By Bryan Caplan
Here’s how the United Nations officially defines “human trafficking”:
(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 eighteen years of age.
Part (a) isn’t awful, though “the abuse of power or of a position or vulnerability” could mean almost anything. Does charging a full year’s wages to help a poor farmer cross the border constitute “abuse of power or of position of vulnerability”? Most people would probably say yes – especially if the farmer desperate needs a smuggler’s help to flee famine or war.
It is part (b), however, that renders the whole definition a mockery of justice. Consent is “irrelevant”?! This is bizarre enough for sex work; whatever you think about prostitution, isn’t it far less evil than rape? The glaring question, though, is: If you accuse someone of imposing “forced labor or services” or “slavery,” how can consent not be a defense? How?!
Parts (c) and (d) go further by pretending that even the most scrupulous smuggler – a smuggler dutifully acting with full parental approval – automatically “exploits” any children he serves. If it wouldn’t be child abuse for your parents to help you cross the border, how is it child abuse for your parents to hire someone to do so on their behalf?
Basic economics reminds us that the creation of victimless “crimes” fosters actual crime. After all, once the law labels peaceful behavior “criminal,” even a peaceful participant in such “crimes” will fear to alert the authorities if they happen to be the victim of fraud, violence, or slavery.
Still, this hardly means that blacks markets typically yield bad results. Black markets endure because they’re a lot better than doing without. Indeed, shrewd black marketeers often make great efforts to build reputations for good customer service. The U.N. willfully ignores these truisms.
What’s behind all this? My best story: The U.N.’s Orwellian abuse of language is a rhetorically effective way to advance the anti-immigration agenda to which, regardless of their public postures, almost all governments subscribe. Rather than directly blame desperate migrants, the U.N. strategically demonizes the businesses that serve their needs. If international elites really cared about migrant abuse, they’d push for legalization so immigrants could freely report abusive treatment – not legal trickery to equate consensual trade with “abuse.”
Update: Two friends with a lot of legal training tell me I’m misreading the U.N.’s definition. Most importantly, they say that consent to exploitation is only irrelevant if the original transportation was non-consensual or otherwise tainted. That’s definitely what I would argue if I were the lawyer for an accused trafficker. But the type of scenario my friends envision still seems rather fanciful to me. Something like: X forcibly abducts you, then consensually hires you. Then when he’s arrested, he claims no wrong-doing on the grounds that you voluntarily worked for him after you arrived. Can that really be the legal tactic that (b) is trying to prevent?