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Time for the Next Wave: Messaging Strategies in the Anti-Human Trafficking Movement

Anti-Trafficking Movement












By Kelsey Landstrom, Director of Research and Projects

The fight to end human trafficking is one of the most unique social movements as its end goal of eliminating all forms of human trafficking is shared universally. However, discrepancies emerge from how to achieve this goal, which has caused divisions amongst the fight and halted momentum. The two most notable camps of the anti-human trafficking movement are the Neo-abolitionists and Human Rights perspectives. Each perspective uses different communication strategies that in turn shapes public attitudes and policies. 

Further complications arise when these disputes cause harmful ramifications for those with lived experiences of human trafficking and forced labor. Progress on eliminating human trafficking has been interrupted by conflicts about discourse, faith, and personal responsibilities among the two camps. The Human Rights perspective of human trafficking needs to be reorganized in order to create a unified goal of ending human trafficking while causing as little harm as possible.

The Neo-Abolitionist Perspective

The Neo-abolitionist perspective has dominated the human trafficking narrative with passion filled tactics, including: raid, rescue, and rehabilitate models; demand reduction; directionally motivated reasoning; large scale statistics; explicit images; and call to duty wordage that frames victims/survivors of trafficking as passive victims needing to be saved. Most Neo-abolitionists see their economic and political privilege as a duty to rescue people in human trafficking situations.

However, their morally conservative, and often Christian, framework claims that the only form of human trafficking is sexual exploitation of women and girls. This marginalizes all other forms of non-sexual labor trafficking and other vulnerable populations from the public eye and policies. 

The majority of state, federal, and international trafficking policies focus on the abolition of ‘sex trafficking’ as it has the moral degradation tag attached. These policies have been shaped by and have further influenced public opinion that human trafficking for the commercial sexual exploitation of women and girls is the most pervasive form of trafficking. The combination of policies, popular media portrayal, and skewed statistics misleads public fear. 

The Neo-abolitionist perspective was the first major, passion-fueled wave of the anti-human trafficking movement, but lessons learned from its shortcomings have allowed the Human Rights perspective to emerge.

The Human Rights Perspective

The Human Rights perspective focuses on finding systemic solutions for a systemic problem. This framework acknowledges human trafficking as a result of oppressed and exploited labor to fulfill consumer demand, which must be addressed from an intersectional framework. This perspective notes that the prevalence of human trafficking is far greater than individual scenarios and is inextricable from forced or exploited labor. In order for human trafficking to be addressed, exploited and forced labor must be too, necessitating a critique of our capitalistic and socially stratified world. 

The most used tactics include harm reduction, grassroots efforts, secular values, prevention work, and applied research. Human rights organizations’ strategies and visuals are survivor centered, transparent in their methodology, aim to counter stigma and discrimination, and focus on facts and promising practices.

How human trafficking is portrayed influences public opinion and knowledge, policies, law enforcement and service providers efforts, and impacts survivors. Narratives that focus on incidences of human trafficking (singular, independent events) paint human trafficking as a series of unfortunate events, not a product of capitalism, racism, and xenophobia. Large scale statistics, such as the Global Slavery Index and International Labor Organization’s data, claim that human trafficking is increasing yearly, but do not acknowledge the increase in research focused on identifying human trafficking. It is not congruent to compare time periods of human trafficking when the measurements have changed. 

The messaging and visual strategies by organizations are the first line of raising awareness to the public. As shown, contradicting messages and strategies over one topic causes audience confusion, distress, and sometimes apathy.  If human trafficking is to end, then a unified approach is necessary. In order for the methodology- and survivor- centered Human Rights approach to become the dominant voice, their communication strategies must counter the main converging points of the Neo-abolitionist approach. Below is a chart that outlines Neo-abolitionists’ main arguments and potential counterarguments for the Human Rights perspective.

Table 1. Anti-Human Trafficking Movement Messaging and Counter-Messaging

The Next Wave

The anti-human trafficking movement is losing momentum because it is stuck on internal debates over discourse and actions. Studies have shown that the Human Rights approach of survivor-centered, harm reduction, and locally based statistics to be the most promising practices. It is not to lose the passion from the first wave, but to channel it into more ethical, intersectional, and responsible efforts. 

The Human Rights counter-messages outlined in Table 1 need to be utilized through multiple methods. First, organizations aiming to raise awareness should be critical of the messages and images published. Second, community-based research methodologies should be implemented and the data produced from research should be presented in appealing, understandable, and accessible mediums. Finally, a cultural change through connection must happen. The attitudes and beliefs of the anti-human trafficking field need to become more encompassing of human rights. Checking the methodology of the information produced is a strong start and can be furthered through open dialogue. 

The anti-human trafficking movement desperately needs respectful and compassionate open dialogue between Neo-abolitionists and Human Rights proponents to find sustainable, respectful, and inclusive tactics to reach the common goal: the end of human trafficking and exploited labor.

Edited by Haven Campbell, Director of Communications

Photo Credit: pixabay

About the Human Trafficking Center

The Human Trafficking Center, housed in the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, is the only two-year, graduate-level, professional-training degree in human trafficking in the United States. One way graduate students contribute to the study of human trafficking is by publishing research-based blogs. The HTC was founded in 2002 to apply sound research and reliable methodology to the field of human trafficking research and advocacy.

Founded in 1964, the Josef Korbel School of International Studies is one of the world’s leading schools for the study of international relations. The School offers degree programs in international affairs and is named in honor of its founder and first dean, Josef Korbel.

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