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Evil Traffickers and Innocent Children?

The UK Guardian recently featured a heartrending story on child trafficking in Benin. In it, Monica Mark painted a picture that will be familiar to many. Ruthless employers exploiting innocent children; evil traffickers conning ‘naïve’ parents; poverty so grinding that a father will ‘sell’ his son to save the two that follow.

It’s powerful stuff. But it’s also highly misrepresentative. And it’s actually so simplistic that while I doubt neither her integrity nor her good intentions, Mark’s  piece arguably makes things worse for the very people whose suffering she’s trying to highlight. In what follows, I’ll explain how, and will do so by drawing on the four years of research I’ve just conducted into this issue, with the very communities Mark mentions.

First, some background. Trafficking exploded as an issue in Benin when a boatload of illegal migrants was intercepted on its way to Gabon and identified as a slave-ship carrying a cargo of child slaves. That wasn’t how the passengers saw themselves, however, as 15-year old Adri explained. ‘We were migrants, not slaves, and we’d paid smugglers to get us to Gabon because we were hoping to find some work’.

One of the most pressing reasons why teenagers like Adri need to migrate for work is because there’s no other way for them or their families to access the money that is essential to life in any capitalist economy. ‘The Government and UN come here and say don’t migrate’, complains Charley, an elder from Za-Kpota. ‘But we cant eat their words, can we?’

Charley is exaggerating, but he has a point. There are no jobs, there’s minimal investment, and the cash-crops on which he and his neighbours depend for an income earn less than ever before. Why? Because, as the World Trade Organisation recognised in a case brought by Brazil, US cotton subsidies deflate already volatile cotton prices and this impoverishes cotton farmers such as those in Benin. On top of that, EU trade tariffs mean that replacement crops like soy or pineapples can’t turn a profit.

So what’s going on? For one thing, a majority of anti-trafficking staff simply don’t understand what’s happening on the ground. Though this might sound ridiculous, of the 100 or so UN, NGO and government employees I interviewed as part of my research, only a handful had ever met the communities they target with their policies. This ‘information gap’ means that people reproduce the sensationalist stereotypes characterising Mark’s article, without examining whether they’re representative. It also means they depict the work that many teenagers do as akin to trafficking or slavery, even when most of those teenagers experience their work as similar to what they’d be doing at home.

But this isn’t the whole story. As Nina, a UN employee, told me: ‘The trouble is that stories about poor kids migrating because of political-economic injustice simply don’t sell. It’s suffering that sells in Africa. You have to be sexy to raise money, and trafficking is sexy’.

It’s important to emphasise that this isn’t about corruption, at least in the formal sense of the term. Most UN or NGO workers are good people trying hard to make the world a better place. They believe this is the best they can do. The problem though is that they’re prevented from speaking honestly about what stops the world from becoming that better place.

Take Cheng, for instance. She’s a former US government employee who worked in Washington on trafficking. When I asked whether she was able to be critical of things like subsidies, ‘absolutely not’ was her response. ‘We’re constrained by US interests and restricted to corridor discussions’. The same is true of those lower down the chain, who depend on EU or US funding.

What does this mean? It means that, within this policy-world, formal discussion of the forces that create poverty and exploitation is off limits. As a result, people like Cheng must ignore the causes of poverty or the messy reality that sometimes youngsters have to migrate for want of better alternatives. Instead, they have to promote the story of ‘innocent’ and enslaved children in need of rescue, since that’s what fits the narrative according to the lines of which funding is secured.

This brings me back to Mark’s article. As Daisy, another UN figure, said to me: ‘The wages we’re paid are a kind of bribe – the price for our silence’. Change will happen in this system only when enough voices emerge prepared to break that silence. But for this, we need pressure from below, and that simply won’t be forthcoming until we tell stories more accurate, and more complicated, than evil traffickers kidnapping innocent children.

Neil Howard is an academic and activist living in Oxford. He works on labour, migration and international development policy.

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