Will the Rise of the Far Right Mean More Human Trafficking in Europe?

Will the Rise of the Far Right Mean More Human Trafficking in Europe?

By depriving immigrants of rights, governments help foster the demand for illegal trade in human lives.

UKIP leader Nigel Farage, March 2014 (Chatham House/Flickr)

Few who heard it can fail to recall UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage’s latest self-indictment, as, live on radio, he floundered over accusations of racism, corruption, and spending his free time with anti-Semitic conspiracy nuts. So dreadful was Farage’s performance that his spin doctor had to step in and yank him off air mid-interview.

Coming just days ahead of Farage’s fourth consecutive election to the European Parliament, the exchange was excruciating throughout. But one observation went unnoticed amid the seemingly endless barrage of gaffes: the connection the UKIP leader drew between increased immigration and increased levels of human trafficking. If you let in poor Romanians, Farage suggested, they’ll probably join criminal trafficking gangs. To prevent this, he said, “We want an immigration policy that is based on controlling not just quantity but quality.”

Like so many of his polemics, Farage’s depiction of human trafficking not only displays overt xenophobia but stands logic on its head. Human trafficking and the forced labor it entails—including, but hardly limited to, sex work—follow not from the migration of vast “criminal” groups but from the increased vulnerability of migrants under punitive national immigration policies. By depriving immigrants of rights, governments create the space and help foster the demand for illegal trade in human lives.

The International Labour Organization estimates that 20.9 million people are victims of forced labor globally. Within the European Union alone, the ILO counts some 880,000 people in forced labor conditions. These workers are distributed unevenly across the continent, following a template of international and regional inequalities. Many are concentrated in what is generally known as eastern Europe, where the uneven processes of economic transition among the former communist countries enable huge legal “grey areas” to emerge that put migrants at risk and open opportunities for traffickers.

By depriving immigrants of rights, governments create the space and help foster the demand for illegal trade in human lives.

Criminal organizations specializing in trafficking thrive on these legal and economic grey areas and the regulatory uncertainty and inefficiency that come with them. The Czech Republic, for instance, functions within the global migratory system simultaneously as a transit country (moving migrants into the European core); a source (from which Czech citizens themselves depart); and a destination, not only for irregular and trafficked workers but also for officially documented migrants. Owing to an institutional and civil society knowledge lag, the market for irregular workers—many of them undocumented—grows much faster than it can be “formalized” (that is, regulated to create safe, legal working conditions). According to one IDEA working paper, there are between 17,000 and 300,000 “irregular” workers in the Czech Republic. The very looseness of the estimates attests to the state’s inability to catch up with shifting patterns in the international labor market.

The results have been alarming. Most notoriously, the Czech Republic was rocked in 2011 by the “tree workers case,” in which it was discovered that the state-owned Forestry Firm was farming out contracts to companies directly engaged in forced labor. Czech companies kept workers, many of them undocumented, in exploitative conditions under the nose of the state. The circumstances that produced these abuses followed an increasingly common template: every year, the Czech state grants labor-intensive forestry tenders to the lowest-cost firms, who in turn subcontract to smaller companies. As the labor supply chain becomes more opaque, and the incentives to cut costs multiply, it also becomes harder to enforce existing labor laws.

In the summer of 2010, a group of mostly Slovakian, Vietnamese, and Mongolian workers who responded to advertisements from a company called Affumicata were whisked from Prague  to various Czech forests. There, they worked on sites originally assigned to a larger company, Less & Forests, by the Czech forestry authorities. The workers reported doing heavy manual labor for over ten hours a day, yet received no pay aside from sporadic petty-cash handouts, and several of them resorted to foraging for food in Tesco bins. Affumicata had sought to capitalize on the wave of unemployment provoked by the financial crisis, hosting recruitment events in Prague’s Vietnamese neighborhoods in 2009. According to MigrationOnline, “Working for [Affumicata] was presented as a retraining course endorsed by the Czech authorities at the end of which participants would receive a certificate. . . . In the presence of Vietnamese embassy representatives, the TV [crew] filmed interviews with several participants, who thanked the Affumicata Company and the Czech state for helping the Vietnamese in times of crisis.” Many of the workers did not realize that they had signed up for a “training” program in the first place—let alone that this would be used as a pretext to rob them of their wages. (When labor inspectors first came to the site, they determined that the case fell not under their jurisdiction but under that of the ministry of education.)

Scandals like the tree workers case are not aberrations, but merely the extreme end of a continuum of abuses endured by migrant workers, as anthropologist Denise Brennan described it in a recent article in this magazine. Undocumented or irregular workers come from the same places as documented, legal workers—moving, quite logically, from poorer to richer regions. They also tend to go to the same places, concentrating in dynamic urban areas. They belong to the same “market” for foreign work artificially separated by state borders, tight entry requirements, and often exploitative regulations on the foreign worker. Those who meet these stringent requirements are lucky enough to be able to work in often inhospitable formal labor markets. Those who don’t must seek work in the informal, grey economy. By arbitrarily consigning people to “illegal” status and forcing them to work in the shadows, regulatory regimes and their inadequacies put migrants at greater risk of exploitation by traffickers. The dangers begin long before migrants reach the workplace: an estimated 16,000 people have died trying to enter Europe since 1993. The drowning of some 360 migrants last year in a shipwreck off the coast of Lampedusa was not an isolated case. As European Union integration deepens, and widespread backlash against migrant workers has led to increased securitization of external borders, crossing them has become ever more perilous.

16,000 people have died trying to enter Europe since 1993.

Both criminal groups and legally recognized companies prey on migrants’ increased vulnerability, using it to coerce or mislead people into various kinds of modern servitude. However, the problem is not reducible to immigration. As Jakub Sobik, a spokesperson for the world’s oldest anti-slavery charity, told me: “Trafficking isn’t an immigration issue per se. It’s a crime where people use the vulnerability of other people to their advantage, so we should protect the vulnerable irrespective of their immigration status.” Sobik’s organization, Anti-Slavery International, has produced an impressive amount of research on the problems of identifying trafficking victims. “In the UK, a non-EU passport holder is four times less likely to be identified as a victim of trafficking, and often just deported,” Sobik said, precisely because of the “immigration lenses” through which authorities interpret cases. The charity’s research has shown a growing trend in victims being forced into lives of crime by the gangs who ensnare them. One example is the case of Vietnamese people being trafficked into the UK as cannabis cultivators. Other cases involve pickpocketing, ATM theft, and forced begging. In many of these cases, legal authorities—from police to courts—criminalize the victims of trafficking rather than the traffickers. A legal and political environment that is heavily weighted against immigrants can put victims off seeking help. “If you facilitate safe and legal migration you take away the additional element of threat that hangs over victims,” as Sobik put it to me. “Stopping people [from moving] freely will not reduce the risk.”

You don’t have to be undocumented or even from another country to be trafficked: the poorest and most marginalized members of any society can be targeted and forced into exploitation. The risk of labor exploitation, sexual exploitation, or slavery (the point at which someone can no longer escape her job and does not receive any real remuneration for her work) is high in people’s home countries as well as for migrants to other countries.

Yet the brunt of official and popular discrimination still falls on those who come to work from abroad, especially those without documentation. As Suzanne Hoff, International Coordinator at the European anti-trafficking organization La Strada, told me, “Migrants are vulnerable to human trafficking; however, it depends on the possibilities for them to stay and work legally in the country as well. Some sectors are more vulnerable than others and undocumented migrants are more vulnerable in general as well. Governments should protect migrants and migrant workers better and ensure they have access to human rights protection.”

The International Labour Organization agrees. Following research estimating that traffickers profit to the tune of $150 billion from their activities, the head of the ILO’s taskforce for combating forced labor, Beate Andrees, said: “We must now focus on the socioeconomic factors that make people vulnerable to forced labor in the private sector.” Key to this is a “rights-based approach” to immigration.

“Freedoms are interlocking,” said Terry FitzPatrick of Free the Slaves. “And they’re also contagious.” As communities learn how to shield themselves from exploitation by traffickers, others follow the example. As part of this process, raising awareness among law enforcers and local communities themselves is key. Trafficking can partly be combated through the combined work of NGOs and community-based institutions to raise awareness of rights. In practice, this is where much of the most important work done by NGOs lies.  

Nevertheless, NGOs have a natural tendency to narrowly isolate individual issues from the wider political climate. This desire is understandable given the overwhelming complexities of confronting the unequal international division of labor and deeply entrenched social discrimination that facilitate trafficking networks. However, single-issue campaign pressure denies the space for intersectional interests that are crucial for building political alliances. Human trafficking should not be reduced to an “aid issue” but is rather a matter of politics. As Terry FitzPatrick, himself an NGO spokesperson, told me, civil society networks organizing around the exercise of rights still need states on their side capable of guaranteeing those rights. In addressing the huge profits made by traffickers, the ILO advocates the “bolstering of social protections,” “investment in skills and education,” the aforementioned “rights-based approach,” and “supporting the organization of workers” in susceptible industries. All of this requires forms of political organization to help prevent trafficking and reorganize the international labor market on more humane grounds. And this is where the political left can step in.

Human trafficking should not be reduced to an “aid issue” but is rather a matter of politics.

On the left, we must make two interrelated arguments about immigration: bearing in mind that migration is inherent to complex, interconnected societies, we must first celebrate its wider social and cultural benefits. We must also deplore the legal regulatory conditions of the international labor market, which make it so easy for both formal and informal employers to subject new arrivals in a society to gross exploitation. The answer to such regulatory unfairness is not deregulation as such but regulation for entirely different ends—that is, ensuring the basic welfare of migrants with limited job prospects alongside all the other citizens the labor market puts at risk.

Furthermore, even as we welcome new arrivals to our communities, we must recognize that the complex phenomena producing migratory flows are not always benign. The inequalities that drive people to seek the most desperate routes into international labor markets—that is, through organized international trafficking gangs posing as “labor brokers”—must be fought internationally while unfair legal regimes are fought closer to home. 

One of the great struggles for the left in the coming years will be to defend immigrants—both documented and undocumented—from a rising tide of anger on the part of already settled populations and, beyond that, to establish the basis of the common rights of migrants and their equality with longer-established citizens. Artificial restrictions placed on immigration on a national or even (in the case of the EU) supranational scale only serve to exacerbate the inequalities stemming from uneven market development and pre-existing inequalities between states. Cynical use of the plight of trafficking victims as ammunition against immigration only further displaces the real problem.

And yet the public defense of immigrants’ rights is so tiny in contemporary Europe as to be inaudible. As the anti-immigrant right has advanced, centrist social democratic parties have largely ceded the terms of the debate. Take the case of the UK: when British Prime Minister David Cameron rejected what he called “the doctrine of state multiculturalism“—a fittingly vague coinage that nonetheless managed to conflate state welfarism with migration, the right’s two favorite targets—the Labour Party duly fell into line, with Maurice Glasman, its leading intellectual and the architect of its anti-statist turn, advocating a temporary immigration freeze.

The quiescence, and in some cases participation, of European social democracy in immigrant bashing can only precipitate its decline. If there is to be a future for the European left, the organization and defense of migrant workers must be its top priority.  

Adam Blanden is a Prague-based writer on politics, history, and culture. He blogs at http://accidental-witness.blogspot.cz.