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Introduction: Child Trafficking and Its Discontents


This book charts the chequered history of an idea—child trafficking— which rose to prominence in the late 1990s and for a decade came to dominate the field of international child protection. Although the word ‘history’ may seem somewhat premature, in reality, the child trafficking star is on the wane, and eventually it will die out. When it does, we will be able to look back on its arc as an instructive example of how social problematics are created, sustained and ultimately replaced; how these shape individual and institutional trajectories; and how they at once reflect and recreate our governing ideologies.

My own child trafficking ‘career’ closely parallels that of the idea itself. In the early 1990s, nobody knew trafficking was a ‘thing,’ and I was no different. By the start of the 2000s, it was well on its way to becoming a major transnational issue, and I began to volunteer. The middle of the decade saw it established as the key question for child rights organisations and their donors, and a whole institutional universe was built or reconfigured around it. I began working for a small African non-governmental organisation (NGO), then a bigger international one and finally for the United Nations (UN). This was when—in the mid to late 2000s—the first seeds of doubt were sewn. ‘Do these stories make sense? Is it really like this?’ Academics and practitioners began questioning the dominant narrative, challenging the politics. Increasingly, dissenting voices were heard, © The Author(s) 2017

N. Howard, Child Trafficking, Youth Labour Mobility and the Politics of Protection, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-47818-4_1

caveats were introduced and projects were disbanded. Now, a decade later, fewer and fewer people can see what all the fuss was about. Scholars have deconstructed certain of the problematic assumptions, civil society has incorporated a little critical and culturally sensitive rhetoric, and some of the money at least has gone elsewhere.

So what, then, is the point of telling this (hi)story? Is it even worth it? I believe that it is. For two important reasons. The first is empirical. For 10 years, child trafficking was the defining issue for a whole network of Northern donor agencies, Southern government departments, UN bodies and a universe of NGOs. It led to institutional interventions across the globe, carved multilateral channels through which billions of dollars flowed and shaped (and in many cases seriously harmed) lives on every continent. Although some have told certain parts of this story, none have brought all of its threads together. The second reason is illustrative, in that what has happened with and through child trafficking can tell us a lot about how the wider world works, and in whose interests. It speaks to major political questions, including ‘Who decides what constitutes a social problem’? ‘How are “moral panics” born’? ‘How do these interact with “development” or “child protection”’? ‘What is the relationship between ideas, power and money’? This book will try to respond to these questions, as well as to pose many others, using child trafficking as its lens.

The book seeks to provide the first overarching, empirically grounded, critical analysis of child trafficking as idea, ordering principle and artefact of politics. It examines (once) hegemonic anti- child trafficking discourse, policy and practice, and does so by placing secondary literature from around the world in conversation with my own paradigmatic case study of the situation in southern Benin. The book begins with a presentation of what I characterise as ‘the child trafficking paradigm,’ including mainstream institutional representations of what it is and conventional policy or project approaches to dealing with it. Next, it problematises these by contrasting them with what I term ‘the alternative empirical realities’ of non-Western child/youth labour and mobility. Finally, it goes ‘inside’ the anti-trafficking field in order to explain the existence, persistence of and resistance to the dominant trafficking paradigm. In doing so, it draws on my many years of work and research with the major organisations comprising this field.

I argue, first, that dominant child trafficking discourse labels as trafficking what would more profitably be understood as ‘child fosterage’ or

‘teenage labour migration.’ It does this in part because of the received ideas structuring the thinking of those in the field. Second, I critique the policy interventions consequent to this labelling, on the grounds that they fail to account for the socio-cultural or political-economic conditions structuring the lives into which they intervene. Third, I seek to account for this unhappy state of affairs. In doing so, I offer an interpretation that is more systemic than those emphasising the ignorance or malevolence of political and institutional actors inside or with influence over the anti-trafficking field.

My interpretation draws on the insights of post-structuralist discourse theory, political anthropology, development ethnography and studies of ideology. I argue that the creation and institutionalisation of both child trafficking as problematic and anti- child trafficking as policy toolkit must be viewed through the lens of the structuring power of three framing ideologies—‘Western Childhood,’ ‘Neoliberalism’ and the ‘Ideal State.’ Each intertwines with the others to shape both what child trafficking can mean and what can be done about it. They limit what can be seen, said and done, delineating the space within which institutional actors can interpret, represent and act. When anti-trafficking discourse and policy are deconstructed, these three ideologies leave a clear and present trace. And when the child trafficking star will finally have set, their afterglow will unfortunately surely remain.

Child trafficking began its journey to social prominence in the mid to late 1990s. It rose on the back of a sharp increase in funding for, media attention to, and political discourse around the previous ‘it’ issues of (adult) sex trafficking, child labour and child sexual abuse. These spiked in the wake of the 1989 adoption of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and in 1992 led to the establishment of the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC). IPEC quickly became the centrepiece of a well-resourced and discursively powerful global movement to get children out of work and into school. In 1996, it helped launch the World Congress against the Commercial Sexual Exploitation ofChildren and in 2000 fought for the adoption of the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children.

The ‘Palermo Protocol,’ as this document became known, marked the official inauguration of trafficking as international cause celebre. The years following its adoption saw an explosion of anti-trafficking rhetoric, legal action, project money and media stories. Organisations dedicated to the anti-trafficking fight mushroomed from a few to many thousand (Kempadoo et al. 2005: xxix); anti-trafficking literature proliferated1; national policy frameworks spread worldwide (Cho et al. 2011); and funding rose from the paltry to the billions.2

During this period, child trafficking came to be understood as a question of innocent and unsuspecting minors kidnapped and enslaved by criminal exploiters, or sold by desperate and irresponsible parents. The dominant discourse constructed both a child’s migration and her work as inherently problematic, resulting exclusively from pathological cause-factors including poverty and the corruption of traditional practices. Mainstream policy responses correspondingly tended towards the draconian, paralleling efforts to end child labour by pre-emptively targeting the work equated with trafficking or the migration seen to lead to it. The international legal architecture defining the crime combined the Palermo Protocol with the International Labour Organisation’s Minimum Age and Worst Forms of Child Labour conventions (ILO 1973, 1999). In doing so, it constructed child trafficking as different from adult trafficking in three critical respects. These were (1) that coercion or deception were unnecessary for an exploitative act to constitute child trafficking; (2) that a minor’s consent to exploitative labour was irrelevant and legally impossible; and (3) that exploitation was defined more broadly than in the case of adults, to include all work deemed by the competent authorities to ‘harm the health, safety, or morals of young persons.’

Extract 1.1: Definitional Elements of Child Trafficking3

Child trafficking: Elements defined for the purpose of IPEC operations:

  • • A child—a person under the age of 18 years;
  • • ‘Acts’ of recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt, whether by force or not, by a third person or group;
  • • The third person or group organizes the recruitment and/or these other acts for exploitative purposes;
  • • Movement may not be a constituent element for trafficking in so far as law enforcement and prosecution is concerned. However, an element of movement within a country or across borders is needed— even if minimal—in order to distinguish trafficking from other forms of slavery and slave-like practices enumerated in Art 3 (a) of ILO Convention No. 182 (C182), and ensure that trafficking victims away from their families do get needed assistance.
  • • Exploitation includes:
    • (a) all forms of slavery or practices similar to slavery, debt bondage and serfdom and forced or compulsory labour, including forced or compulsory recruitment of children for use in armed conflict (C182, Art. 3(a));
    • (b) the use, procuring or offering of a child for prostitution, for the production of pornography or for pornographic performances (C182, Art. 3(b));
    • (c) the use, procuring or offering of a child for illicit activities, in particular for the production and trafficking of drugs as defined in the relevant international treaties (C182, Art. 3(c));
    • (d) work which, by its nature or the circumstances in which it is carried out, is likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children (C182, Art. 3(d) and C138, Art. 3);
    • (e) work done by children below the minimum age for admission to employment (C138,Art. 2 & 7).
  • • Threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, abduction, fraud or deception, or the abuse of power or a position of vulnerability at any point of the recruitment and movement do not need to be present in case of children (other than with adults), but are nevertheless strong indications of child trafficking.

Although we shall examine the implications of this paradigm in the forthcoming chapters, let us note now that it engendered a rising tide of critique. Scholars from all continents complained that it was problematic and reductive, with policy in turn misguided and ineffective. Criticism targeted the simplistic, culturally imperialist tenor of prevailing narratives, as well as the damaging, depoliticised nature of policy and prevention strategies. Researchers took pains to emphasise the consent that supposedly trafficked children did offer for their work and movement, as well as the socio-cultural context within which this took place.

Less quick to emerge, however, has been a convincing academic account of how and why the anti-trafficking establishment could get it all so wrong. Two critical scholarly assumptions have been widespread. First, that antitraffickers were ignorant and unable to understand the complex realities they depicted and acted upon. Second, that this was chiefly conditioned by the ethnocentric received ideas they had about what childhood is and should be. Neither of these explanations is entirely without merit, as this book will go on to show. But alone they are insufficient. For they do not account for anti-traffickers whose understanding is nuanced beyond received ideas about childhood, nor for those whose understanding is limited by other received ideas not pertaining to childhood. They are also unable to do justice to the many inter- and intra-institutional complexities structuring (life inside) the anti-trafficking field. It will be the purpose of much of this book to do just that.

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