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July 2015

Human trafficking, ‘people smuggling’ and clandestine migration are some of the most politically volatile issues in the present day. What much contemporary commentary misses, however, is that illicit migration has a history, both as a social phenomenon and as a focus of (international) governmental regulation and public moral panic. On June 18 to June 20 2015, a number of scholars of trafficking came together at Birkbeck, University of London, to discuss this history, with particular reference to the emergence of the notion of ‘traffic in women’ in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as one manifestation of public, state and international organizations’ concern about clandestine movement. The Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, the Laureate Research Program in International History at the University of Sydney, Birkbeck School of Law, and the Economic History Society of the UK sponsored the conference. Across the three days, speakers sought to critically engage with the category of ‘traffic in women,’ or sex trafficking as it is more often known today, by placing it in the broader context of histories of labour and migration as foci of global regulatory concern. The result was a stimulating conference, in which speakers discussed issues as diverse as migrant prostitution in eighteenth century St Petersburg and the negotiations around CEDAW in the 1970s and 1980s. Participants are now involved in the formation of a lively international network of scholars interested in historicizing trafficking, with more workshops and events planned for the future.

The first day began with ‘Girl Traffic, White Slaves and Circulating Narratives,’ a panel on civil society activism around prostitution and trafficking from the eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries. Rachel Atwood explored the work of the Jewish Association for the Protection of Girls and Women in Britain between 1899 and 1910, a highly visible anti-white slavery organization that sought to rescue Jewish migrant girls from the threat of prostitution. Atwood argued that, although the well-to-do members of the JAPGW saw their work as part of the struggle against anti-Semitism and xenophobia in fin-de-siècle Britain, in fact it discursively linked Jewish migrants and crime, something that exposed the members’ own prejudices about their poor, East European coreligionists. Next, Stephanie Skier explored the German manifestation of the white slavery narrative, and in particular the nuances of the term mädchenhandel, or ‘girl trafficking.’ As Skier argued, concern about mädchenhandel in late nineteenth century Germany contributed to the formation of a ‘para-bureaucracy,’ the proliferation of small organizations, some state based and others partially non-state, that attempted to bolster the crime- and illicit migration-fighting capacities of the state. Laura Lammasniemi then examined the implementation of the criminal law reforms targeted at stopping white slavery in fin-de-siècle Britain, starting with the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885. As she argued, the 1885 act was highly significant not least because it created for the first time the category of ‘involuntary prostitute,’ a move that at the time was almost accidental but later proved highly salient to attempts to exclude and make deviant certain kinds of female work. Finally, Ira Roldugina spoke about ‘foreign’ or migrant prostitutes in eighteenth century St Petersburg, drawing on a set of newly-discovered sources from the ‘Kalinkinskaia Commission’, an attempt by the local government to locate women selling sex across the city. From her examination of these files, Roldugina was able to conclude that ethnically German women were highly influential in the internal organization of the prostitute community in the period, and migration was thus a key structuring force in commercial sex even before the nineteenth century.

The second panel of the day considered the ‘Conceptual and Methodological Challenges of Historical Trafficking.’ The panel opened with Philippa Hetherington, who used a set of early twentieth century interviews with women who consular authorities believed had been trafficked from Russia to Istanbul as an entry point into exploring theoretical questions of ‘agency’ and ‘truth’ that emerge when we historicize trafficking. Hetherington argued that, while these interviews can help us to see the disjunctures between narratives produced by these women’s would-be ‘saviors’ and narratives produced by the women themselves, neither source constitutes the unmediated ‘truth’ of whether or not trafficking occurred in this period. Next, Paul Knepper considered the micro-history of a particular case unearthed by the League of Nations in their 1927 Inquiry into the Traffic in Women. The pre-conceptions with which League activists approached the case, concerning a jazz singer and prostitute in Panama, highlighted for Knepper the importance of new, supposedly ‘objective’ social scientific methods of 1920s which nonetheless fit complex stories about movement and commercial sex into a small number of pre-conceived categories. Finally, Petra de Vries explored the fin-de-siècle Dutch anti-white slavery campaigns, with particular reference to the production of an ‘ideal victim’ in their discussions about forced movement for the purposes of prostitution.

Friday June 19 opened with a panel on tracing migrant prostitute networks in Eastern Europe, Britain and the Middle East. Elizabeth Bishop began with a discussion of prostitution and attempts to suppress the traffic in women in imperial and mandate Iraq. As Bishop argued, the narratives that emerge from this region speak less to the classic model of kidnapping and forced prostitution common in ‘white slave’ accounts, and more to complex systems of debt bondage that drew women into commercial sex and made it hard to leave. Next, Keely Stauter Halsted explored the interwoven nature of trafficking panic and emigration panic in nineteenth century Poland. As Stauter-Halsted argued, in the Polish case a panic over outmigration became a panic about commercial sex, and young women became a concern only because so many of them were leaving voluntarily in this period. Next Pamela Cox and Amanda Wilkinson gave a joint presentation on using census data to trace high-class migrant prostitutes in nineteenth century Britain, arguing that careful archival work makes it possible to find the previously obscure voice of the migrant sex worker in this period. Nancy Wingfield closed the panel with a study of prostitution on the Austrian Riviera and particularly in Trieste in the nineteenth century, in which she emphasized the spatial links between train lines crisscrossing the Habsburg Empire and purported trafficking networks.

In the next panel of the day, entitled ‘International Governance: Views from Geneva,’ Eva Payne opened with a discussion of the American activists involved in the interwar League of Nations Traffic in Women committee. As Payne highlighted, the Committee was a key site through which progressive Americans could extend both American internationalism and moral imperialism. Next Sonja Dolinsek brought us into the postwar era, with a discussion of the transnational advocacy networks responsible for pushing the anti-trafficking conventions of the past fifty years. Dolinsek highlighted the connections as well as tensions between apparently disparate strains of feminist advocacy around the 1949 UN anti-trafficking treaty and the later anti-trafficking protocol, arguing that the classic binary between ‘radical’ and ‘liberal’ feminist approaches prostitution is insufficient for understanding the competing political claims of the drafting processes. Finally Eileen Boris explored the gendered understandings of worker protection put forward in the interwar by the ILO, for whom protection of female migrants was supposedly a key goal. Boris highlighted the distinction between what she called the ‘culture of protection’ and ‘protective legislation,’ in this period, arguing that the ILO accorded male migrants far more agency than female migrants when considering how to best ‘protect’ them.

Opening for the next panel, entitled ‘Implementing Anti-Sex Trafficking Laws,’ Julia Martinez introduced the participants to the history of Japanese prostitution in Australia, and in particular the story of the karayuki-san. These women, Martinez argued, were involved in well-established networks of circular labor movement in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, ensuring the regular arrival of Japanese women in the antipodes, and posing a governance problem for an increasingly xenophobic Australian state. Next Jessica Pliley explored the central role of anti-white slavery work in the early twentieth century formation of the FBI in the US. As she recounted, the US immigration department and FBI worked closed in this period, as a result of which domestic anti-vice law and immigration law operated in a symbiotic relationship through overlapping repertories of border control to exclude potentially ‘immoral’ women. Finally Torsten Feys examined the role of international shipping companies in circumventing and enforcing migration laws between 1882 and 1929. He argued that the common conception that migrants were exploited by shipping companies seems not to have been generally true, as it was in the companies’ business interests to build a reputation as safeguards of migrants’ physical and moral health.

The final panel of the day, ‘Marriage and Illicit Migration,’ concerned fictitious marriages and their role in real and imagined migration flows. Mir Yafitz explored the role of religious marriage as a real and imagined route for bringing young women from Eastern Europe to Argentina in the early twentieth century. In the Jewish diaspora in Latin America in this period, attractive younger men played an important role in recruiting for prostitution, as they could encourage experienced women to take the risks that the ‘marriage migration strategy’ required. Julia Laite continued this theme, discussing attempts by British authorizes in the 1930s to identify ‘sham’ marriages that they assumed were covers for illicit migration networks. As Laite emphasized marriage was (and is) one of the most porous borders through which people migrated, and the inspection of intimacy to identify whether a given marriage was ‘real’ brought the state firmly into peoples’ everyday lives. Finally, Irene Meissinger examine three compelling narratives of sham marriages designed to save individuals from Nazi repression during the 1930s and 1940s. As she demonstrated, transnational political and familial networks facilitated the movement of oppressed groups (particularly Jews, homosexuals and communists) from Nazi Germany to the UK via the ‘illicit’ migration strategy of organized marriage.

The final day of the conference opened with a different kind of illicit migration: that of Polish nationals into the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s. For the panel ‘Tracing Clandestine Networks,’ Maria Blackwood detailed this (paradoxical) illicit cross-border movement into Soviet space, arguing that NKVD investigations into some of these individuals teach us much more about continued cross-border ethno-national ties in the Soviet Union than we have previously known. Next Victor Peirera detailed illicit emigration from Portugal to France during the dictatorship of Antonio Salazar between 1957 and 1974. Much as Feys sought to rehabilitate shipping companies, Peirera argued that we need to reassess the role of the ‘smuggler’ in illicit migration, as his research has found that smugglers were loath to exploit migrants, if only to ensure they maintained a good reputation back in Portugal as trustworthy migration agents. In the third talk, Jean Pfaelzer explored the forced movement of native women in North America, linking the dispossession of indigenous inhabitants of Alaska to the indenture of Chinese women in the nineteenth century. For Pfaelzer, the story of nineteenth century US expansion is one in which the trafficking of women has played an almost continuous role, raising questions about what we mean when we say ‘trafficking’ and how we understand the genealogy of the practice.

In the next panel, ‘Beyond Trafficking: Gender, Culture and Illicit Migration in the Recent Past,’ Ann de Shalit and Katrin Roots gave a joint paper exploring current Canadian anti-trafficking policies. They highlighted the ways in which laws against trafficking have been used to target migrant domestic workers as well as prostitutes, and found few if any examples of ‘trafficking’ even as defined by law. Next up, Jacqueline Berman related a case study of an anti-trafficking panic in Bosnia in the early 2000s, specifically around the supposed trafficking of Bosnian women by UN officers as well as representatives of a private US security firm. As her research found, the main UN and US response was to conduct ‘bar raids’ in Bosnian towns which served to intimidate local sex workers, while the evidence of trafficked women gleaned from these raids was ambivalent at best. In the last paper on the ‘contemporary world’ panel, Mary Buckley surveyed the field of anti-trafficking work in contemporary Russia. Relating a fascinating set of recent polling data, Buckley found that individual Russians polled about trafficking were much more likely to blame women than men for being trafficked, highlighting the continued gendered nature of trafficking discourse in the contemporary context.

The final panel of the conference, ‘Slavery, Trafficking and Smuggling,’ explored the discursive links between concepts of ‘slavery’ and ‘trafficking’ in both historical and contemporary contexts. In the opening paper, Faith Marchal analyzed the political meanings of involvement in the underground railroad in nineteenth century US, and drew links between anti-slavery activism in this period and contemporary efforts to end trafficking. Next, Joel Quirk approached the questions from a less flattering angle for the nineteenth century abolitionists, arguing that the terms in which abolition were framed actually contributed to the civilizational discourse that later justified colonialism in Africa. As Quirk argued, abolitionism always set up a stark binary between saviors and supplicants, and further tied slavery to a politics of exception in which it was falsely juxtaposed with forced labor, helping to dichotomize slavery and the systems of indenture on which colonialism was predicated. Finally, Deliana Popova explored the analytical framework of securitization as one in which trafficking has been corralled in contemporary discourse. As she argued, this process can be seen in the removal of trafficking from the human rights category in international law and its insertion in the criminal law category, thus (falsely) identifying it a problem of border security and not of individual rights.

After the final panel, the participants had an opportunity to reflect on the previous three days and ask where we can go from here. Discussion highlighted a number of key red threads running throughout the papers: the symbiotic relationship between international and domestic law vis-à-vis trafficking and the need to pay equal attention to international and domestic governance structures; the potential utility of analyzing sex trafficking and other forms of so-called people smuggling or clandestine movement in the same analytic framework; and the need to engage in rigorous theoretical discussions around key concepts of agency, choice, and coercion that frequently appeared in papers but were not always carefully defined. Fortunately, there should be more opportunities to discuss these issues in greater depth, as the organizers plan to use the conference as a jumping off point for a further series of workshops, conferences and publications in the next three years. More information about the program can be found at and live tweets from the conference can be found using the hashtag #traffickinghistory.