Changing the Story of Human Trafficking
Updated: May 25
The narrative of modern slavery is a familiar one, and it's wrong.
Taken, a 2008 blockbuster movie, stars Liam Neeson as a retired CIA agent who must rescue his daughter from an Albanian mob’s sex trafficking operation, and has since led to two more movies and a TV series—a franchise worth just shy of one billion dollars today. Popular, yes, but misleading, too. Modern slavery and trafficking often look far different than they are portrayed.
In 2019, there were 10,627 potential victims of modern slavery in the UK, as reported through the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), a government evaluation and support system for people in situations of modern slavery. Contrary to Taken’s model, two thirds of people reported to the NRM were men, and just over a quarter were UK nationals. Labor exploitation was the most common form of trafficking for all adults and children.
While films like Taken perpetuate a singular narrative of human trafficking wherein an “ideal victim”—usually a young, white, innocent, able-bodied woman at risk of forced prostitution—is formed. Although the sexual exploitation of women is a serious and ongoing crime, narrowly focusing on this singular archetype excludes other potential victims from recognition and care. For example, analyses of Leicester textile factories in 2018 unveiled exploitative conditions, which led to an investigation into whether the online clothing retailer, Boohoo, was perpetrating modern slavery. And with post-Brexit changes to UK immigration policy, it is probable that an increase in temporary visas will make workers more vulnerable to exploitation in factories, agriculture, and domestic service.
To understand cultural expectations of what a trafficking victim looks like, à la Taken, we must go back to the roots of modern slavery, beginning with the campaigns against white slavery in nineteenth century Britain. This movement to raise awareness of the sexual exploitation of women was made up of groups from across the political spectrum, including the National Vigilance Association (NVA), the Jewish Association for the Protection of Girls and Women, and the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. While these social campaigners used white slavery as a catch-all term for various kinds of sexual exploitation of women, popular fiction narratives of white slavery meanwhile crystalized into a common storytelling framework featuring a young white woman forced into prostitution by a foreign, usually non-white man. The foreign trafficker formed the ideal foil to the “ideal victim” of modern slavery narratives. The racialized story provided an outlet for culturally motivated fears around miscegenation, immigration, and the fantasy of a ‘besieged’ ideal of whiteness.
This xenophobic emphasis on white slavery paved the way for anti-migration campaigns. Social reformers—especially the NVA—lobbied Parliament for laws targeting immigrants. In a celebratory report on the NVA’s accomplishments in their first ten years, the organization reflected that "we have for a long time been convinced that the foreign criminals, both men and women, are a dangerous menace to our social, moral, and national life. The terrible condition of the streets of London was almost exclusively due to their presence.”
NVA campaigners also made recommendations to the Home Office about how best to monitor migrants entering the country at its ports as a tactic to reduce trafficking. This increased surveillance of immigrant communities was an infringement on free movement and privacy, in the name of protecting British women—and the British nation by extension—from foreign corruption. In this way, the NVA contributed to a public understanding of trafficking that constructed victims as vulnerable white women while traffickers represented foreign influences. Rather than disappearing from public discourse, these tropes adapted and reassembled themselves over time and continue to appear today.
The UK’s National Referral Mechanism, unfortunately, falls into some of the same traps in its evaluation of potential cases of modern slavery. Each case reported to the NRM must be assessed for whether or not it constitutes modern slavery. A “conclusive grounds” finding allows survivors to access financial support (at up to £65 per week) and gives them temporary permission to remain in the UK, provided they participate in a criminal case against their trafficker. In 2013, an Anti-Trafficking Monitoring Group report found that a potential survivor of trafficking from the EU has an 80 percent chance of receiving a conclusive grounds decision from the NRM, while a potential survivor from outside the EU has a less than 20 percent chance of this. This makes them much more likely to be detained and deported.
By unpicking the question of where modern anti-slavery policies come from, we open up a wide range of solutions that could better address the crime of modern slavery at its root. Traffickers know that people are made vulnerable when there are restrictive immigration policies, weak worker protections, and a general belief about who can be trafficked that contradicts the populations they exploit. We must work to counter these vulnerabilities by introducing solutions that anticipate a varied experience of trafficking, and not just a single narrative.
Anna Forringer-Beal (Jesus) studies how gender politics underly contemporary policies around human trafficking for her PhD in gender studies.