Traffic Cops on the Underground Railroad

Prosecuting human traffickers may do more harm than good


Take the 90 minute flight from Vientiane, Laos to Bangkok, Thailand, and you start to appreciate why trafficking in persons is a Southeast Asian growth industry. Pre-industrial Laos feels half-abandoned—empty, dead still, and under a persistent film of dust. Bangkok, 327 miles southeast, is a gloriously tacky, modern metropolis, a tangled mess of screaming street vendors, honking taxis and flashing neon. The journey feels more like travel through time than across borders.

According to the 2005 Trafficking in Persons Report, released by the State Department on Friday, Laos is a significant source of trafficked persons and Thailand a frequent destination. In a few dismissive paragraphs, the authors skim over why this might be so. Trafficked women and children are presented as if lost in a vacuum, their lives stripped of circumstance. Reading the report, it seems completely plausible that a kid from New Jersey might wake up one day as a sex slave in Singapore or a camel jockey in Saudi Arabia.

The 256-page trafficking report categorizes nations on the basis of their efforts to eradicate trafficking across and within their borders. Fourteen countries have been relegated to "tier 3," meaning they may be subject to sanctions, and ten of those countries are source countries like Laos. As a group, these 10 are poor and poorly governed, and they include regimes that only hang onto their populations by holding them captive, such as North Korea and Myanmar. These are places people have good reason to want out of.

Slavery in all of its forms has become a priority of humanitarian assistance over the past five years, prompting a bumper crop of acronymed NGOs, inspiring turf wars among U.N. agencies, and energizing evangelical Christians in the U.S. Likely because it helps to drum up donations and political support from social conservatives, agencies focus on sexual slavery, which is only one aspect of a much larger global trade that puts men, women, and children to work in factories, fishing boats, and private homes around the world.

In deference to this trend, the State Department report is positively sex-obsessed. The authors devote a whole page to reminding us that "prostitution is inherently harmful" and the U.S. opposes its legalization. The victim profiles don't include a single adult male. In the U.S. media, New York Times columnist Nicholas D Kristof helped cement the myth that trafficking is equivalent to sexual slavery in a slew of confused, sexually charged columns about Cambodian sex workers. The way Kristof tells the story, the cause of sexual slavery isn't poverty, but pimps.

Kristof's approach, in which the world is neatly divided into exploiters and their victims, is echoed throughout the State Department's human trafficking report. If you see the world in terms of evildoers and simpletons, it makes sense to prioritize law enforcement as a means of eradicating slavery. But once you consider the disparities between a place like Vientiane and a place like Bangkok, it becomes abundantly clear that this is an issue of migration before it is one of exploitation. People from source countries like Cambodia and Senegal go looking for better lives, strike deals with traffickers who pay for their transit, and end up in horrific situations where, as undocumented workers, they have no rights and no recourse. The humanitarian response isn't to create a system where they can't get out of Cambodia or Senegal, but to liberalize the immigration laws in the destination countries where desperate people end up. This approach isn't even mentioned in the report, which stresses prosecution of traffickers and, above all, the disruption of trafficking routes.

One man's trafficking route, unfortunately, may be another's escape route. It is Myanmar's unofficial policy not to grant passports to young women, whom the military would prefer to stay home producing more potential foot soldiers. The only way for a 20-year-old woman to get out is through an extralegal arrangement, a deal likely struck in the anarchic border regions. This report gives Myanmar every reason to crack down on such smuggling in the name of protecting its women. It gives a country that is effectively a massive prison incentive to create yet more barriers to exit.

For those who escape and end up in developed destination countries, a war on trafficking without immigration reform may mean a ticket home they never wanted. People trafficked across borders are generally illegal immigrants; in demanding that countries like China to crack down on trafficking situations, the U.S. is asking the country to root out people who lack papers. Repatriation sounds nice enough, but does a woman working in Shanghai want to be shipped home to Pyongyang, and will a Chinese official ask her? As this report is written, if China were to crack down on illegal labor, prosecute the traffickers and send undocumented workers back to their countries of origin, the State Department would extend its hearty thanks and knock the country up a tier on its scale of virtue.

Vientiane is a beautiful city in its own way, but it is a place in which the most promising opportunity a person sees is often the opportunity to leave. The anti-human trafficking brigade wants to keep people from stepping into a life of captivity. By throwing up walls where none existed, it may prevent people from stepping out of one.