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On labour law, human trafficking and the strange silence of advocates

Last week, a couple Tweeters I follow linked to a blog post from 2010 titled The anti-trafficking industry is the biggest threat to migrants. The post made a lot of the same points I’ve made on this blog, such as here, and it’s unfortunate that it was accompanied by such a ludicrously hyperbolic title (which I suspect was likely to lead many people to simply dismiss its contents entirely). The anti-trafficking industry doesn’t make policy, states do, and the biggest threat to migrants is the state policy of increasingly tightening borders to keep them out – irrespective of the consequences for their human rights and even their lives. This policy predates the growth of the anti-trafficking movement, and would undoubtedly continue if the movement disappeared tomorrow.

Of course, I agree that the movement’s advocacy often serves as an effective justification of border policies. It does this harm both by commission (encouraging crackdowns on migration in order to “rescue” people whom it assumes, not always correctly, to be unwilling victims) and by omission (failing to challenge these noxious policies where they occur). We saw another example of this recently in Ireland, where the government decision to maintain labour market access restrictions on Romanian and Bulgarian nationals was met with a resounding thud of silence by the big guns in Irish anti-trafficking.

A little bit of background first. Free movement of workers is, as we all know, supposed to be one of the principles underpinning the European Union’s existence. But as the EU has grown larger and larger – and, let’s face it, as its population has become more ethnically and culturally diverse – member states have developed colder and colder feet about opening up their labour markets. It is now a feature of accession treaties that states can opt to deny the right to work to new member state nationals for a specified period of time; Ireland as well as many other EU countries took that option when Bulgaria and Romania joined. As that last link reports, the Irish government has now also taken up the option to extend this exclusion until the end of 2013.

It’s important to understand that denial of labour market access is not the same thing as denial of entry. All EU citizens (well, apart from those with individual exclusion orders but that’s not really relevant here) have freedom to travel within the EU, and to enter other EU countries even if they cannot remain and work in them. The Irish government justified its original decision to ban Romanians and Bulgarians from the labour market on the basis that it might upset our Common Travel Area with Britain (which had already decided not to open its labour market to them), but that was a load of hooey – any Romanians/Bulgarians who want to enter Britain are perfectly free to fly directly into Heathrow, flash their passports at UKBA staff and walk on out onto the streets of London, labour market ban or no labour market ban. Allowing them to work in Ireland would not have made an iota of difference in that respect – that was simply an excuse that the Irish government used to avoid admitting that it wasn’t about to take on a “burden” that the Brits had already declined to share. The point of all this is that while Romanians and Bulgarians are still generally excluded from working in Ireland, their EU citizenship nonetheless entitles them to enter the country freely and without being subject to the border controls faced by citizens of countries outside the EU/EEA.

And that is a double-edged sword where the issue of trafficking is concerned. Because, although fortified borders are for the most part A Very Bad Thing Indeed, in that they force many migrants to turn to smugglers and traffickers just to get into their destination country, they have the (very small) potential to (occasionally) also prevent the worst abuses that occur in human trafficking. I don’t want to overstate this, because it is almost certainly the case that the number of migrants whose lives are worsened by their inability to get into countries where they can make a living far exceeds the number whose lives would be improved by intervention at the border (and for whom that needed intervention actually occurs). But it is theoretically possible, and I’m sure it does happen the (very) odd time, that an alert border agent susses out someone in genuine need of rescue from the fate that would await them if they were allowed to enter with no questions asked.

So in some respects, what we have here is a worst-of-both-worlds situation – Romanians and Bulgarians can get in (or be brought in) but once they are here, they can’t legally work (and under EU law, they have no right of residence without a means to support themselves). I am not arguing that they would be better off not to be allowed in at all, but I don’t think it’s difficult to see how a policy that eliminates the need to forge someone’s entry documents while simultaneously ensuring their financial (and hence residential) dependence on you is a trafficker’s wet dream. It’s a virtual invitation to those who want to exploit migrants from the two poorest EU countries.

And it’s clear, at least in the case of Romanians, that many are being exploited in Ireland – badly. The largest trafficking ring yet uncovered in Ireland, for forced agricultural labour in Wexford, involved Romanian migrants. I won’t link to any Romanian sex trafficking stories because I don’t trust the Irish media on the subject, but even my sex worker sources agree that it’s a real issue here. (It’s usually women working in the sex industry voluntarily but under deeply exploitative conditions, but that qualifies as “trafficking” too.) And, in all these cases, one of the most important factors that facilitates their exploitation is that they have no alternative source of income in Ireland – because they are excluded from the labour market. Even if they are physically capable of escaping their abusive employer, and many of them are, they have nowhere to go but back to Romania because Ireland does not allow them to work.

I was out of the country when the continuation of this shameful policy was announced, but I’ve gone back and looked over both the websites and the Twitter accounts of all the main anti-trafficking organisations in Ireland and I don’t see a single reference to it anywhere. If I managed to read about it while I was on holiday across the ocean, I can’t imagine it escaped their notice – yet apparently not one of them considered it important enough to issue a statement or even Tweet about. (Around the same time, though, several of them commented favourably on the arrests of men trying to buy sex in Limerick.) Has it actually not occurred to any of these groups that this policy decision will have negative consequences for people vulnerable to human trafficking? Have any of them even made the connection between trafficking and restrictive migrant labour laws? I really wonder.

Note that I am not holding this policy single-handedly responsible for that Wexford trafficking ring, or for the exploitation of Romanian women in Irish brothels. I do not believe that the things encompassed within the term “human trafficking” can be boiled down to any one simple explanation. But the trafficker-friendly environment it creates is so blindingly obvious as to be pretty much a no-brainer, and there is no legitimate excuse for anyone genuinely concerned about trafficking to ignore it.

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About Wendy Lyon

Fighting a lonely battle for evidence-based policy and the proper use of apostrophes.

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