what we talk about when we talk about trafficking

So one of life’s little autocompletes is, Cambodia trafficking and the results are all scary. Horrifying, even.

They’re all about young people being tricked into cooperation for long enough that they can be transported into the custody of slavers, pimps and masters. Some are trafficked to brothels and some to fishing boats on the Gulf Of Thailand, some never cross a national border but are forced into victimization near home.

What’s hard to parse is the leap from trafficking to adoption–Nick Kristof’s persistent attempts to draw attention to slavery in Cambodia suck in the viewers because he leads with sexual slavery, and the replies from the public always include at least one ‘but what about the babies’ objection. He gets push-back for centering his work on children who are being raped for profit, because of the connection to children being sold into family relationships.

What is that connection? It’s not legal, because buying or selling a child for adoption is not trafficking; it’s abduction (of the child) and coercion plus fraud (against the placing family). It’s not utilitarian; the distinction between selling a child to a baby buyer who persuades you that good things are in your future and hers, and selling your child to a pimp to settle a debt, is not a subtle one. Adoption treats the child as a member of the family, trafficking treats the child as an asset of the family.

One critical distinction is about subject vs object: Victims of trafficking for forced labor are typically misled, offered a sack of magic beans, and collaborate with those who are giving them a financial opportunity, who turn out to be kidnappers. (And the beanstalk turns out to be just a beanstalk.)But they are participants in a transaction, not solely the item being traded.

While there are many teens in bondage to release their families from debt, they often cooperate, as they have been raised in a culture that taught them this method of asset transfer is a legitimate one–hence the runaways from the safe houses, nice men from the NY Times can’t buy mental freedom, or reintegration into the community of origin. Some of these parents no doubt believed the smooth-talking recruiter who told them that their daughter was going to be the nanny for a rich family in another country. They too are victims as well as participants.

Victims who are sold for adoption are the objects of the scheme, and those who sell them are secondary victims. They’re assured through proofs and promises that the separation isn’t permanent, that contact and reunion are in their future. And of course, that some material goods will be provided; many times just the lowering of the family’s costs.

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