The Pozen Center for Human Rights and the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality hosted a conference on human trafficking last weekend.
The conference, titled “Human Trafficking, Labor Migration, and Migration Control in Comparative Historical Perspective,” sought to challenge traditional ideas about human trafficking through a cross-disciplinary approach.
Panel titles included: “Narratives of Sex in Motion,” “Boundaries between Sex and Not-Sex,” “Roundtable from the Field,” and “Producing and Undermining Borders.” Most panelists were historians but also included anthropologists, sociologists, and contemporary activists.
“Human trafficking is a highly visible human interest issue,” said Tara Zahra, conference organizer and Pozen Center co-chair. Zahra argued that the lines between voluntary and forced migration are more blurred than a strict binary of traffickers and victims would suggest.
Panelists presented research on various historical episodes over the last two centuries in which traffickers were paid to move migrants, some of whom were volunteers and others of whom were not.
In one panel, University of Massachusetts anthropologist Svati Shah complicated the black-and-white conception of trafficked women as powerless victims. She noted that in her interviews with Mumbai sex workers over the last twenty years, none of the women used the Marathi word for “forced” labor, instead invoking the Marathi word for “choice” or even choice within “structural constraints.”
In another panel, Stanford historian Matthew Sommer expanded the definition of trafficking to include wives of impoverished Chinese peasants living in the late Qing Dynasty. The practice of polyandry, wife sales, and other wife-loaning strategies would appear on the surface to be a patriarchal exploitation of women. Yet, as Sommer discussed in the panel, the wives sold to new husbands could escape poverty or unhappy marriages through these strategies and these women would sometimes initiate the entire transaction.
Throughout the event, panelists broadened the definition of what constitutes trafficking and invoked instances of personal agency from trafficked individuals.
Debate ensued over whether or not “human trafficking” was a useful term altogether due to the name’s implication that individuals being moved are stripped of all personal agency. California Polytechnic Institute historian Christina Firpo rejected the term “human trafficking” altogether in favor of “unfree labor,” while other historians, including the University of Chicago’s Johanna Ransmeier, called for unapologetic but careful and precise use of the term “human trafficking.”
The conference was particularly timely given ongoing discourse about migration in light of the current Syrian refugee crisis. Ransmeier warned against drawing direct parallels between past historical events and contemporary crises, but she asserted that historical insight about trafficking continues to hold relevance today.
“Borders create trafficked people, and I hope that the conference allowed people to think about the concept of trafficking in a way that is particular and still leaves room [for] considerations about the exercise of choice on the part of people moving through constricted spaces,” Ransmeier said.
The conference, which was open to the public, was originally scheduled to take place in a common room in the Social Sciences building, but was moved to Swift Hall due to overwhelming reception, according to Zahra.