Immigration Policy and Trafficking

How could immigration policy affect trafficking victims?

How could immigration policy affect the experiences of trafficking victims?

An insider view, by Gabriella Hillgren.

I live in Sweden, and, the disappointing national election results, less than two weeks ago got me thinking of the harsh immigration policies the country might face in the future. In the aftermaths of the EU elections in May, Europe has suffered a continuously increasing wave of right wing extremism. Many countries experience groups who have less than generous immigration objectives and a will to close up the borders, for various reasons. The results of the Swedish elections last week only demonstrate this notion, with one of those parties becoming the third largest in the country.

Most of us are aware of the terrible experiences of trafficking victims, but that these are often perpetuated by the system that is supposed to help them, is less common knowledge. There are numerous cases recorded by researchers Liz Hales and Lorraine Gelsthorpe (2012) which demonstrate how trafficking victims in the UK are often treated as criminals, either for having been forced to labour involving e.g. drugs or prostitution, or for illegal entry into the country (Booth, 2013). Their victim status is thus forgotten, especially if a country has a strict immigration policy.

There are many things a state might want to protect itself from; drug cartels, weapon trade or other organised criminal groups. Human trafficking does in a vast majority of cases involve the transportation of victims. Due to this aspect of the phenomenon, border control agencies are expected to play a crucial part in its prevention and suppression. It might seem logical for tightened border security to aid in the struggle to end human trafficking, but in an interconnected world, there is no escape – the problem does not go away because we shut it out. On the contrary, this option may even reduce the options of those already vulnerable with a desire to change their situation.

However, although it is not easy to prove it either way, immigration policy will most likely not determine the sheer volume of trafficking, but it is almost certain to say that it will affect the experience of those being trafficked and how states handle trafficking crimes (prosecution, protection and prevention) versus other issues such as illegal immigration, where the two are likely to become amalgamated. It is only logical that tightened borders are likely to make legal immigration more difficult for those not “eligible”.

From victim to criminal

Proximate factors to human trafficking like policy, legal systems and partnerships, have crucial effects on the prominence of trafficking. In the context we are discussing now, the policy fails to take this huge issue of distinction into account. Illegal migration and human trafficking are very likely to get confused. The three main principles for combating human trafficking are: prevention, prosecution and protection. But already in Britain, and other countries, the aim to protect is often forgotten in favour of prevention and prosecution. The idea of closing up borders make trafficking victims automatically criminal, because that is how they entered the country.

Even the officials dealing with the National Referral Mechanism have been criticised in Britain for emphasising the victim’s immigration status, while it should acknowledge their victimhood (Hales and Gelsthorpe, 2012).

The problem with the policies that might become real in countries like Sweden is that, it may become increasingly tougher for authorities to determine who has (indirectly, but under no threat) left their home to illegally enter another country and who has been coerced and forced, when they are both viewed in the same light. One example of how it forces people into desperation is from the U.S.-Mexico border. It demonstrates these problematics, with regulations having been strengthened and  northbound crossing for Mexican immigrants is more violent. They also tend to be more prone to debt bondage and exploitation by criminal networks engaging in smuggling (Chacón, 2010:1612).

Tighter border control affect the experiences of trafficking victims substantially, when they are not wanted and easily classified as illegal aliens. It makes it difficult for the legal system to adapt and maintain high quality investigations that take the force and coercion into account. It is important for all of us to understand that a lack of options make people, who would otherwise have chosen a different path, desperate.

You can read more on this issue from an economic point of view here:

Gabriella Hillgren 24/9-2014

Photo by Cecilia Larsson, courtesy of Image Bank Sweden



Booth R, 2013, Human trafficking victims will not be treated as criminals, says CPS, The Guardian

Chacón J. M, 2013Overcriminalizing ImmigrationJournal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Vol. 102, No. 3, 2012

Hales L and Gelsthorpe L, 2012, The criminalisation of migrant women, Institute of criminology, Cambridge University, United Kingdom