The Problem with Forced Rescue and Detention in Anti-trafficking Initiatives
Efforts to intervene in situations of egregious exploitation through direct rescue play an important role in anti-trafficking programmes across the globe. In some countries, rescue is legally required within certain sectors, whether one has consented to work in that sector or not. In India, for example, legislation has long targeted cisgender women who sell sex for rescue, even if they work voluntarily. Presently, the Indian Parliament is considering a new anti-trafficking bill that would extend this rescue mandate further. Yet research suggests that forced rescue and detention are complicated, with many arguing that it should be reconsidered as an acceptable solution to human trafficking.
The Violence of Forced Rescue
Rescue is often necessary and welcome, but in situations where rescue is forced, it controverts the will of those targeted. Anti-trafficking programmes reliant on forced rescue and detention have been observed around the world. Researchers have also documented anti-trafficking interventions in Benin, the United Kingdom and the United States that were unwelcome for “beneficiaries” and which caused those beneficiaries harm.
Raids frequently entail a violation of the human rights of trafficked persons, resulting in emotional and even physical harm. In some locales it is common for raiding police to demand sex from the women working there. In India, police emphasis placed on forcibly removing women from brothels means that sometimes their earnings, possessions and even children are left behind.
Many of those rescued report that they do not consider themselves to be victims of trafficking. A recent study found that across four locations in India, 79 per cent of people who were picked up in local anti-trafficking raids had been working voluntarily and had not wanted to be rescued.
Rescue Can Turn into Forced Detention
More troubling than raids from the perspective of those “rescued” are aftercare services, which are often poorly conceptualized and monitored. International laws outlining the need for appropriate support services for trafficking victims have not been accompanied by a commensurate demand for regulation and accountability among the agencies that administer such services.
Worse still, forced rescue can morph into prolonged forced detention lasting months and even years, involving severe restrictions on freedom and regimented and sometimes demoralizing rehabilitation programmes. Rescued individuals in many regions can find themselves locked in highly restrictive shelters for months—sometimes years—before winning their freedom from anti-traffickers. Inmates of anti-trafficking shelters across a number of regions describe these institutions as prison-like and decry the loss of their freedom of communication and movement. In South and Southeast Asia, victims of trafficking commonly make dangerous attempts to escape from shelters; others resort to rioting, self-harm and even suicide while inside.
Studies have found that victims of trafficking are routinely met with blame, distrust, moral shaming and infantilization by aftercare providers. More importantly to the inmates themselves, forced detention leaves them unable to earn money and care for their dependents, as well as damaging their reputations
In India, where I have conducted the majority of my research into trafficking aftercare, shelter inmates often amass deep debts as a result of prolonged detention and legal fees to secure their release. Many shelters have a financial incentive to maintain high fill-rates, which disincentivizes them from releasing inmates quickly. Similarly, government agencies can benefit from having guaranteed and immediate access to large groups of rescued people in order to display them to important visitors on official tours, providing visual evidence of their active participation in the fight against human trafficking. In my research in South India, women who were forcibly rescued and detained equated their treatment by anti-traffickers with that of traffickers, pointing out that in both cases their loss of freedom ensured monetary and other gains for whoever controlled them.
Beyond Raid and Rescue
While forced raids and detention provide ready metrics of action against trafficking, these methods often fail to slow human trafficking, forced labour and severe exploitation. In the United States, police raids proved inefficient at identifying and locating victims of trafficking. Several investigations have found that people forcibly rescued by anti-trafficking operations regularly return to the same work situations they were rescued from, thereby calling into question the utility of forcibly removing them in the first place.
In 2011, the Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons reported that forced detention hindered victims’ ability to live a decent life—the opposite of the very aim of the movement to end trafficking and forced labour. In Thailand, raid and rescue often impaired the long-term outreach and trusting relationships needed with communities to build sustainable anti-trafficking efforts. This approach thus presented a short-lived solution to a deep-seated problem. In the same study, some Thai NGOs complained of donors and funding initiatives from distant places motivated by an over-simplified model of human trafficking reliant on tropes of highly organized criminal networks and virtuous victims. Their expectations about the appropriate contours of anti-trafficking programmes were thus often at odds with the real needs of location populations.
Recent scandals in shelters for victims in Muzaffarpur, India and Monrovia, Liberia are symptomatic of more pervasive problems in shelter-based anti-trafficking programmes. Taken in concert with the now substantial body of research documenting the harms of forced rescue and detention, such scandals indicate the need to revolutionize anti-trafficking systems in many regions. Rather than expanding systems of force that have already shown to be inhumane—as proposed, for example, in India’s new Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2018—nations can look to India’s already existing but under-utilized Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976. This progressive legislation affirms victims’ rights to free movement, communication and work as well as to reparations and could be fruitfully enforced and even expanded to encompass other modes of severe exploitation.
Scholars have argued that the transnational anti-trafficking movement has yet to address the real economic and gendered roots of human trafficking. Beyond rescuing individual cases from exploitative circumstances, the more pressing need is to build systems that protect workers’ rights to labour under humane conditions for living wages, to organize and to migrate safely and legally. Without such a rights-based approach to human trafficking, we cannot hope to make real progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals.