The trafficking of people, and sex trafficking in particular, is of paramount concern in the present day for governments seeking to control migration and international crime; for activists and humanitarian organisations working to improve the rights of women and all workers; and for reformers who are seeking to abolish exploitative prostitution.  The concept of trafficking is far from stable, however. Today, heated debates rage about the best way to define it, to respond to it, and to combat it. Anti-trafficking discourse has been used to help many exploited workers and victims of sexual abuse, but it has also been used to justify increasingly harmful immigration and anti-prostitution regimes.

Human trafficking, ‘people smuggling’ and clandestine migration are some of the most politically volatile and socially pressing issues in the present day, but they also have a long history. This AHRC-funded research project, ‘Trafficking, Smuggling and Illicit Migration in Historical and Gendered Perspective c.1870-2000’, seeks to bring together global, national and local historical perspectives, and to place trafficking in the context of migration, labour, and gender. It seeks to explore how certain people’s movement across borders came to be defined as illicit; how states responded to trafficking at national, imperial, and international levels; and how trafficking was connected both to women’s work and to sexual violence in this period.

We will seek to entangle concepts and experiences of trafficking. Rather than seeking to clarify trafficking and smuggling as normative or legal categories, we will instead question the utility of separating ‘trafficking,’ ‘smuggling’, and ‘illicit migration’ as unique experiences of migration and specific targets for crime or migration control. This research project will explore the global history of trafficking in the modern period, at a time when historical perspective is critically needed to improve understanding of the phenomenon in the present day.

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