Troubling freedom: Migration, debt, and modern slavery

Julia O’Connell Davidson

1. Introduction

There are serious and urgent reasons to study the phenomena generally grouped under the heading ‘forced migration’ (Castles 2003), including processes and outcomes often referred to as ‘trafficking’. However, there are equally important and pressing reasons to approach both the narrower concept of ‘trafficking’ and the wider concept of ‘forced migration’ with great trepidation. Both are concepts that reflect a more general tendency to imagine migration in terms of binaries—internal versus international; temporary versus permanent; legal versus illegal; coerced versus voluntary (King 2002). The forced/voluntary dyad has much wider currency (it is used in relation to e.g. labour, prostitution, and marriage), and has its origins in a liberal tradition of Western post-Enlightenment thought that tends to conceive of reality in terms of binaries or dualisms (Radin 1996; Prokhovnic, 1999). This tradition is centrally concerned with freedom as individual liberty, a form of freedom that is both imagined ‘as man’s natural condition’, and as the opposite of slavery (Prakash 1993: 143; Brace 2004).

Imagined as fixed and oppositional categories, freedom and slavery map onto other core dualisms of liberal thought, and work to produce accounts of the social world in which human beings are either free, in which case they are assumed to exercise self-sovereignty, or enslaved, in which case they are imagined as evacuated of agency and reduced to an object-like condition. In relation to migration, this generates a tendency to imagine migrants as divisible into on the one hand, those who were driven to move by forces beyond their control or who were forcibly moved for purposes of exploitation by ‘traffickers’; and on the other hand, those who exercised agency, choice, and control over their own migration, including those who entered into a partnership with ‘smugglers’ to make an unauthorized border crossing (Anderson and O’Connell Davidson 2003; Turton 2003).

This article is concerned with the role of debt in contemporary practices of mobility. It aims to show that the phenomenon of debt-financed migration troubles the liberal dyads that are widely used to make sense of migration, including the construction of ‘slavery’ and ‘freedom’ as oppositional categories, because although indebtedness can imply serious and extensive restrictions on freedom, it is also a means by which many people seek to extend and secure their future freedoms. People can actively choose to finance their migration through debt without this being a ‘voluntary’ and autonomous choice. Indeed, the migration policies pursued by states play a significant role in producing migrant indebtedness. Debt can be a feature of legal as well as irregular systems of migration, and migrant-debtors are no more guaranteed protection, rights and freedoms when they move under state-sanctioned systems than they are when their debt is incurred in the course of unsanctioned movement.

As argued in the conclusion, a consideration of the unfreedoms that can be associated with debt amply demonstrates the contemporary relevance of Losurdo’s (2011) historical account of the fundamentally illiberal realities of self-conceived liberal societies. There remain ‘exclusion clauses’ in the social contract that supposedly affords universal equality and freedom, clauses that are of enormous consequence for many groups of migrants, but that also deleteriously affect those citizens who are poor and/or otherwise marginalized.

2. Trafficking and smuggling as forced and voluntary illegal migration

Described as ‘a modern slave trade’ worth billions of dollars to transnational criminal groups, ‘human trafficking’ has figured prominently in policy debate on immigration since the 1990s, and has been a focal point for the activities of a wide range of INGOs, NGOs, charities, and political lobby groups. In the most general of terms, ‘trafficking’ is understood to involve the movement of persons by means of coercion or deception into exploitative or slavery-like conditions, and from a human rights perspective, the disturbing aspects of this phenomena are its outcomes (violence, confinement, and/or exploitation) and the deception, coercion, and/or violence experienced during movement. However, ‘trafficking’ is also framed in international law both as a subset of illegal migration, and as a phenomenon distinct from ‘smuggling’.

The United Nations (UN) Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children was adopted by the UN General Assembly in tandem with the Protocol Against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea, and Air, as part of the Convention Against Transnational Organised Crime in November 2000. The twinning of these protocols and their inclusion in this particular Convention makes sense from the vantage point of most state actors, since both ‘trafficking’ and ‘smuggling’ are considered to be criminal activities that violate the state’s right and obligation to control its borders and determine who is admitted to its territory. Distinguishing between the two is a more difficult matter, however (Anderson and O’Connell Davidson 2003).

The UN Protocol defines ‘trafficking’ not as a single, one-off event, but a process that takes place over time (recruitment, transportation, and control) organized for purposes of exploitation. ‘Exploitation’ remains undefined, and the process of trafficking can be organized in a variety of different ways. Policy-makers and those NGO activists and academics who regard ‘trafficking’ as a meaningful concept typically emphasize two main sets of differences between it and ‘smuggling’. The first is temporal. Trafficking is held to involve a relationship that continues subsequent to movement, whereas ‘Smuggled persons are generally left to make their own way after crossing the border’ (Australian Government AIC 2008). Or as Bales et al. (2009: 40) put it, ‘In cases of trafficking, the act of smuggling is just a prelude to and conduit into enslavement’. Smuggling and trafficking are thus imagined as processes that may overlap in initial stages of movement, but that become clearly differentiated at the point of destination (Kyle and Koslowski 2011).

The second distinction between trafficking and smuggling is said to be that where the former is carried out with the use of coercion and/or deception, smuggling is ‘a voluntary act’ on the part of those smuggled (CPS 2012). This assumption of an either/or binary between forced and voluntary migration is reflected in the kind of obligations that states are deemed to have in relation to the two categories of migrant it produces. Though still limited, states’ obligations towards victims of trafficking (VoTs) are more extensive than they are towards smuggled persons (Bhabha and Zard 2006). This hierarchizing of the rights of ‘trafficked persons’ over those of other categories of irregular migrants is often endorsed by anti-trafficking campaigners from NGOs and human rights lobby groups. For example, Sheila Jeffreys (2002: 1), a member of the Coalition against Trafficking in Women, states that: 

Whilst smuggling of migrants can be seen as a crime against the state and involves a mutual interest between the smuggler and the smuggled, trafficking is a crime against the persons trafficked. Persons who are ‘smuggled’ are generally left to fend for themselves in their destination countries, having already paid off the smugglers. They have physical freedom and, if not apprehended, are able to search for a means to survival. Trafficked persons are usually in debt slavery to the traffickers … ‘Smuggled’ people are not delivered to slavery in the same way. Trafficking is a human rights crisis for the trafficked.


As well as sharing the assumption that the social relationships generated by ‘smuggling’ end on arrival in the country of destination, Jeffreys fails to consider that, having been complicit in what is deemed to be ‘a crime against the state’, people’s opportunities to fend for themselves are usually heavily restricted, and this, in combination with fear of losing their physical freedom and/or being deported if apprehended, can lead them to accept, and/or be unable to retract from, hugely exploitative, sometimes violent, employment relations and extremely poor working conditions. Meanwhile, her emphasis on debt as one of the key mechanisms by which traffickers secure control over their victims is found much more widely in dominant discourse on trafficking. However, as the following section will argue, closer inspection of the realities of debt-financed irregular migration undermines rather than sharpens the distinction between smuggling and trafficking.


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