Anti-trafficking campaigns are based on the “three ps” of prevention, protection and prosecution.
But a fourth – preemption – has now given rise to a thorny controversy.
A new book titled ‘Unmaking Migrants: Nigeria’s Campaign to End Human Trafficking’ reveals how government agents have stopped thousands of women over the past 20 years from traveling out of the country and instead sent them to the federal agency against trafficking for “protection and rehabilitation.” Nigerian officials defend this tactic as a preventive intervention. Yet many women are protesting their detention, insisting they are not trafficked and demanding to be released. It is published by Cornell University Press.
“I spent years in Nigeria learning how some women there think about risk and migration to sex work in Europe, and how governments see those risks as well,” said Stacey Vanderhurst, assistant professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at university. of Kansas.
“Instead of helping women migrate and work safely, anti-trafficking programs like these simply try to stop them. They physically stop them at border checkpoints and detain them for counseling to prevent them from trying again.
Vanderhurst thinks the use of the word “trafficking” introduces a scenario in which politics often trumps reality.
“When people think of trafficking, they visualize abject suffering that almost transcends politics. It’s so abhorrent that no one could support it, and anything done in the name of stopping trafficking will help women. My book presents a view that is more common among people who support sex workers,” she said.
Some feminists and other human rights groups consider all kinds of sex work to be a form of violence and therefore a form of trafficking.
“But if you think sex work can be work – even if it’s high-risk work that isn’t highly respected – then we need more nuance to understand what constitutes exploitation in this industry. What we see is that governments take advantage of a more simplistic idea of what trafficking is and what would be justified to stop it. They promote policies or interventions which, on the face of it, seem like they should help women, but when you look closer, they have very little to do with what women want for themselves or for their lives.
Vanderhurst first spent a year in Nigeria (a former British colony that gained independence in 1960) over a decade ago while working on her dissertation. Since then, she has returned most summers.
“Lagos is amazing. It’s New York City with a half-functioning power grid,” she said.
“People will go to Lagos to grab the opportunity, which means it’s the hub of Nollywood film production, stand-up comedy and hip-hop. It’s a place where people dream really big and work really hard. And I find that energy contagious.
Yet economic opportunities are not necessarily plentiful, especially for poor young women.
“My book is about ambitious women who are acutely aware of the risks of migrating across the desert, across the Mediterranean, and into an illicit sex market,” Vanderhurst said. “They are not naive. They are not gullible or drawn to the dazzle of a European destination, but rather recognize the limited opportunities they have at home.
This type of migration is well established in specific regions of Nigeria, Vanderhurst said. Many of these women have relatives or friends who have gone abroad to do such work.
“Not everyone is open about it because there is still shame and stigma around it. But these women are sending money to support their families in a way no one else is. nothing else can do for the community,” she said.
As a percentage, how many Nigerian women in detention are actually victims of trafficking?
“I really don’t find that to be a useful term because it’s so loaded with like, ‘Well, what do we mean by traffic?’ Interestingly, most of these women were detained at the Nigerian border or at the airport. They haven’t even arrived in Europe. Whether or not they are exploited during the journey or at their final destination is really disputed,” said Vanderhurst, who defines what these people experience as “preventive rescue” or “preventive detention.”
The California native came to KU in 2015, where she focuses on research on trafficking, migration, and sex work. Last month, she received a Fulbright US Scholar Award for her ‘Free Women’ project, which explores how Nigerian women activists are drawing inspiration from other global campaigns to tackle the harassment of single women. She is returning to Nigeria next year.
“I hope people can see in these stories the nuance women bring to the tough decisions in their lives,” Vanderhurst said.
“The structures of privilege and inequality in our world make it difficult for, say, an American student to understand that she is a poor woman in Benin City. A woman there doesn’t have many options. But it’s still patronizing to assume that because she doesn’t have many options, we don’t need to listen to what she wants. Instead, our government and his government have collectively decided what is best.