are acknowledged by the dominant discourse as having been agentive, then, they are characterised by it as ‘naive,’ as having brought their trafficking downfall on themselves (though without of course having been responsible for what they were doing—what is responsible is always the abstract poverty pushing them to make their doomed choice, or the devilish genius of the nasty trafficker).

Key examples of this discursive construction feature prominently in the US TIP reports, especially those from the 2000s. Their typical mode of presentation is a text box or stand-alone ‘victim testimony.’ Frequently, these will be accompanied for emphasis by the sad cautionary image of a suffering child, plus that child’s country of origin, as if the testimony were a military or newspaper field report. The following is but one example, from 2006:

Romania: Maria, age 16, was tricked into traveling to Bucharest to find a job by a childhood friend. Unbeknownst to Maria, the friend had advertised in a Romanian port city that there was a “girl for sale.” Maria was sold to a man who used her as a prostitute, along with an 11-year-old girl. For four months, she was forced to work as a street prostitute under the threat of beatings.6

The ILO echoes this in its own damning representations of migration cum trafficking. In a major 2002 study, for instance, the authors state that ‘[As a result of their poverty] many children report that they are prepared to suffer what they see as escapable, short-term exploitation...if it means they can earn (comparatively) large sums of money. They are not aware that the hardship will be severe, the repercussions long-term’ (2002b: 55). This narrative operates also in Benin, including with regard to the labour migration linking Za-Kpota to Abeokuta, which has often been discursively rendered as ‘child slavery’ and which we will discuss in empirical detail in the next chapter. The basic premise is that children do not know and cannot know what they are getting themselves into (and so should be prevented from getting themselves into anything at all.).

Such a staunch refusal to accept the rationality of youth labour migratory decisions can be attributed in large part to the strength and structure of the ideology of Western Childhood. This ideology sees children as what Qvortrup describes as ‘human becomings,'’ rather than beings (2009), as somehow possessing less than the full personhood required to be legal- moral subjects able to offer meaningful consent. This non-personhood is enshrined in the Palermo Protocol, which denies children the right to choose their exploitation and establishes that neither coercion nor consent matters in the legal definition of child trafficking, since trafficking equates to mobility + (the labour defined by the authorities as) exploitation. Crucially, however, the legal embodiment of this ideology necessarily contrasts with empirical ‘reality.’ Young people everywhere do give what most of us would in practice see as their consent to their exploitation, which leaves the anti-trafficking field with a classic ideological conundrum: what to do in the moment of radical subjectivity that derives from rupture and non-correspondence? Unfortunately, of course, the answer is that the field predominantly sublimates it, making the bad faith decision to pretend that it isn’t happening, that the choice made by young people isn’t a real choice anyway...

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