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Human trafficking and the danger of sensationalising belief over fact

- Rebecca Walker, Elsa Oliveira and Isabel Magaya

We must resist the convenience of labelling every social ill as “trafficking” and radically reducing the militarisation and securitisation of national borders.

Photographs of nooses, bound hands, bruised faces and gagged mouths of women and children – with the words ‘save’, ‘innocent’, ‘bought’ or ‘sold’ – are appearing on billboards and on social and other media. This kind of imagery is sensationalist and designed to evoke a social and moral panic. They do little more than distract us from the underlying issues that make human trafficking possible.

We seem to be living in a world where facts no longer matter; where beliefs prevail over science; where truth is unable to generate the same fervour and excitement as opinion.

Newspaper headlines and television discussions can be so riddled with layers of sensationalism that it’s nearly impossible to decipher fact from fiction. More often than not, sensationalism takes precedence because readership and viewership increase if people find a particular story compelling. 


Some become so convinced of a particular thing that it eventually becomes fact in their minds. And of course, there are those people, including some political leaders, who dismiss truth as “fake news” if it doesn’t align with their worldviews and convictions.

But there is great danger in prioritising belief over fact, and in letting belief drive public policy and government responses.


These dangers are being exemplified right now in discussions about human trafficking. While there is no doubt that human trafficking is a serious crime and grave violation of human rights, there is also a significant amount of confusion, misinformation and sensationalism in the ways it is spoken about and represented that are rarely unpacked and interrogated.

A common strategy used to illustrate the dangers of human trafficking is the development of manufactured images and exaggerated estimates of the number of trafficking cases, which are not supported by available research.

Photographs of nooses, bound hands, bruised faces and gagged mouths of women and children, with the words “save”, “innocent”, “bought” or “sold” are all over social media, on billboards and in popular media. This kind of imagery is sensationalist in the extreme and designed to evoke a social and moral panic. 

Perhaps meant to use shock value to raise awareness, these images of horror do little more than distract us from the underlying issues that make trafficking possible.

If we collapse the entrenched societal problems of gender-based violence, poverty, labour exploitation and irregular migration under the label of “trafficking”, we risk deflecting attention and resources away from the root causes of the issue. 

And we risk overlooking the challenges that are pushing marginalised populations further onto the fringes of society. Labelling all forms of violence and harassment as “trafficking” also dilutes the power of words needed to explain very real experiences that people face, such as rape, kidnapping and sexual exploitation. 

A recent report by the Centre for Child Law at the University of Pretoria, Child Trafficking in South Africa: Exploring the Myths and Realities, explains, “What is known about trafficking is largely based on ad hoc studies, questionable and outdated statistics, anecdotal information and common myths. 

“Furthermore, confusion around the actual definition of human trafficking means that it is regularly conflated with human smuggling and other forms of irregular migration.”

Although discussions of human trafficking have been in circulation for decades, there has also been a sharp increase in recent months, due in part to the growing online conspiracy group that first took hold in the United States, QAnon, which alleges that children are being trafficked by Satan worshippers.

Meanwhile, in South Africa, another disturbing use of the word “trafficking” is storming social media. Recent incidents of children going missing and attempted kidnappings have, without evidence, been labelled as ”child trafficking”. 

Media reports of “sex slaves” and viral videos of women supposedly being snatched off the street have, understandably, given rise to popular anxieties about human trafficking.

Yet, what is often missing in these salacious representations is a clear explanation of what trafficking is and, crucially, what trafficking is not.

The internationally accepted definition of trafficking in the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (also known as the Palermo Protocol) states that:

“The trafficking of persons shall mean the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation” (Section 3A).

A simple reading of the definition above suggests that for a person to be regarded as having been trafficked, three minimum conditions have to be met: (1) the person should have been moved (2) by means of force or coercion and (3) for the express purpose of being exploited. 

While trafficking can result in numerous kinds of abuse and forced labour, trafficking for sexual exploitation is often focused on and sensationalised.

Sex work is not trafficking

Trafficking is an extreme violation of human rights and can involve sexual exploitation, but not all sexual exploitation is trafficking.

Trafficking is also not the same as sex work.

Sex work by definition entails the consensual transaction of sex between adults. Sex work does not meet the requirements of trafficking. Nevertheless, the conflation of trafficking and sex work persists. Even when distinctions between the two are made, there is often a  failure to recognise sex work as work or listen to the voices of people who have experience selling sex.

Recent claims that one cannot be against trafficking and also support the decriminalisation of sex work, which has been shown to reduce the levels of violence and exploitation that sex workers face, is mind-boggling. 

These claims assume the existence of two extremes: those who fight trafficking and “rescue prostitutes” and those who do not believe trafficking exists. This discussion does not leave room for those who believe sex workers are entitled to the same civil and labour rights and social protections as other workers, and who also support the fight against human trafficking.

Dichotomies are boring and ineffective. 

One can fight trafficking and oppose laws that criminalise sex work. 

As many sex workers themselves have explained, they are in the best position to help fight trafficking. Sex workers are at the forefront and thus better able to identify traffickers and those who have been trafficked. 

Yet, because some organisations and people view sex work as immoral or perpetuating patriarchal violence, sex workers’ input, experiences and knowledge are seldom respected.

Missing children are not always trafficked children

Similarly, the abduction or murder of children is not always trafficking and should not be labelled as such without clear evidence. 

Tragically, children in South Africa face many risks. Parents and caregivers worry about the national emergency of gender-based violence. Many people live with the fear that a child can be snatched up at any time of day by someone hiding in a car park or even behind school gates.  

In reality, children face far greater risks of abuse from those closest to them: family, friends, and acquaintances

Obviously, this does not mean we should ignore the dangers of trafficking, but it does mean we must not lose sight of more prevalent forms of violence that occur in our communities, homes and churches.

Those working to fight trafficking need to be mindful of the damage that sensationalised discourses and exaggerated numbers create. 

When speaking of trafficking, we must be clearer, more cautious and far more responsible in the information we circulate. Portraying human trafficking as the work of a satanic cabal, and creating panic with unfounded claims, will never address the problem.  

Human smuggling is not trafficking

Another troublesome conflation with trafficking is human smuggling.

Human smuggling involves the transportation of persons who are willingly transported without means of threat, force or coercion.

Although the line between the two can sometimes blur, particularly when people who are smuggled – choosing, even paying, to be transported – are then forced into an exploitative situation, the main distinguishing factor is consent: whether a person made a choice (smuggling) or not (trafficking).

People who decide to be smuggled often do so because of a lack of alternatives. Smuggling is a crime against the state while human trafficking is a gross human rights violation.

Ironically, trafficking victims are often eligible to receive state protection whereas those who are smuggled are considered criminals, regardless of their circumstances or the exploitation they may face if forced to return to the places they left.

The conflation of human smuggling with trafficking not only inflates trafficking statistics, it also hides the realities of irregular migration and the dangers associated with being refused access to the documentation required to legally reside and work in a country.

What can we do to address trafficking?

Political leadership is imperative to fighting trafficking, and an intersectional social justice approach is needed to address the root causes of the problem. More methodologically sound research is also necessary to separate fact from fiction.

To address trafficking, we must become more critical of the complex issues facing our society.

Social programmes must prevent children from falling through the cracks and ending up in situations that leave them vulnerable, which includes ensuring that undocumented children (South African and non-South African) have access to documentation.

Addressing trafficking requires that we invest in and care for the most marginalised among us, and that we support efforts for a more equitable world that does not objectify women and the poor. 

We must take a hard look at our most cherished beliefs and admit the real problems. 

We must resist the convenience of labelling every social ill as “trafficking” and radically reducing the militarisation and securitisation of national borders. 

Another critical step to addressing the root causes of trafficking is to remove all criminal laws on sex work.

Responses to trafficking will be ineffective until those in positions of power get serious about addressing the root causes. There is much work to be done. 

In the meantime, let’s do a better job of not misrepresenting what trafficking is and what it is not.

Rebecca Walker is a Research Associate at the African Centre for Migration & Society (ACMS), Wits University and consultant. Her research focuses on gender, migration, and health. Since 2014, she has conducted research with migrant sex workers and on issues related to trafficking and children on the move.

Elsa Oliveira is a postdoctoral researcher at the African Centre for Migration & Society (ACMS), Wits University. Since 2010, she has conducted research with sex workers across South Africa, in partnership with SWEAT and Sisonke.

Isabel Magaya is a project coordinator and researcher at the Centre for Child Law and holds an LLB and an LLM (Child Law). She is responsible for primary research and also monitoring and evaluating the impact of cases litigated on by the centre. She is also a doctoral candidate with research focusing on protecting children against violence in three southern African countries.

This article was originally published in Daily Maverick.