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  • The Rhetoric of Modern-Day SlaveryAnalogical Links and Historical Kinks in the United Kingdom's Anti-Trafficking Plan
  • Annie Hill


After the European Union's largest expansion in 2004, the United Kingdom shifted to a closed-door migration policy toward East Europe, citing human trafficking as a reason for sealing its borders. The Home Office and Scottish Executive introduced an anti-trafficking agenda with the UK Action Plan on Tackling Human Trafficking, which defines human trafficking as "modern-day slavery." The plan applauds the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, positioning the United Kingdom as ready to revive its abolitionist role in 2007. Trafficking rhetoric asserts the state is acting against a foreign threat and visualizes that threat via representations of East Europeans. Migration is claimed to cloak the crime of trafficking, which endangers migrants, whose movement must be arrested, and threatens Britain, which must be defended from slavery's sudden arrival.

Trafficking rhetoric creates a discursive context wherein the British government addresses how to control migrants (while appearing to talk about something else) and contain migration (while appearing to target something else). As Sara Ahmed explains, "immigration is a useful narrative because it is about race [but appears] not to be about race" (2016). While the issue of trafficking manages fears about race and migration, trafficking rhetoric also works to supplant the immigration debate and discussions of race. Jacqueline [End Page 241] Berman maintains that trafficking rhetoric functions as "a constitutive part of border issues" that enables states to "claim control over the border and perform the role of 'securer' of the nation" (2003, 50). Nandita Sharma furthers this point, noting that since "displacement and the state-controlled process of illegalizing migrants are represented as problems of trafficking, a particular 'solution' comes to make common sense: criminalize those who move people clandestinely and return those who have been moved by traffickers to their 'home' societies" (2005, 89). The Action Plan posits a criminological solution as common sense for tackling migration risks with regard to particular populations. Once attached to crime and border control, UK trafficking rhetoric underwrites a plan to secure the nation by containing migration.

Although the plan presumes trafficking is a national threat requiring a criminological solution, its framing of the issue as "modern-day slavery" in effect defines and produces the problem. By targeting out-groups, sealing borders, and surveilling migrants, the state makes populations vulnerable to exploitation during migration and once they reach Britain. People are also made vulnerable to state action, such as police raids, undertaken in the name of combating trafficking (Hill 2016). Britain thus creates a solution not to East Europeans' enslavement, but to the uncertain propagation of Britishness. National insecurity is blamed on rising and seemingly uncontrolled EU migration—a fear that helped secure the vote for the United Kingdom to exit the European Union. While linking trafficking to slavery does not capture the migration it claims to address, Britain's use of history to frame new policy opens to scrutiny this nationalist project and the border logics at work in managing EU migration. Exploring how Britain manufactures marginalization through trafficking rhetoric, I probe the paradox of an anti-trafficking plan to control people's migration from East Europe. The Action Plan produces a paradox because the European Union is based on Four Freedoms: the "free" movement of goods, services, capital, and people. Linking people's movement to the threat of trafficking, the Action Plan turns them into targets of policy shifts and policing efforts to tighten borders and restrict access to British labor markets.

Analyzing depictions of East Europeans, Anca Parvulescu explains how racialization suggests "occupational positions, religious markers, and issues and debates (immigration, criminality) have become imbued with racial meanings that are variable, often contradictory, and differentially applied" (2014, 14). East Europeans face stratification and stigmatization (e.g., stereotypes of the "Polish plumber" and "Natasha prostitute") that racialize their locations within British labor markets. East European whiteness is contradictorily invoked to represent migrants as modern-day slaves or economic migrants, with both interpellations depicted as costing Britain money and causing Britishness to lose value. As Parvulescu notes, Robert Miles introduced the concept of racialization "to...


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