Trafficking: return of the ‘white slavery’ scare?

The Metropolitan Police’s legalised kidnapping of 10 Roma children suggests the anti-trafficking industry is the greatest threat to migrants.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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They were ‘twenty-first century Artful Dodgers’, we were told, a gang of ‘Fagin’s children’ from Romania, who had been trafficked to Slough, England, in order to work like slaves in a ‘pickpocketing and begging crimewave’. The Metropolitan Police launched dawn raids on various ‘slavery dens’ in Slough last Friday; some of the police reportedly wore balaclavas and riot gear and were closely followed by film crews invited along to witness the moment the ‘child slaves’ were liberated. Footage of officers carrying kids from terraced houses was beamed across the news bulletins, as various newspapers declared: ‘Romanian child slaves freed in Slough.’ A Met officer said his team was committed to ‘dismantling crime networks’ and to the ‘rescue of [trafficked] children’ (1).

There was only one problem with this story: it was as fictional as the original Dickensian tale of artful dodgers. The Roma children were not child slaves; of the 10 kids ‘rescued’ in Slough on Friday (one of whom was less than a year old: hardly pickpocketing material), all but one were reunited with their natural parents or guardians the following day (2). No evidence has been discovered to show that the Roma adults in Slough were involved in a ‘criminal gang’ or a ‘child slave ring’ or any other form of serious criminality. Of the 24 adults arrested, 14 have been charged: nine with immigration offences, three with the theft of mobile phones, and two with handling stolen mobile phones… hardly the kind of crimes that require a heavy-handed, camera-flashing raid at five in the morning.

Officials later admitted that the children appeared ‘healthy and well cared for’, though they had been ‘distressed’ by their forced removal from their family homes by police officers (3). In a spluttering effort to explain why a high-profile raid had been carried out against what appear to be normal families of poor immigrants – living in crowded conditions; in possession of dodgy immigration papers; involved in a bit of petty crime – Metropolitan Police commander Steve Allen said: ‘I’m not able to see into the future. I didn’t know exactly who and what we were going to find in those addresses.’ (4) According to the grandfather of some of the children who were ‘rescued’, the police entered the house at 5am, ransacked it, forbade the grandparents from feeding the children, and finally – finding no hard evidence of ‘slavery’ – took the children away only to return them 24 hours later (5).

The Met’s raids in Slough were effectively legalised kidnapping, the snatching of children as a media stunt designed to show that the police are serious about tackling ‘human trafficking’. According to one account, the police were accompanied not only by social workers, but also by a ‘small army of cameramen, photographers and journalists’, who unquestioningly, one might even say slavishly, reported the cops’ apparently brave efforts to liberate enslaved children from bondage (6). Yet hardly anyone in this army of reporters has bothered to write a follow-up about what happened next. This degenerate episode highlights the dangers in today’s hysteria about human trafficking. The Metropolitan Police found little evidence that Roma children in Slough are being harmed by ‘evil traffickers’ – yet its own high-profile raid shows very clearly that the anti-trafficking industry can cause harm and distress to migrant families, undermine global freedom of movement, and warp the public’s perception of immigration.

In recent years, a motley crew of government and police forces in America and Europe, feminist activists, fundamentalist Christian outfits and celebrity campaigners has turned human trafficking into one of the biggest issues of our time. They claim there is a new ‘slave trade’, that tens of thousands of people – especially women and children – are being sold across borders and into bondage every year. Salacious newspaper reports (in respectable broadsheets as well as the tabloids) tell us of ‘the teenagers traded for slave labour and sex’; of African children that are ‘nothing but a commodity… traded for tawdry sex and living under the fear of voodoo’; of Eastern European women moved across Europe ‘like cattle’ to service sex-hungry kerb-crawlers in Britain, Spain, France and Germany (7). The anti-traffickers paint a picture of uber-Dickensian global squalor, of Conradian darkness, where women and children are bought and sold by evil gangs, and then forced into labour and kept in their place by threats of murder or voodoo vengeance.

The evidence for these sinister claims is murky indeed. No one doubts that illegal immigration is a messy business. Migrants from some Eastern European countries and from Africa are denied free movement around Europe. Thus they frequently have little choice but to pay middlemen for fake passports, risky forms of transportation and other favours. Those who do make it into Britain, France or Germany have to live beneath officialdom’s radar or risk being deported back to their country of origin: this means they can easily be exploited, becoming beholden to dodgy employers who pay them shockingly low wages and provide them with shoddy housing. But enslaved? Victims of voodoo? Little more than ‘cattle’ or ‘commodities’ driven and shipped around Europe like animals? Such claims seem to spring from the anti-traffickers’ fevered and borderline-xenophobic mindset, rather than being based in reality.

The Slough incident is not the first time that a high-profile raid against ‘modern-day slavery’ has turned out to be something quite different. In late 2005, police in Birmingham carried out a media splash of a raid against a brothel and claimed to have ‘rescued’ 19 women who had been trafficked to the UK and enslaved as prostitutes (8). A few days later, 13 of the women were released when it turned out that they were ‘voluntarily working in the sex industry’; the remaining six, who also denied having been trafficked, were imprisoned at Yarlswood detention centre in Bedfordshire and threatened with deportation back to their countries of origin (9). The 19 women refuted police and media claims that they had been ‘locked up’ in the brothel: then, thanks to what some refer to as the ‘rescue industry’ of the anti-trafficking lobby, some of them were locked up for real in a detention centre.

In 2004, the Metropolitan Police launched Operation Paladin Child at Heathrow airport. In the wake of the publication of various reports that said ‘there may well be hundreds, if not thousands, of children in Britain who have been brought here for exploitation’, the Met monitored the arrival of ‘unaccompanied minors from non-EU countries’ (a PC phrase for young blacks and Eastern Europeans) into Heathrow over a three-month period (10). During this time, 1,738 unaccompanied minors arrived at Heathrow and all but 12 of them were ‘accounted for’: that is, they moved in with family relations or guardians. The outstanding 12 are believed either to have left the UK soon after or to have started work in Britain outside of the authorities’ watch. In 2006, a transatlantic network of anti-traffickers claimed that 40,000 women from Eastern Europe, Asia and Latin America would be trafficked to Germany during the World Cup tournament to service drunken or drug-fuelled horny football fans. A few months after the World Cup, EU documents revealed that five women, not 40,000, had been forced against their will to work as prostitutes in Germany (11).

The anti-trafficking industry’s figures frequently don’t add up. In 2003, UNICEF published a report titled Stop the Traffic!. It claimed that up to a million young people and children are trafficked around the world every year – a claim that hit the front pages in 2003 and which still pops up in reports about trafficked women and children today. Yet UNICEF admits there is ‘little hard statistical information’ on trafficking. ‘Since trafficking can be a complex series of events… it can be difficult to identify a single case of trafficking’, it said. What’s more, for the purposes of its shrill report, UNICEF lumped very different forms of population movement under the category of ‘trafficking’, including instances where African parents ‘send their children to work in other households, sometimes entrusting them to better-off relatives’ and where large numbers of children or young people (which can include 17- and 18-year-olds) move around Africa or Asia in search of work. Here, the everyday African practice of sending children to live with wealthier family members, and the migration of young people in Asia and Africa in search of employment, are stuck alongside claims about voodoo-enabled tawdry sex slavery as part of an overall wicked ‘trafficking industry’ (12).

The US State Department claims that 800,000 people are trafficked around the world every year. Yet according to Laura Maria Agustin, who interrogated the idea that a ‘trafficking industry’ exists for her new book Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry, this is a ‘fantasy number’. ‘Numbers like this are fabricated by defining trafficking in an extremely broad way to take in enormous numbers of people’, says Agustin. For example, the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons uses ‘the widest possible definition [of trafficking]’, says Agustin, including describing nearly all foreign prostitutes in the West as victims of trafficking on the basis that ‘any woman who sells sex could not really want to, and, if she crossed a national border, she was forced’ (13).

The crusade against trafficking looks less and less like a real-world attempt to assist migrants and increase their freedom of movement and choices, and more like a super-moralistic fantasy campaign against evil and perverted Johnny Foreigners. In some ways, today’s trafficking hysteria is similar to the ‘white slavery’ scare of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; indeed, one academic study points out that the term ‘trafficking’ first emerged during the white slavery panic (14). Back then, there were widespread concerns that foreign men – in particular Arabs and the Chinese – might kidnap respectable white Western women and force them to work as prostitutes. In 1910, the US passed the White-Slave Traffic Act which banned the ‘interstate transport of females for immoral purposes’ (15). This moral panic had very little foundation in fact. Rather, as various studies have discussed, it was driven by fin de siècle fears about foreigners polluting and corrupting Western civilisation, as represented by the virginal white woman allegedly at risk of being violated by brown-skinned outsiders. In America in the very early twentieth century there were numerous high-profile raids on Chinese gambling halls in search of enslaved white women; most of the raids turned up nothing (16).

Today, too, there is a feverish obsession amongst officials and activists with the alleged ‘transport of females for immoral purposes’. Only today the wicked foreigners tend to be Eastern Europeans and Africans, and their alleged victims are women from their own countries rather than white women from the West. Yesterday’s ‘white slavery’ scaremongers and today’s anti-trafficking campaigners share much in common. Both viewed foreign men as brutal and untrustworthy. Both depicted women as pathetic victims easily trapped into a life of tawdry sex slavery. Both made hysterical claims about women and children being chained up for the pleasure of men. Both gave rise to high-profile raids that often turned up very little. And both seemed to be underpinned, energised, by a culture of fear, by apocalyptic doubts and uncertainties about the standing of Western society and the threat from brown, yellow and black foreigners who might pass unnoticed across porous borders. Now, as then, the discussion of migration as ‘trafficking’ and ‘slavery’ reveals much about the fearful and besieged Western mentality, the desire to raise the drawbridge and keep at bay the coming collapse of moral values.

The anti-trafficking crusade strikingly captures the degraded view many people take of agency and choice today. Anti-traffickers patronisingly describe foreign women, especially those who end up working in prostitution, as objects rather than as active subjects. Apparently these women do not move around the world; rather they are trafficked across borders, smuggled and shifted like pieces on a chess board. Apparently they do not make hard decisions about where to go and what work to carry out; instead they are bought and sold and forced into ‘slave labour’. And worst of all, apparently they do not require our solidarity or support as they move around the globe and work often long hours for little pay; instead they must be rescued by the police, social workers and feminists and sent back to their country of origin as if they were children escaped from a nursery. Once migrants were demonised as potential criminals; today they are looked upon as flotsam and jetsam, who must be guided home by caring Western officials.

Yet as Laura Maria Agustin argues, people who migrate are not pathetic victims; they might have to make hard choices in circumstances that are not of their making, but they are often possessed of gumption and ambition: ‘It is not the most desperate, like famine sufferers, who manage to undertake a migration. In order to go abroad you have to be healthy and you have to have social capital, including a network that will get you information on how to travel and work. You need some money and some names and addresses; you have to have at least some official papers, even if they’re false. You need at least a minimal safety net.’ (17) Migration remains an inspiring expression of human agency and desire, as people take great risks and travel great distances to improve their lives. In labelling such movement as ‘trafficking’ and ‘slavery’, and demanding tougher border restrictions and police-led ‘rescues’ of trafficking’s alleged victims, the anti-trafficking lobby has grossly betrayed the very people it is claiming to help.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here.

Previously on spiked

Nathalie Rothschild criticised the promiscuous use of the term ‘trafficking’ and the comparison with slavery. Bruno Waterfield debunked scare stories about forced prostitution at the World Cup. Brendan O’Neill looked at the dubious statistics around trafficking. Andrew Cox thought Ken Loach’s film It’s a Free World… offered poor arguments on cheap labour. Or read more at spiked issue Immigration.

(1) Children feared used by crime gangs, BBC News, 25 January 2008

(2) Romanian parents help gang probe, BBC News, 28 January 2008

(3) Report on Today, BBC Radio 4, 28 January 2008

(4) Romanian parents help gang probe, BBC News, 28 January 2008

(5) Report on Today, BBC Radio 4, 28 January 2008

(6) Press-ganged, Comment Is Free, 29 January 2008

(7) For example, see The teenagers traded for slave labour and sex, Guardian, 30 July 2003

(8) Home Office defers expulsion of women held in brothel raid, Guardian, 5 October 2005

(9) Home Office defers expulsion of women held in brothel raid, Guardian, 5 October 2005

(10) See How looking for work turns you into a victim, Brendan O’Neill, New Statesman, 22 November 2004

(11) See What if the figures don’t add up?, Brendan O’Neill, Press Gazette, 23 March 2007

(12) See Trafficking in dubious numbers, by Brendan O’Neill

(13) The Myth of the Migrant, Reason, 26 December 2007

(14) See this interesting study on trafficking and white slavery

(15) See this interesting study on trafficking and white slavery

(16) See this interesting study on trafficking and white slavery

(17) The Myth of the Migrant, Reason, 26 December 2007

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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