Last year the International Labour Organisation estimated that there are 20.9 million people who are victims of human trafficking globally. There are three quarters of a million in the EU alone.
It's all very well blaming the traffickers, but like the thousands of crooked bankers who helped tank the global economy, there is a compelling case to be made that we have structural problems not just a few bad eggs. It is quite true that there must be a long-term, multilateral solution to this crisis, which has no doubt worsened this year. But particular governments must act alone first in order to encourage others to get round the table. We as citizens must also be bold enough to say, "Yes, if it is done safely, we will accept refugees and migrants into our towns and homes."
Of course, in formulating a response with the prospect of meaningful, long-term reform of the global labour market, we need to bear in mind the causes of this ongoing, disastrous crisis for so much of humanity. War has been a staple of North Africa and the Middle East for a long time. In 2011 Conservative Defence Secretary Philip Hammond celebrated the UK and its allies' bombing campaign of Libya by inviting British companies to prize open its economy and invest. Now as Foreign Secretary he talks of "marauding" North Africans at our borders, ignoring his own role in collapsing the Libyan state and driving people abroad. Similarly, much of our parliament supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which forcibly collapsed the tottering Ba'athist state, opening a vacuum for ISIS, who exploit more than a decade of instability, death and resentment.
Then there is the slow-burn economic crisis that has swept Africa since the 1970s. This is the crisis that has robbed states like D.R. Congo of their natural resources while pocketing the profits in off-shore, often British controlled tax havens. Even when the west is not there militarily it is there economically. We in the west often bear a direct responsibility for mass migration, driven either by war or economic catastrophe.
How have western governments, left to themselves to devise a fitting solution to this homemade, exported crisis, responded? Last year they collectively cut the Mare Nostrum rescue operation in the Mediterranean, replacing it with a "nightwatchman" Italian gendarmerie. More than 16,000 people have died crossing that sea since the early 1990s. The number is over 2000 this year alone.
What about our domestic policies? We say we target traffickers, assess legitimate asylum claims, and send away those we don't want. Human trafficking and the forced labor it entails—including, but hardly limited to, sex work—follow not from the migration of vast “criminal” groups but from the increased vulnerability of migrants under punitive national immigration policies. By depriving immigrants of rights, governments create the space and help foster the demand for illegal trade in human lives.
The ILO has campaigned for a "rights-based approach", necessary for combatting the exploitation of migrant workers. Both criminal groups and legally recognized companies prey on migrants’ increased vulnerability, using it to coerce or mislead people into various kinds of modern servitude. However, the problem is not reducible to immigration. As Jakub Sobik, a spokesperson for the world’s oldest anti-slavery charity, told me: “Trafficking isn’t an immigration issue per se. It’s a crime where people use the vulnerability of other people to their advantage, so we should protect the vulnerable irrespective of their immigration status.” Sobik’s organization, Anti-Slavery International, has produced an impressive amount of research on the problems of identifying trafficking victims. “In the UK, a non-EU passport holder is four times less likely to be identified as a victim of trafficking, and often just deported,” Sobik said, precisely because of the “immigration lenses” through which authorities interpret cases.
Migrants need equal rights and safety, a bit of common decency and civility if the crisis is to end. Of course, this takes money and patience. But the cost of housing people is minuscule compared to bombing them. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost the British taxpayer £30 billion. By contrast, last week Chancellor George Osbourne pledged £1 billion to "protect our national interest" in the refugee crisis over the coming five-year parliament. That's 30 times less than the aforementioned military campaigns, funded effectively by a cut to foreign aid. Still, it will house many and hopefully keep them safe. The cost of housing and keeping safe many more would still not bring the cost close to our disastrous military adventures. We could start saving by not bombing Syria, a mistake that will drive more ruined lives into the arms of terrorists.
People's lives are destroyed by military and economic disorder - often imposed or exploited by the west. As they are dragged into mass migratory flows, people easily become victims of human trafficking. These traffickers exploit a punitive legal system again enforced by our governments. Then, when they arrive in places like the UK, which has often spent billions destroying their homes, they are abandoned at borders, deported, robbed of their basic rights, or further exploited.
What is necessary for the safety of migrants as well as the "national interest" is not deregulation of the migration system, but re-regulation for opposite ends: that is, safe migration and a safer, more peaceful world. That is the real long-term solution to this great crisis. The question is whether our European governments will take responsibility and have the courage to accept that migration is not just going to go away.