Is anti-trafficking dead?

I will attempt to answer this question at ANU's Migration and Social-Cultural Change Workshop.

For further details about the event can be found here. Abstract of my talk below.

Is anti-trafficking dead? Understanding Australia’s role in regional anti- trafficking

This paper examines a seeming paradox: On the one hand, the Australian government portrays itself as a leading bilateral actor devoting increasing resources towards anti-trafficking in the region. Yet, alongside Australia’s growing focus on human trafficking, the broader anti-trafficking sector in the Mekong region is on the decline.

Based on media reporting, a casual observer may get the impression that human trafficking is on the rise. Since the 1990s, the media, governments and the aid sector has invested considerable attention to human trafficking. Numerous aid programmes and United Nations agencies have implemented programmes that aims to eliminate trafficking in persons. The Australian government has risen to become one the largest bilateral actors in regional anti-trafficking efforts. Alongside the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime, considerable financial resources have been devoted to several anti-trafficking programmes. A central target for these interventions has taken place in the Mekong region which is commonly considered one of the world’s hotspots for trafficking. Australia has placed particular focus on technical support for the criminal justice sector witnessed by increasing multi-million funds devoted to such programmes.

However, despite Australia’s increasing role in anti-trafficking, the sector appears to move in the opposite direction. In the early 2000s there were no less than six regional anti-trafficking projects implemented by United Nations agencies. Today, all of these regional projects have vanished with only one agency maintaining operational activities on a regional level. Several NGOs that enjoyed healthy donor funding in the early 2000s have either closed down or rebranded their operation away from a specific anti-trafficking focus. At the same time, alternative discourses, such as modern slavery and safe migration, have gained momentum amongst multilateral, bilateral as well as corporate agencies.

Based on two decades of research and programme experience in the Mekong region this paper deliberates the reasons for the simultaneous rise and fall of anti-trafficking and how it relates to kin-discourses of migration management, safe migration and modern slavery. In contrast to Australia’s claim of being a “leader” in combating human trafficking, this paper argues that it is more appropriate to understand Australia as a follower in the way in which the aid sector has approached human trafficking in the region. The paper suggests wider implications this has for how anti-trafficking is understood and theorised in light of changing donor landscape. The paper concludes by speculating on the futures of policy interventions that marry migration management with an emancipatory politics relating to labour conditions.

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