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On trafficking survivors: biolegitimacy and multiplications of life


Human trafficking has become a key site for intervention in global politics. Although anti-trafficking claims to mobilize resources for the combat against structural inequality within labour relations, anti-trafficking is intertwined with a fixation with the “trafficking survivor” resulting in notable individuated policy responses. Based on long-term ethnographic research of anti-trafficking interventions in the Mekong region, this essay suggest biolegitimacy is a fruitful heuristic device as it elucidates how anti-trafficking constructs “life” along multiple modalities and expressions. This in turn helps explain why anti-trafficking constitutes a mixed assemblage comprising actors with different ideological, moral and political positions. As such, anti-trafficking constitutes an important case study of how life legitimates and is legitimated within transitional networks of governance.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    The empirical horizon for this paper includes my ongoing research on human trafficking in the Mekong region over the last decade, as well as my role as an (occasional) anti-trafficking research consultant and former project advisor for an anti-trafficking programme implemented by the United Nations. Although substantial part of my research involves migrants in cross-border contexts, I have also undertaken research amongst aid practitioners.

  2. 2.

    “The protocol defines trafficking thus:

    (a) “Trafficking in persons” shall mean the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs;

    (b) The consent of a victim of trafficking in persons to the intended exploitation set forth in subparagraph (a) of this article shall be irrelevant where any of the means set forth in subparagraph (a) have been used;

    (c) The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of a child for the purpose of exploitation shall be considered “trafficking in persons” even if this does not involve any of the means set forth in subparagraph (a) of this article;

    (d) “Child” shall mean any person under 18 years of age.” (United Nations, U 2000)

    The protocol has been subject to numerous criticisms, which is beyond the scope of this paper to delineate here. (Gallagher 2001; Kempadoo, Sanghera and Pattanaik 2005; Raymond 2002).

  3. 3.

    In addition to several national plans of actions amongst Mekong countries, the “three Ps” are also given importance through regional agreements, such the Coordinated Mekong Ministerial Initiative Against Trafficking (COMMIT).

  4. 4.

    More recently, “prevention” has broadened to include a focus on employers and “supply chain governance”. Yet, this focus is far from exclusive to anti-trafficking (other emergent kin-discourses, such as “modern slavery”, “migration management” and “safe migration” also make claim to this approach).

  5. 5.

    It is important to note that reintegration efforts do vary between different anti-trafficking programmes. There have been attempts by both scholars and activists to implement substantive (as opposed to procedural) principles into reintegration activities, which aims at reestablishing social relations (Bearup 2016). Yet, based on my long-term engagement with this sector over the years, there can be no doubt that reintegration programmes within the anti-trafficking sector tend to treat migrants in an atomistic and formulaic fashion.

  6. 6.

    Several organisations have placed similar focus on Thailand’s industry. Several rescue operations have also been carried out in relation to domestic maids. The similarities in the way in which the media structures report on these cases are striking (pictures of either harmed or docile bodies; melodramatic narratives, the moral imperative of rescue). Sources.

  7. 7.

    The former reached global prominence during the 2000s in part due to its founder, Somaly Mam, who alleged herself to be a former trafficked victim. Somaly’s double status as trafficked victim turned rescuer and has mobilised broad appeal with the result of endorsement from a range of celebrities which includes Angelina Jolie and the Queen of Spain. The organisation, The Grey Men, has not enjoyed the same level of publicity as the Somaly Mam foundation but has nonetheless attracted considerable attention from the media, politicians and the aid sector given the organisation’s vigilante-like operations. The Grey Men has comprised former police and commando officers from Australia and the main strategy has been to undertake undercover rescues of trafficked victims in several Mekong countries. Both organisations have been subject to scandals and criticism, which are beyond the scope of this essay.

  8. 8.

  9. 9.

  10. 10.

    There is a large body of literature which makes similar critique (albeit commonly framed within theoretical concerns relating to agency within feminist literature) of how anti-trafficking campaign engages in the form of objectification which ignores agency of victims.

  11. 11.

    The project was initiated in the early 2000. Its currently implementing its third phase of the project.

  12. 12.

    See, (Smith 2010)

  13. 13.

    It is worth pointing out that several police advisors who work for this project have made it clear to me that they are highly critical of NGOs who engage rescues.

  14. 14.

    My argument here should not be interpreted to suggest that law enforcement approaches to trafficking actually produce intended effects. Indeed, there is considerable evidence to suggest that law enforcement approaches to trafficking have serious limitations (Keo et al. 2014).

  15. 15.

    The head of the Thai Special Investigative Unit on Trafficking confirmed to me that this was utilised in their investigations.

  16. 16.

    I use a pseudonym for this organisation given its ambiguous legal status of operation in Thailand.

  17. 17.

    Amnesty report includes pictures of physical abuse: Human rights watch use the phrase “trafficking survivors” in several of their reports which include personal narratives of victims:

  18. 18.

  19. 19.

    Eventually, criticism of this organization led to their downfall.


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This paper is based on an earlier conference paper presented at Melbourne University, December 2016. I would like to thank the anonymous reviewers as well as Dr Casimir MacGregor and Dr Luke Bearup for excellent feedback on earlier drafts.

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Correspondence to Sverre Molland.

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Molland, S. On trafficking survivors: biolegitimacy and multiplications of life. Dialect Anthropol 43, 279–293 (2019).

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  • Human trafficking
  • Migration
  • Biolegitimacy
  • Labour