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Human trafficking discourse: the value of economics

Categorizing the movement of trafficked (and exploited) persons through the language of economics has become a fashionable way to digest the complex nature of human trafficking. The prelude to almost any introduction to human trafficking generally goes like this: trafficked people come from sending or source countries, occasionally make their way through transit countries and end up in destination countries, although a specific country can be assigned more than one designation. “Supply” and “demand” are terms generally reserved for trafficked persons; so a “source” country “supplies” trafficked people, a “destination” country is where there is “demand” for the labor or services conducive to exploitation or trafficking.

A great deal of research has been devoted to investigating the specific routes a trafficked person might take and/or analyzing locations on the basis of being a point of supply or demand. As trafficking is an incredibly profitable business, it may seem logical to borrow language from the world of finance and economics; importantly this discourse has successfully influenced research and current policy development.

Clearly, knowing about where people come from and where they end up is crucial in addressing human trafficking, specifically in developing indicators and risk assessments for populations likely to be trafficked in a given source country and the conditions under which they may be trafficked to a given destination country. Activists have also used this language in a call to public action through educational initiatives and legislative changes designed to heighten public awareness and accountability. But, as the field of anti-trafficking develops, how appropriate is this framework? Why has it been so readily absorbed into anti-trafficking advocacy? And to what extent has it constrained policy decisions? Arguably, trafficking rhetoric has stalled in an oversimplified, unimaginative economic discourse; the continued use of this reductionist language potentially ignores the ongoing, flexible nature of trafficking not only as a business, but as a research framework affecting subsequent policy interventions. (more…)