It seems that the lens is clouded when it comes to the concept of human trafficking. For years, our understanding has been based largely on the ideas we’re fed through the media: stories of young, poor foreign girls forced into the sex industry – innocent victims of heartless traffickers.
However, experts are becoming increasingly critical of the media and courtroom portrayal. While the numbers of human trafficking offences in Denmark are on the rise, new research reveals that the large majority of these subjects are not in fact victims of forced slavery, but rather knowing and active participants in search of a better life.
The lure of a better life
Experts contend that for many women, trafficking serves as a one-way ticket to a new and improved life.
Social anthropologist Sine Plambech from the Danish Institute of International Studies recently captured the essence of this idea in her documentary ‘Becky’s Journey’. The film centres on Becky, a 26-year-old Nigerian woman who moves to Italy to engage in the sex industry – all in the hope of a happy ending.
“We are seeing more and more cases like this in Denmark,” said Plambech. “We throw around the term ‘prostitute’ as if the sex-worker involved has no agency at all. More often than not, this is far from the case.”
Not a black and white issue
Lea Emilie Dam a masters student of Gender Studies at Lund university agrees that there are several problematic assumptions about the nature of human trafficking in Denmark.
“The media’s representation of human trafficking is often characterised by melodrama and sensationalism,” says Dam.
“The dominant discourse of trafficking is constructed through a black and white idea of the ‘victims’ and the ‘villains’ – and there is certainly a tendency to victimise and infantilise the ‘Third World Woman’.”
Problem of prostitution
One of the greatest faults in our contemporary conception of human trafficking, asserts Dam, is that it is understood merely as a problem of prostitution.
“In Denmark, we are generally faced with the one-sided view of sex worker as exploitation,” she said.
“Sex work is often put forward as a phenomenon that can only be understood in terms of coercion, exploitation and economic desperation, rather than the possibility of sex work as a legitimate strategy for migrant women in their strive for a better life.”
In the documentary, Becky is vocal about her willingness to engage in the sex industry.
“There are no jobs in Europe for us – just prostitution. I don’t know how to say it, but that’s what I am going there for,” she reveals.
“I’ll pay off the money I owe [to those who helped me travel to Italy] and then I’ll continue with my life. I don’t see it as trafficking because it’s an understanding between both parties. No-one is forcing you. Nobody put a gun to my head and said you must go.”
Smuggling vs trafficking
Cases such as Becky’s reveal the notable confusion between the notions of trafficking, migration and prostitution, and according to experts, there is no simple answer.
“In many ways, the concepts overlap. On the one hand we have completely voluntary migration, and on the other hand we have trafficking by gunpoint,” said Plambech.
“We often find that women agree to come to Denmark and are aware of the type of work they will be involved in. However, many are not always aware of all the aspects of the job – and this is where the concept turns problematic.”
Still a last resort
However, despite the significant number of women trafficked to Denmark to knowingly engaging in the sex industry, Plambech is quick to affirm that most would have chosen another path had they been given the alternative.
“The real problem here lies in global inequality,” says Plambech. “We should be focusing on what it is that is making these women feel so desperate that they agree to and accept exploitation in lieu of a better life.”
Becky clearly has goals. “In Nigeria, our economy is bad,” she reveals in the documentary. “We travel to Europe and we want the money quickly so we can return back to our country and build a house, buy a car, start up a business.”
Fight against trafficking
In the last few years, the Danish government has implemented an elaborate action plan to combat human trafficking in Denmark.
Plambech, however, encourages us to take a different stance. She calls for more emphasis on creating labour, income and employment opportunities for migrants, thereby dissipating the possibility for trafficking and prostitution in Denmark.
“Researchers need to work with the government when it comes to policy-making and come to an understanding that isn’t based on problematic statistical bias,” she says. “It’s about creating a climate of control so that the sex industry can’t interfere.”