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By Way of a Conclusion: ‘Children on the Move... Plus Qa Change

Before we draw this discussion to a close, I want to share one last story with the reader. A story of challenge, resistance and ultimately failure. This is the story of the attempt by an international network of academics and ethnographically minded child rights practitioners to replace (and reframe) ‘child trafficking’ with ‘children on the move.’ Their attempt lasted for many years, climbed major heights and involved a good deal of different kinds of capital. Although I was involved only peripherally in it, I witnessed its evolution from close quarters and always with great interest. It is illustrative of so much that happens and matters in this field.

The story begins, like many in the world of development, on the back porch of a colonial-era house in sub-Saharan Africa. It is 2007, and we are in Cotonou. In the middle of the afternoon, my boss has called me over to talk about an idea he has had. He pours the cold beer brought by his housekeeper and asks me what I think of the state of trafficking research. ‘Not very much,’ I tell him, aware that he too is critical of mainstream narratives. He works for one of the more progressive international NGOs and has a nearly completed doctorate under his belt. I know that he sees himself as a thinker and am about to learn that he is also a bit of a politician.

‘I’ve got an plan,’ he tells me. ‘For an action-research project. West Africa-wide. I’m talking to funders already. And if it works, it’ll be the first phase of a pushback against all of the mainstream trafficking bullshit.’ Intrigued, I sit with him for the next hours as we go through the details. Jean-Jacques, as I will call him, has read Bourdieu and has his own worked- out theories of power, change and the relationship of each to capital. He knows that his organisation has neither the money nor the symbolic clout to topple the dominant discourse in one fell swoop. But he is aware that it has holes, and he wants to exploit them. He also knows that his organisation is respected, and he has personal relationships with important players occupying key positions within the regional anti-trafficking field. Plus, he thinks he can harness the burgeoning academic critique.

His plan was as follows. First, he would attract the funding of one of the major foundations to have jumped on the child trafficking bandwagon. He knew they had money to spend and were intrigued by trafficking as a philanthropic commodity cause. He also knew that they valued research, because in the philanthropic world, empirics are highly prized and easy to pay for. So he proposed a region-wide research project ‘to shed light on the widely-discussed but poorly-understood child trafficking phenomenon.’ He was successful—the funder bit and the money flowed.

The next step was to build an academic team. Academics are important, he realised, because they bring cultural, symbolic and social capital. The truth-value of university-affiliated research adds legitimacy to almost any claim, while engaged anthropologists are often willing to mobilise themselves and their friends. But alone they cannot win. Which is why step three was to prepare the ground with potential institutional allies. This was made easier by the fact that Jean-Jacques was good friends with many of the people that mattered in West African anti-trafficking. He had lived and worked in Dakar, was French and knew everyone at UNICEF, the ILO and in the important Western embassies. His challenge was to bring these figures on board, slowly and over months of back-room meetings.

It worked. Jean-Jacques’ team produced good quality research and a number of influential publications. They sought, like me, to make sense of how young people and their communities understand their work and movement, to map that movement and its key causes, and to add nuance both to dominant discourse and its accompanying policies. They brought the institutions on board by agreeing to frame their findings in such a way as to soften the trafficking edge without humiliating either the previous peddlers of the mainstream narrative or the funders who had paid for it. Then, together with a scholarly network that operated both in parallel and in conjunction with them, they started advancing the new concept of ‘children on the move.’

‘The concept’s official baptism,’ one of my interviewees later told me, ‘came in Barcelona in 2012.’ A major conference had been organised to bring all new research on children on the move together and to push the global discussion away from child trafficking. All the major players were in attendance. Many of the scholars who had for years been criticising anti-traffickers were there, so too UNICEF staffers, Save the Children and many important donors. The presentations were excited and upbeat. Again and again, the message was repeated: ‘Not all children are tricked or kidnapped. Not all are exploited. Many move because they have to. Or because it’s good for them. We must stop seeing all movement as bad!’ Applause and pats on the back were everywhere to be seen.

So surely it was a roaring success? The beginning of the end for dominant discourse and policy? Well, in a certain sense, it was. Already by the time of Barcelona, organisations like UNICEF and the ILO were putting out occasional publications differentiating between child mobility and child trafficking, and now it has become even more common for them to do so. It is also increasingly gauche to say things like ‘It’s easier if we stop them moving,’ and it’s doubtful that any senior international antitrafficker would be caught saying such things. Moreover, funding for ‘old-school’ anti-mobility anti-trafficking efforts has begun to dwindle, with some of what was formerly anti-trafficking money being diverted to new issues and causes. Further still, a UN Inter-Agency Group was set up in 2013 to mainstream the concept of children on the move into the UN’s High-Level Dialogue on Migration and Development.10 This group included all of the establishment agencies, and impressively, it argued that draconian anti-mobility measures will never be enough to genuinely protect needy young people.

But what did it really change? And what was sacrificed on the road to success? We need only look at the emblematic background paper released by the Inter-Agency Group to have an idea. Yes, that paper is full of appealing academic caveats like ‘children move for a variety of reasons’ or ‘for many, movement offers the promise of a better life.’ But it also reinforces all of our major ideologies. Implicitly, it constructs children as vulnerable and in need of adult protection. It constructs ‘push factors’ like poverty in wholly apolitical terms, with poverty reduced to a question of ‘development’ rather than justice. And it calls on states everywhere to protect children, but never from the state itself. In this, children on the move plays its ultimately depoliticising hand. Instead of calling for free mobility and the right of all to determine their movement within, against and beyond the state, it calls only for ‘safe migration’—which really means as, how and when the state says so. The violence and reductionism of mainstream antitrafficking are thus merely euphemised and transferred. And in practice, as my interviewees confirmed, what this achieved was little more than to shift some of the anti-trafficking ‘energy’ to similarly reductive causes, like ‘modern-day slavery’ or ‘children left behind.’

For all his political savvy, Jean-Jacques knew that it would likely play out like this. I pushed him early on to attack mobility controls or capitalism tout court, to politicise his analysis of vulnerability, lack, need and exploitation. In short: to blow the entire ideological lid off. But he demurred. ‘It’ll be killed before it even gets off the ground,’ he told me. ‘There’ll never be buy-in if we try to push too hard.’ And perhaps he was right. Funders bought in because the challenges offered by this discursive reframing didn’t rock any of the major ideological boats. Which begs the questions: Was it worth it? And can there ever be any other way?

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