There are few instances of networks more clearly transnational than those in which human traffickers operate. Deliberately operating beyond the confines of state laws by definition, human traffickers and their victims clandestinely navigate boundaries.

For this reason, the proposed project will encounter many challenges. As Louise Shelley, among the world’s current leading academic experts writing on human trafficking, notes, although the ‘phenomena of human smuggling and trafficking is clearly delineated legally’ –by the UN at the 2000 Palermo Convention, in a definition of universal temporal utility despite its date of origin— ‘in reality the situation is often not as clear.’[1] The networks through which human trafficking has historically occurred are, though wide-spread, typically rudimentary: large-scale organised crime has played a role in its occurrence, but not to such an extent that paper trails are commonplace.

Equally, although trafficked individuals very seldom remained within their original country (and therefore almost always crossed borders), the illicit nature of the crossings, in conjunction with the fact that those expected to police the borders are frequently bribed by the traffickers, ensures that all too often, a paucity of concrete records renders the job of the historian of human trafficking a relatively thankless task.

For this reason the proposed project will not seek, unless unexpectedly developed resources are discovered, to attempt micro-histories of transnational actors within the trafficking networks, or to attempt to significantly delineate between networks or aspects of networks in order to historicise them individually. Instead, the project proposes to approach the topic from a macro perspective, examining the ways in which the interactions of different trafficking networks, NGOs, governments, and socio-economic-political attitudes and events affected the flow of individuals through the networks and across borders.

Due to the fact that human trafficking has only become popular to study in approximately the past twenty years, with an emphasis within existing literature upon relatively recent history, and that furthermore the proliferation of autonomous nation-states necessary for a truly transnational rather than intra-organisational approach occurred only following global decolonisation in the latter half of the 20th century, it is to that time period (approx. 1940- 2000) that the project will give most attention. The context of the studied societies, and the networks left in place or in flux following the withdrawal of the colonising powers, will, however, be of relevance and briefly examined.

The project is expected to focus primarily on Central and Northern Africa, but with comparisons also to be made between human trafficking networks in this region and those of South-East Asia and Eastern Europe. The Middle East, as an area on which few sources (particularly Anglophone) exist, is expected to have a minimal presence; America will not be addressed.

Attempting to look beyond the reductive analysis of ‘pull-factors’ and ‘push-factors’ in regions of complexity and impermanent relationships, the project will consider the conditions in which human trafficking became possible at both ‘ends’ of trafficking routes; and, to the extent that it is possible, the experiences of those involved.

It is expected that the project shall argue that a combination of wide structural components was necessary to the creation of the industry (multiple borders sufficiently open; easily accessible transport; increased communications possible between members of the trafficking networks), in conjunction with a number of proximate components (poor economic outlook in trafficking epicentres; relatively limited education of trafficked individuals; a demand for labour and/or sex workers in the ‘receiving’ locations).

The facets and factors to be considered in the creation of a coherent narrative will be numerous, and the argument can be expected to evolve considerably. The period-specific questions that this project initially proposes to investigate, however, are:

  • ‘How did human trafficking networks use their transnationality to achieve their ends?’
  • ‘To what extent did the increasing prevalence of globalised industry and global connectivity create a more porous migration system?’
  • ‘How did transnational anti-trafficking actors and networks a) develop and b) seek to combat clandestine movements?’

By nature of its focus, this project will be obligated to be multi-disciplinary. Much of the relevant material will be contained in, among other sources, NGO workers’ notes, testimonies or diaries of those trafficked, minutes of UN or governmental meetings, laws, and police records. Approaches used more frequently by scholars of anthropology, sociology or international relations will therefore be appropriate to allow a fully developed historicisation. Although the field is young, several scholars and individuals are of prominent initial interest. Among them are Kevin Bales; Louise Shelley; J.O’C. Davidson; A.P. Jakobi; and David Kyle. The records of the UN, the IJM, and similar organisations are also expected to be drawn upon.

Transnational history is a very young sub-discipline; the study of 20th-century human trafficking, though recently a relative cause célèbre, is of roughly the same age. The study of human trafficking networks is not only firmly within the remit of the transnational historian’s interests (to the extent, arguably, that a holistic approach to it can be undertaken by the transnational historian alone), but is also, by virtue of its youth as an academic field, one to which almost any study will bring something new. The proposed project is thus one of significant interest.

[1] Louise Shelley, Human Trafficking: A Global Perspective, (Cambridge: CUP, 2010), p. 11

Transnational trafficking networks, 1940-2000