The narratives circulated about human trafficking, both by governments and by nonprofit groups, have a big impact on how trafficking is understood by the general public, what kind of policy is passed about it, and what kind of action is taken towards stopping it. The United States acts on these narratives through the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, which works on legislation, gives grants to international groups fighting trafficking, funds US-based anti-trafficking programs, and publishes the annual Trafficking in Persons report, which reports on the phenomenon worldwide. And while the narratives promoted by nonprofits and by the Office often have the best intentions, they end up restricting the kind of action that can be taken to fight trafficking, and promoting ethnocentric, narrow views of the problem itself.
The most prevalent narratives of trafficking go something like this: human trafficking occurs when someone is forced to leave their home — usually involving the crossing of borders — in order to perform labor for little or no pay. Usually trafficking is said to affect women and children, though they are certainly not the only victims of trafficking. Imagery of abduction, sweatshops, and child prostitutes is common. The final piece of this narrative is that the only way for this global atrocity to end is through the intervention of large-scale NGOs and/or government intervention.
The reality of trafficking is far more complicated (especially with regards to sex trafficking*). Movement across borders for purposes of labor often straddles a murky line between coercion and willful migration, and the forces of structural poverty and oppression often force those in the developing world to make the least-awful out of several pretty awful choices when it comes to generating income. In addition, cultural understandings of sexuality, childhood, and debt can complicate the one-size-fits-all explanations of the problem (or solutions) that the TIP report seems to promote. In terms of sex trafficking, for example, narratives of what trafficking is — and isn’t — means that the United States probably isn’t going to give international grant money to an organization that is not explicitly abolitionist when it comes to prostitution, even when many women in the developing world see sex work as their best option (and, once they are forced out of the industry, end up in sweatshops). And trafficking happens in the United States, too — But we hardly talk about it as such, and the United States wasn’t even included in the TIP Report until fairly recently. Furthermore, these narratives of trafficking never seem to include the bigger picture: globalization, industrialization, government inefficiency, cultural attitudes towards gender, etc., all interact to make trafficking a reality, and if we don’t take a critical look at these structures, we’re just putting a band-aid on the larger social ills. Narratives of trafficking are narrow enough so that we pity the child forced to weave a carpet in Nepal — and feel that we must act to make other nations fix their trafficking problems — but we don’t think twice about who is picking our fruits and vegetables right here in the US. Until our narratives of trafficking include these structural forces, and ask us to take a good hard look at our own impact on global trafficking (for example, the way that our demand for $5 tee shirts relies on sweatshop labor), they are not going to be sufficient to ensure fair-labor practices worldwide.
(*If you want more links than that, I’ve got plenty. I actually wrote my undergrad thesis on the discourses of sex work and sex trafficking, so I could help fill your brain with more information/opinions on these narratives than you would ever ask for.)