A Short History of Trafficking in Persons

Slavery has a history dating back thousands of years. It existed in prehistoric hunting societies and has persisted throughout the history of the mankind as a universal institution. Even though slaves have always been subject to physical and sexual exploitation, the discussion of human trafficking from the point of view of exploitation has a much shorter history.f3_issue_1019

White Slavery

The international trade of women came into focus with the movement against white slavery. Even though the term white slavery has been given different meanings, the following is the most commonly used: white slavery means the procurement – by use of force, deceit or drugs – of a white woman or a girl against her will for prostitution (Doezema 1999). The white slavery movement combined the aspirations of the national movement against prostitution with the movement against slavery. It has been argued that the discussion on white slavery and sexual exploitation of white women is closely connected to the fight against the exploitation of black slaves (Leppanen 2007). Attention to white slavery happened at the time of the legal abolition of black slavery and the language of one social phenomenon was transferred to another. Discussion on white slavery has often been seen as a sign of a moral sensationalism of prostitution.

Emma Goldman (1970, 19-20), an American feminist also referred to as Queen of the Anarchist, wrote on white traffic in 1917:

Only when human sorrows are turned into a toy with glaring colours will baby people become interested – for a while at least. The people are very fickle babies that must have new toys every day. The “righteous” cry against the white slave traffic is such a toy. It serves to amuse the people for a little while, and it will help to create a few more fat political jobs – parasites who stalk about the world as inspectors, investigators, detectives, and so forth. What is really the cause of the trade in women? Exploitation, of course…

Many contemporary historians share the view that the number of white slavery cases was actually very low and that the discussion at that time was triggered by the increased number of women migrants from Europe seeking work abroad (Doezema 1999). On the other hand, some figures show that trade in women did exist in the end of 1800 and beginning of 1900. In 1912, police in Hamburg listed 402 known traders in women and identified another 644 in Eastern Europe. The US Immigration Bureau investigated traffic in women in London, Berlin and Hamburg and identified 578 individuals involved in the trade (Picarelli 2007). An investigation on the “Importation and Harbouring of Women for Immoral Purposes” in the USA from 1908 to 1909 showed that a large number of alien women and girls were being brought to the country to be distributed for the purpose of prostitution (League of Nations 1927).

In Europe, white slavery was discussed at a conference organized in Paris in 1895, followed by similar conferences in London and Budapest in 1899. International Conferences against white slavery were organized in Paris in 1899 and in 1902. In 1904 an International Agreement for the Suppression of the “White Slave Traffic” (League of Nations 1920) was signed in Paris. The agreement aimed to ensure that women and girls are protected against criminal traffic known as the “White Slave Traffic”. Even though the security of victims is mentioned in the Agreement, the focus is on the control and repatriation of migrant women and girls.

In 1910, 13 countries signed the International Convention for the Suppression of the White Slave Trade (United Nations 1951). While the 1904 Agreement addressed the migration side of the issue, the 1910 Convention focused on the criminalization of trafficking.

After the signing of the 1910 Convention, National Committees for the suppression of traffic were established in many European countries. The Committees received information from the network of organizations, which were involved in the preventive and protective work. These reports gave bases for an international discussion on white slave trade (League of Nations 1927). However, the World War One put to an end to the further development of international work against traffic at that time.

It is clear that in the White Slavery discussion, in general, countries outside Europe as well as women other than white were invisible. This led to a criticism of the term white slavery and it was eventually changed to traffic in women (Leppanen 2007). The change of terminology also reflects the move of discussion from the national to international level.

Trafficking in Women and Children

After the establishment of the League of Nations in 1919-1920 the women’s movement started to focus its attention on international instead of national issues. In June 1921 the League hosted an international conference in Geneva. The representatives of 34 nations participated in the Conference, which asked for the first time that white slave traffic should be replaced by traffic in women and children (League of Nations 1927). This expanded the scope of trafficking to include other than white women and children. It also included children of both sexes to be addressed as victims of traffic. This means that, for the first time, the international community recognized that also male children could be victims of trafficking.

These efforts lead to the International Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Women and Children (United Nations 1950), which was signed in Geneva in 1921 by 33 States. The Convention refers to the offences mentioned in the 1910 Convention on White Slave Traffic. In addition, the Convention requests countries to take necessary measures to prosecute persons who are engaged in the traffic in children of both sexes.

The Convention also recognizes the need for protection during the migration processes as well as the need to inform women and children about trafficking. Countries are encouraged to arrange “the exhibition, in railway stations and in ports, of notices warning women and children of the danger of the traffic and indicating the places where they can obtain accommodation and assistance” (United Nations 1950, art. 7).

In 1923, the League of Nations agreed to initiate a study on the traffic of women and children and suggested to appoint a group of experts to investigate the situation in cooperation with the governments of the countries concerned (League of Nations 1927). Two major studies were carried out, the first one resulting in a report in 1927 focusing on the situation mainly in the West. The results of the second study were published in 1932 dealing with the situation in the East. The issues of the two reports dealt with 5 main questions: (i) were there a considerable number of foreign women engaged in prostitution in the countries studied; (ii) was there demand for foreign women in these countries and what created this demand; (iii) from which surroundings the women were obtained and whether they left their countries by themselves or with the help or influence of other persons; (iv) who are the traffickers; and (v) from which countries did the women come, by which means are they induced to leave their countries and which routes they travelled.

In the 1927 Report of the League of Nations, international traffic was defined as: the direct or indirect procurement and transportation for gain to a foreign country of women and girls for the sexual gratification of one or more other persons.

The international traffic described in the 1927 Report illustrates the situation in which women were trafficked from Europe to other countries using either land routes or water routes. In the report the main destinations included South and Central America, particularly Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Panama and Uruguay; as well as Egypt, Algeria and Tunis. The main countries of origin were Austria, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Romania, Spain and Turkey. So, the picture 80 years ago totally differs from that of today. In the report of the League of Nations the main movement of trafficking victims was from Europe to other countries while currently it works to the contrary. In addition, many of the origin countries in the 1927 report are today’s destination countries.

The same kind of reverse picture is presented in the Second Report of 1932, which seeks to clarify the situation of trafficking in the Occident and the Orient. In this report it was shown that while there is a certain movement of occidental women to the Orient, hardly any oriental women were trafficked to the Occident. Traffic to Asia comprises victims of the following nationalities: American, Australian, Austrian, British, Canadian, French, German, Hungarian, Italian, Latvian, Lithuania, Polish, Romanian, Russian and Swiss. The main destinations were Beirut, Calcutta, Saigon, Hong-Kong, Bombay and Shanghai. In addition, the bulk of the traffic was reported to involve Asian women who were trafficked from one Asian country to another, Chinese women being the largest group of victims. Japanese women including Koreans and Formosans were the second largest group followed by smaller groups including Malay, Annamite, Siamese, Filipino, Indian, Iraqi, Persians and Syrians. In addition, trafficking in the East was characterized by the fact that women going to foreign countries for prostitution did exclusively seek clients from their own countrymen abroad. Thus Chinese women were trafficked to the Chinese labourers in the South Seas, Japanese women to serve the Japanese businessmen in commercial centres and Persian women to Persian men attending pilgrimages in Mecca.

The methods of trafficking described in the reports include many of the current elements of trafficking in persons such as “heartless fraud and cruelty of a different character” (League of Nations 1927, 18). Sadly, also methods of control and exploitation have stayed very much the same as can be seen from the reply of the Argentine Government to the 1924 questionnaire (League of Nations 1927, 23):

Disorderly houses were formerly run by a manageress (“regenta”) who was always the wife of the procurer. In such houses there were four or five or even more women, who were shamelessly exploited and never even received the proceeds of their miserable trade, for the manageress used to give them a slip, of purely nominal value, for each client, and at the end of the week it was the proprietor “dueno” who cashed these slips; moreover, such women were deprived of their liberty and practically imprisoned with the complicity of the manageress.

The resemblance of the issues raised in the first report of 1927 to the current discussion is astonishing. The report states clearly that the motive of trafficking is money. The authors state that they choose to use economic terms to describe the phenomenon because they “seem aptly to describe the commercial aspect of the whole traffic”. They note that traffic “is a business out of which large profits can be made and, like other businesses, it is governed by the law of supply and demand” (League of Nations 1927, 9). The authors also raise the difficulty of distinguishing between international and national traffic. Exactly the same difficulty is often noted in the current debate on human trafficking.

As today, the main remedy to prevent trafficking in the 1927 report was seen to be increased knowledge, international cooperation, criminalization of trafficking and the contribution of civil society. In addition, the public opinion was seen as the main factor behind the success in the fight against trafficking. These are the very same remedies currently proposed as a means of combating human trafficking.

Trafficking in Persons

The United Nations Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others was adopted in 1949 and entered into force in 1951. It was a legal turning point since it was the first instrument, which was legally binding. As of today, only 66 countries have ratified it. One of the reasons for the low ratification rate is that several countries did not want to criminalize prostitution as required in the Convention.
After the Convention came into force, the international community adopted several non-binding instruments which maintained the focus on trafficking in women. The Beijing Platform for Action adopted by the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995 calls for the effective suppression of trafficking in women and girls for the sex trade (United Nations 1995).
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women looked also at trafficking in women in her report to the Human Rights Commission in 2000. The purview of the report was the following: “from voluntary migration to trafficking in women: the continuum of the women’s movement and the human rights violations perpetrated during the course of that movement”. In the report the focus was on migration, and unlike the previous instruments, it clearly separated trafficking from prostitution (United Nations 2000a).
Some instruments were passed to address specific issues on human trafficking. The Optional Protocol on the Sale of Children, Child prostitution and Child pornography (United Nations 2000b) deals with trafficking in children. Forced labour particularly when it involves children was addressed by the ILO Conventions (ILO 1999).
However, in the development of the legally binding instruments, there was a gap of 51 years before the next international instrument was passed focusing entirely on trafficking in persons. In 2000 the United Nations Protocol against Trafficking in Persons was adopted and it came into force in 2003. The Protocol defines trafficking in persons for the first time. It is the only international legal instrument addressing human trafficking as a crime including all forms of exploitation. It is also the first instrument against crime that balances law enforcement action with the rights of victims. Based on the Trafficking Protocol the approach of three P’s was developed indicating that prevention, protection and prosecution must all be addressed in the fight against trafficking (United Nations 2000c).
The follow-up to the Trafficking Protocol involved some regional actions and the focus has moved towards more specific questions such as the rights of victims. The issue of forced labour as well as the connections between trafficking and migration are increasingly discussed at international forums. The future may also bring forward some new forms of trafficking such as organ trafficking, which have become prolific due to new opportunities afforded by increased technological innovations.
Trafficking in persons has a long history of evolution from the early forms of slavery to the modern forms of trafficking in persons. The suppression of slavery whether in the form of the classical slave trade or modern forms of slavery-like practices, is one of the longest-standing objectives of the international community. Under the auspices of the League of Nations and the United Nations, slavery-like practices in their different forms have been denounced in various forums and in numerous legislative and policy instruments.
While slavery and the slave trade were abolished centuries ago by the French revolution, the British Parliament and the 13th amendment to the American Constitution, human trafficking and modern forms of human exploitation are not part of that history. Trafficking continues to exist in spite of the ever-increasing efforts to curb it. But very little seems to be effective.
Many of the issues addressed in the history of human trafficking during the last 100 years have changed such as the understanding that all persons can be victims of trafficking and that there are several forms of trafficking. However, many questions have also stayed the same: we still call for international cooperation and we still promote prevention by warning the victims. One of the most persistent issues on the agenda on human trafficking has been the lack of knowledge of the phenomenon. It remains to be seen whether the following quote (League of Nations 1927, 9) still applies to the next generations’ attempts to solve the problem of human trafficking:
Those whose duty it has been to grapple with the traffic in women, whether as Government officials or as members of voluntary associations, are faced with doubts of a different character. Their experiences force them to believe that the evil which for so many years has resisted the constant attempts of many countries to uproot it must still exist; but the extent of its operations and precise form which it assumes at the present time are to them matters of uncertainty.

Kristiina Kangaspunta works at UNICRI as Executive Officer of the Applied Research Programme.