Decolonizing Human Trafficking Alternative Approaches to Understanding Modern Slavery

Acknowledging that most countries with the highest trafficking rates are former colonies opens up a plethora of angles from which to view human trafficking problems and ultimately inspire new outcomes. Evading colonization’s influence on human trafficking is not only difficult but also unwise. 

Human trafficking is a multifaceted issue that encompasses human rights, politics, criminal justice, national security, and economic frameworks. As such, it also requires multifaceted solutions. In the past few years, there has been an evident increase in human trafficking from Africa, as well as within the continent. Research conducted by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime shows that virtually no countries in Africa are immune from trafficking. These countries may either be countries of source, transit, destination, or a combination of all three.

Trafficking is one of the largest profit makers for organized crime in Africa as it is arguably one of the lowest risk activities for criminal groups due to widespread corruption, lack of legislation, low rates of prosecution amongst other factors. In an attempt to address this issue, the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons was drafted and came into effect in December 2003. According to this protocol, trafficking in persons may be defined as:

the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring 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.

Despite this and many similar efforts of the international community to solve this problem, there have been limited results, especially in the West African region. This region is still recognized as the hub of human trafficking.

Colonial violence is an aspect of human trafficking that is tacitly acknowledged but typically overlooked in analysing and framing the issue. Colonialism, a system upheld by racist, paternalistic and economically manipulative systems of structural oppression, which continues to persist in contemporary times not only contributes to, but also facilitates trafficking. This ongoing system of colonization manifests in numerous ways but is particularly evident when human trafficking is analysed. Thus, an intersectional examination of this framework is essential in addressing the broader issue.

Although reliable data is difficult to come by, a recent International Labour Organization report estimated that 24.9 million individuals around the world are currently victims of forced labour. While human trafficking has a devastating impact on individual victims, its impact also undermines the safety and security of affected nations as it fuels the growth of organized crime. There have been attempts made by the international community to put an end to this problem, but there have been limited results, especially in Nigeria’s Edo State. Though Nigeria has signed and ratified conventions put in place to combat the menace, the desired effect is nowhere in sight. There are key elements such as cultural and societal norms as well as colonial influences that play central roles in propagating the problem but are unfortunately being overlooked.

A decolonizing approach to trafficking research must be engaged to promote the inclusion of traditional systems of knowledge and acknowledge indigenous ways of knowledge production and distribution.  Trafficking patterns and causes differ due to varying social contexts and, thus, should be studied simultaneously at the local, national and global level in order to make progress in its eradication.

Numerous states and their trafficking reporting bodies have failed to recognize the role of community as an important factor in understanding cultural/social influences, but instead continue to treat them as locations for control in terms of stigma prevention. As a result, the community intervention ‘solutions’ that ensue border around creating employment options, reintegration services and education for women among others. While these are beneficial, once again, the crux of the problem is overlooked.

It is in this unfortunate intersection of lack of contextual understanding and asymmetrical perceptions of superiority and narratives of the other that the contemporary trafficking dilemma proliferates.


Postcolonialism as a theoretical framework is particularly useful in understanding human trafficking because it calls out the dominant international frameworks’ neglect of the intersectionality of factors such as empire, race, gender and class, in the day-to-day function of global power that reproduces a hierarchical world system.

According to Martha Finnemore and Kathryn Sikkink in their 1998, ‘International Norm Dynamics and Political Change’, ‘collectively held or intersubjective ideas and understanding on social life’ cannot be overstated in international relations. This applies also in governments and international anti-trafficking bodies’ approach to addressing the trafficking problem. Postcolonial theory provides novel insights and distinct ways of understanding social reality by encouraging a focus on the role of culture and structures in shaping state preferences and world politics. This combined with the dynamics of migration, promises to offer more nuanced explanations for the different trafficking patterns. Also, owing to the focus of traditional international relations theories on the study of international relations with the state as the primary agent, the contributions of non-state actors are often ignored as they are not considered significant to international political matters.

The notion, as Emmanuel Adler describes, that ‘… the material world shapes and is shaped by human action and interaction depends on dynamic normative and epistemic interpretations of the material world,’ is key in my argument that entire social realities have historically been constructed and reconstructed in terms and language familiar to the powers that be—usually at the expense of exploited populations in former colonies. As such, a lot of crucial factors that construct certain people’s realities are either strategically or ignorantly overlooked or deemed barbaric and thus useless and are not taken into consideration in the construction of popular knowledge. This has led to a perpetuation of assumptions based on information presented and reinforced by forces who have historically maintained power, which have had material implications in terms of development.

Norms, traditions and practices provide context for actions, and offer unique contributions to International Relations by looking at unconventional sources of power. As such, in studying a convoluted issue such as human trafficking, there is a pertinent need for a shift to holistic contextual understanding of multiple realities, of the victims, the perpetrators, and their social environments in order to understand the shifting systems of power. This can be made possible by reconstructing what Bernd Reiter refers to in Constructing the Pluriverse as a ‘geopolitics of knowledge’ and consciously working towards undoing the belief in a single Western universalism. Instead Reiter offers adopting a Pluriversal concept which will undoubtedly be useful in revaluing and implementing historically oppressed indigenous epistemologies around the world in the pursuit of decolonization of peoples, places, and knowledge.

Human trafficking can be understood very differently from a postcolonial standpoint. For instance, most countries with the highest trafficking rates are former colonies, a fact that is conveniently left out from most trafficking reports, as though it is not a cogent enough unit of analysis. Simply acknowledging this fact opens up a plethora of angles from which to view the trafficking problem which would ultimately inspire new outcomes. Evading colonization’s influence on human trafficking is not only difficult, but also unwise.

Neo-colonial dynamics greatly influence the motivations for trafficking and have simultaneously led to the development of conceptual frameworks which criminalize certain forms of movement, while at the same time enabling the practice on a global scale and establishing punitive measures primarily directed at economically and politically weaker participants.


Understanding the cultural tools people use to make sense of their world illuminates how they construct reality and also their explanations of inequality. Religion plays a key role in certain peoples’ cultural construction of reality and provides a set of tools with which they make sense of and negotiate their realities. The interpenetration of religion, politics and social life produces tangible results which construct material realities.

Religious coercion at the individual level is more difficult to establish and prosecute than that at the state level. As it relates to states’ requests, while a religious sceptic may not conform to the demands of state leaders due to a lack of fear of spiritual repercussions, there is a high chance that they would yield under the threat of secular punishments. The reverse is also the case when an avid believer in a certain religion is faced with secular or spiritual repercussions, he is more likely to yield to the spiritual. On the other hand, in regard to personal or charismatic authority, in order for an individual to fall prey to a trafficker who utilizes religious symbols and texts as a means of coercion, there has to be an existing belief in that specific religious creed and the likely spiritual prowess or authority of the trafficker and their proximity to God, even in the absence of empirical evidence. This coupled with a psychological fear of supernatural punishment becomes the means of coercion. This form of coercion is the result of an intangible phenomenon and thus, is often overlooked when prosecuting trafficking cases.

This spiritual manipulation is a phenomenon that dates back to slavery, and likely even before then. Those in positions of power have historically utilized spiritual fear to justify and condone acts of violence, and to convince the oppressed that they are under supernatural surveillance and, therefore, can never escape without facing repercussions. This is a characteristic of spiritual abuse—the abusers use thought reform and mind control to maintain control.

In essence, while spiritual abuse and the exploitation of belief systems can coerce individuals into being trafficked, the international frameworks supposedly put in place to protect victims of trafficking are compromised and many times lead to further punishment of the victims.

More important is the utilization of ‘voodoo’ and other forms of rituals in Nigeria by traffickers to coerce victims and keep them subservient to their demands. According to Barrarbee et. al,’s ‘Witchcraft stigmatization in Nigeria’:

‘Many trafficking victims from Nigeria and other African countries have been forced to take oaths, with body hair, nails, and underwear left on shrines to remind the victims that if they run away, the gods will cause them harm. These victims do not need to be watched from a short distance. The traffickers know that these oaths will usually prevent victims from running away without them having to use coercion or violence.’

Owing to the widespread belief in these malevolent spirit beings in Nigeria, the process of recruiting and managing sex and labour workers is considerably easier and thus more prevalent.  Patrick J. Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed shows that Western liberalism’s polarization of reason and its emphasis on individualism is not beneficial in this regard and should not be used as a framework of analysis for social problems such as this, because not only does it take away from the view of faith-based communities as repositories of ‘meaning and social cohesion.’  It categorizes situations such as these as mere superstitions and disregards their validity in influencing people’s lived experiences and, ultimately, trafficking patterns.

There is an increasing need for scholars and key players in the anti-trafficking framework to stop ignoring cultural settings and religious institutions as a fundamental unit of analysis in their endeavours because, as Herman Bennett rightly notes, ‘symbols play a crucial role in enforcing power and regimenting labor.’


While current estimates put the amount generated illegally from trafficking at about $150 billion annually, this is not a comprehensive figure because it does not truly account for the amount of ‘legal’ commercial revenue that would not have existed otherwise. Especially as it relates to production that is dependent on exploitation upstream in global supply chains. Businesses and economies all over the world continue to engage in trade worth billions of dollars in products tainted by forced labour in manufacturing and raw materials procurement. These items include but are not limited to coffee, clothes and even electronics. The United States government and many European nations are major players in the purchase of goods in the global economy. They obtain products and services through the very global supply chains that have direct and indirect links to various human rights issues, including forced and trafficked labour.

Worth mentioning is the United States Department of Homeland Security’s recent implementation of import bans on goods produced with forced labour and child sexual exploitation as one of its long-term approaches to combating human trafficking. This is a step in the right direction, but it is too early to see how these bans will be implemented. Historically, such bans have been wielded as a tool to coerce non-American parties into supporting American interests.

In her work on creative capitalism and human trafficking, Dana Raigrodski highlights the way the full extent of the benefits reaped by economies, companies and other consumers of this cheap labour is still not adequately recognized in the current trafficking discourse.

As a result of the above stated, human trafficking is often referred to as the ‘underbelly of globalization,’ and a practice that lubricates the gears of the global economy. In essence, the useful but inordinate focus on trafficking as being facilitated by criminal traffickers serves to divert attention from the direct complicity in and significant economic benefits of exploitation that governments, businesses, and members of society gain from the facilitation and furthering of human trafficking. Due to the international market’s affinity for cheap, unregulated, and exploitable labour to produce goods and services that generate GDP and facilitate economic growth, human trafficking is anything but limited to the illegal activity of criminals.

The overall result of this economy of anti-trafficking policy making is that neo-colonial power relations continue to be maintained and forced labour, however well-documented, tends to be systematically ignored. In essence, these political and economic limitations continue to contribute to failed efforts at curbing trafficking and enable it to flourish in our contemporary world.


While there is extensive literature on the influence of gender in human trafficking, there is much less on the impact of race. Most institutions that allow for the normal functioning of society are knowingly or unknowingly participants in a vicious cycle of denigration, oppression and exploitation. A key reason for the international community’s failed attempts to mitigate this problem rests in a failure to acknowledge that trafficking to a large degree is the result of an incredibly racist global system. Acknowledging racism and recognizing that the opposite of racist is not ‘non-racist’ but ‘anti-racist’ is a necessary first step. Denial is the heartbeat of racism. We should not aim to remain in a neutral position but rather actively work to redefine and reconceptualize societal norms and institutions.

Over the years, the rate of human trafficking has increased significantly, especially in terms of the flow from ‘developing’ to ‘developed’ nations, and to other developing nations where key aspects of the economy are dominated by institutions from developed nations that benefit immensely from foreign opportunities. Siddharth Kara has indicated that ‘…slavery is a global business that thrives on the callous exploitation of the labor activity of a vast and highly vulnerable subclass of people whose brutalization is tacitly accepted by every participant in the global economy, from corporations to consumers.’ This evident lack of humanity in the treatment doled out to trafficked individuals is indicative of persisting racial tension and sentiments which still pervade popular understandings till date. Prejudice and power are tenets of racism that allow the dominant race to institutionalize its dominance at all levels in a society, which leads to the formation of a racial structure and culture. As such, racism may be viewed as part of a larger global economic system and not merely as a psychological phenomenon to be viewed at the individual level. There is a need to understand racism as a powerful, structuring, hegemonic force in the world today.

The political economy of racism embedded in capitalism effectively divides oppressed communities, leaving much of the world’s population vulnerable to economic exploitation. Recognizing these systems call for major shifts in existing structures of inequality and asymmetrical relations of power in our world today.

Research conducted by Saucier and Woods has also illuminated how internalized racism operates to damage the self-esteem of members of stigmatized groups. Internalized racism refers to the acceptance, by marginalized racial populations, of the negative societal beliefs and stereotypes about themselves—beliefs that reinforce the superiority of white people and devalue people of colour, and which can lead to the perception of oneself as worthless and powerless. This negative perception of self proliferates and further contributes to a perpetuation of the problem, because the affected population comes to rely so much on handouts and believe that value can only be attained with greater proximity to whiteness—be it ideologically, physically or even geographically. In the words of Steven Biko ‘the most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.’


According to the 2018 Global Slavery Index report, in the hierarchy of nations with the highest number of people who have experienced contemporary slavery, Nigeria occupies the 32nd place, out of a total of 162 countries with approximately 1,386,000 people living in slavery. Human trafficking is the third most common crime in Nigeria, after drug trafficking and economic fraud.

According to the 2019 Trafficking in Persons report, Nigeria has large numbers of victims of trafficking in 34 countries globally, though the total number of victims outside the country remains unknown. Mobility and trafficking have become so intertwined within Nigeria, with over 600,000 Nigerians attempting to journey through the Sahara desert into Europe in 2016 alone.

Although human trafficking cuts across Nigeria, the majority of trafficking victims and migrants hail from Edo state which is located in southwestern Nigeria, with over 90 per cent of women and children trafficked to Europe hailing from this state. Edo state has been recognized as the hub of human trafficking in Nigeria and has been labelled the ‘most trafficked through destination in Africa.’ According to a 2006 UN report on a field survey carried out in Edo state, ‘virtually every Benin family has one member or the other involved in trafficking either as a victim, sponsor, beneficiary, madam or trafficker.’ The irregular and perilous migratory route often utilized by smugglers and traffickers takes victims from Edo State, through Kano in Northern Nigeria, through Niger and the Sahara Desert into Libya and ultimately into Italy via the Mediterranean sea.


A number of easily identifiable factors can explain the current state of vulnerability to trafficking and smuggling in Edo State. The trade in people for the purpose of sexual exploitation boomed in the late 1980s with Italy’s rise in the utilization of migrant labour on fields and for other agriculturally-based menial jobs. An increasing number of Nigerian women from Edo State travelled to Italy, initially to pick tomatoes, but ended up engaging in the faster-paying sex trade and remitting money home. More women and girls were recruited over time by madams who had established themselves in the destination country. Many families built houses, bought cars and started businesses etc with the money remitted. In essence, a significant part of the state’s economy was built on proceeds from illegal migration and trafficking.

While abduction, false promises of romantic love, recruitment, deception are some of the most prominent ways traffickers get victims, the most prevalent method in Edo State is sale/pressure by family members. The seeming rapid enrichment of migrants abroad encourages parents to push their dependents into the clutches of traffickers in an attempt to get in on the material benefits. Young men and women are pressured to ‘hustle’ by whatever means necessary, to make money overseas in countries with stronger currencies. Such pressures are higher especially in the case of young women who are not valued within the Nigerian socio-cultural system, owing to the patriarchal structure of society instilled in colonial times. Until recently, the women who travelled to Europe were often regarded as successful and they were looked upon with pride. Over time, and owing to the factors mentioned above, a certain form of consumerist culture has emerged in the state and the desire for “quick and easy” wealth contributes to the proliferation of trafficking in the area.

Social norms such as domestic servitude, which entails the domestic trafficking of vulnerable children to work in more affluent households when they cannot be cared for by their parents, have evolved into pipelines for human trafficking. Identifying and studying social and cultural norms such as this more deeply and the ways in which they feed into exploitative practices can provide very useful information for the purposes of prevention programming.

Also important to note is that Edo people are known for having fervent spiritual beliefs. Benin City, the capital of Edo State, is still popularly referred to as ‘the ancient city’ likely owing to the people’s strong inclination to traditional deities and expression of traditional values, culture and religion. These spiritual beliefs constitute a significant part of Edo peoples’ sociocultural reality and interaction and thus permeate the trafficking framework as well. Before victims and voluntary movers alike commence on their long and treacherous journey, they visit an ‘Aiyelala’ shrine, the shrine of a popular deity in the southwestern part of Nigeria, which is known for punishing offenders of law and order when invoked. While here, they are required to take an oath which is directed by a native priest. Scholars like A. A. Lawal have noted that this oath and the ritual that follows are performed to ensure cooperation with the trafficker and madam/pimp at the destination, as well as absolute loyalty. Personal items such as underwear, hair and fingernail clippings are supplied by the victim to the priest, who prepares a concoction which he either smears on the victim or forces her to drink. A breach of this oath would result in grave harm to either the victim, his/her family, or both. Oaths such as these prevent victims of trafficking from cooperating with aid workers or government relief programs for fear of spiritual repercussions and, thus, make the trafficking process easier for traffickers. As such, any attempt to apply Western modes of understanding and aiding such victims will be ineffective.

These elements are not given enough credence in the research conducted by the major anti-trafficking bodies and are not adequately reflected in the main international trafficking reports. Rather than discounting these understandings because they do not coincide with the dominant powers’ way of viewing reality, they should be embraced to yield more holistic understandings of phenomena such as trafficking.


The contemporary trafficking situation did not occur by happenstance nor did it reach the level it has today by mere fate. A culmination of various factors and iterations of old problems in novel ways continues to uphold oppressive human trafficking practices.

Destabilizing and decolonizing endeavours are essential methods for reclaiming being for people who have been denied their ‘being-ness’. This decolonizing process is threefold, addressing systems of hierarchies, systems of knowledge, and cultural systems. Systems of hierarchies to be dismantled refer to the racial stratification which justifies blatant abuse with the end goal of economic enrichment. Systems of knowledge refer to the development of unwritten codes which seem to have made Europeans the primary knowledge producers. And Anibal Quijano has defined cultural systems as ‘systems that revolve around a Eurocentric hierarchy and that enforces Eurocentric economic and knowledge production systems.’ These cultural systems encourage narratives that subjugate traditional practices in the global south and impose Eurocentric ways of understanding reality.

The extent to which Western-centred perspectives dominate the human trafficking discourse and exclude the voices and perspectives of those who make up a bulk of the exploited population is egregious. This has inspired my desire to discover new ways to decolonize human trafficking and modern slavery, starting from the heart of the ‘empire’ where the issue originates, in an attempt to surmount the issues highlighted. The sooner the agency of the exploited is respected, and the sooner those exploited are allowed to participate actively in the discourse without having people who are far removed from their social context speak on their behalf, the sooner we start to see real changes.

While many have accused the trafficking discourse of becoming increasingly politicized, I believe there is still hope to reclaim the field to ensure that the interests of the most vulnerable are protected. Recognition of the above-listed issues must come first before decriminalization and increased human rights protections can follow

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