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Agustín: When I started studying, I thought it would be easy: Why not listen to what migrants themselves say? Then I found an enormous literature, much of it explicitly feminist, urging subjects to speak authentically, to get up and tell their true stories for everyone to hear. With all kinds of marginalized people, the idea was they've been silenced and should be allowed to speak.
Except it turns out that lots of people don't want to tell their stories, they don't want to stand up anywhere, they'd just as soon let someone speak for them. Or they don't care or know they are being talked about, they just want to do whatever they feel like doing. So I had to question my own desire to push people to present themselves in a certain kind of way. It's not enough to say, "we will facilitate people giving voice." No, because also that gives us a job. Then we can see our job as being a virtuous person who is going to help the poor and silenced of the earth speak.
It's also not clear that they would get anything out of speaking, because governments, and most people, don’t listen when they do. Those who see themselves as helping believe they Know Best how we should all live and benevolently provide necessary services to us all.
reason: Both the U.N. and the U.S. have promoted the idea that human trafficking is perpetrated by organized crime rings. How accurate is this?
Agustín: The Interpols and FBIs of the world are trying to find out exactly who the bad guys are who are doing the trafficking. They have a terrible time of it, because trafficking in the sense that they mean includes most irregular migration. Millions and millions of people are involved, most of them working on a small scale—petty criminals, not big-time mafiosi. I lived in Spain for five years and at least once every week the media carried a story about the police breaking up a trafficking ring – which means there are always more and more.
But there’s no evidence that large-scale organized crime has gone into human trafficking the way they did into heroin trafficking decades ago. What researchers have found is small-scale operations--people who know one person they can call in Berlin and one in Istanbul, who use mobile phones, who move around. Small-time entrepreneurs, some meaner, some acting like regular travel agents.
reason: What policies would you recommend for people concerned about legitimately coercive situations?
Agustín: I'm trying to get people to slow down on the rush to determine a definitive policy. Because the prostitution debate is so limited and moralistic, vast amounts of information that policymakers need is still absent. Research on traffickers themselves is just beginning. The diversity of experience is enormous. There isn't going to be a single social policy that will work for everyone.
Kerry Howley is a senior editor of reason.