In the US' latest Trafficking in Persons Report released on June 12, Taiwan stands on the list of "Tier 2" countries.
Thanks to US influence and the report, which assesses government efforts worldwide to put a stop to human trafficking, trafficking has become a hot issue here. Taiwan was put on the "Tier 2" watch list last year, sparking debate.
But many contributing factors to the situation in Taiwan must be taken into account. Globalization is an uneven process. Although capital and goods can move freely, laborers face many obstacles.
In general, trafficked people are regarded as "victims," while illegal migrants are viewed as "violators." However, because of the obstacles to legal migration, aspiring migrants can fall into the trap of illegal migration, sometimes in the form of human trafficking. Women are often willing to risk illegal migration, often driven by a hope that they will find economic security.
People living in relatively poor countries aspire to migrate to more affluent countries for a better life. However, more developed countries often impose strict border controls on potential migrants from specific countries. Taiwan has taken such measures against Chinese and Southeast Asians.
While people theoretically have the right to leave the country where they are a citizen, there is no corresponding right guaranteeing their admission to another country. Restrictive admission policies force some migrants to seek illegal channels, making them vulnerable to trafficking elements.
Once they have entered a new country illegally, these migrants are vulnerable to exploitation because they lack legal status. Migrants end up in an underprivileged and vulnerable position, unprotected by most labor laws and thus easily subject to the manipulation and exploitation of traffickers and employers. The more demanding the process is, the higher it is expected to cost the migrants to pay the facilitators.
The mainstream discourse is predominantly centered on how these people are defrauded by traffickers, how they can be rescued and how border control should be strengthened. Unfortunately, the US report encourages the authorities to tighten boarder control to prevent trafficking.
"The authorities prevent the trafficking through brokered international marriages by restricting eligibility and enhancing interview requirements for foreign brides and their Taiwanese spouses; as a result, the number of spousal visas issued to brides in Vietnam dropped for a second straight year to 3,864 down from 7,062 in 2005 and 11,953 in 2004," it says.
These discourses treat illegal migration as a problem, treat trafficking as a moral issue and ignore the factors that lead people to risk their security to gain entry to another country and the factors that restrict their freedom of movement. This discourse not only simplifies the multilayered obstacles confronting "victims," but fails to address their real problems: the poverty and imbalance of development in different countries and lack of genuine freedom of movement between people of different nations.
Needless to say, trafficking must be stopped. However, it is also important to recognize the determination of women and men to migrate in the hope of improving their lives. We must also recognize their vulnerability as migrant workers.
The problem is not simply a question of saving victims and prosecuting traffickers. We must stop ignoring the extreme conditions that force many to leave their homes. Tightening border controls is not the solution.
Lorna Kung is the secretary-general of the Scalabrini International Migration Network in Taiwan.
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