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SWAN Vancouver is a support and advocacy organisation for immigrant and migrant sex workers in Canada. Beyond Trafficking and Slavery caught up with its executive director, Alison Clancey, to learn more about the organisation’s new campaign ‘Anti-Trafficking: Harming While Trying to Help, which seeks to educate anti-trafficking campaigners on the unintended consequences of their actions for people in the sex industry. Our interview with Alison has been lightly edited for space and clarity.

Joel Quirk (BTS): What are the ways in which anti-trafficking campaigns, however well-intentioned, ultimately end up being harmful or unhelpful when it comes to addressing trafficking and exploitation in the sex industry?

Alison Clancey (SWAN): Anti-trafficking campaigns inadvertently contribute to the conditions in which trafficking thrives. In Canada, where we work, anti-trafficking laws, the enforcement of those laws, and the public discourse around human trafficking all impede migrant and immigrant sex workers from having violence perpetrated against them addressed. And that’s whether they’re trafficked or not.

In our experience there are only ever two outcomes when a migrant sex worker reports violence or exploitation or trafficking. The woman either becomes the target of a prostitution or trafficking investigation herself, or she’s arrested, detained and deported under immigration policy. It’s quite the irony, as Canada’s ban on immigrating for sex work was supposedly implemented to prevent exploitation.

Predators know that it’s extremely difficult for these women to report things without incriminating themselves. And we’ve seen that they’ve targeted women for that reason. That is the root of the exploitation in many cases.

Joel: SWAN’s new Harming While Trying to Help campaign seeks to confront anti-trafficking actors with the unintended consequences of their actions, but this is not your organisation’s first attempt at engaging with people in the anti-trafficking field. What has been your experience so far in trying to channel public and political interest in sex trafficking into more productive directions?

Alison: We’ve tried engagement for many, many years. We participated in national human trafficking forums and took up every opportunity with policymakers and lawmakers that we could get. We have also tried educating the police over the years. But when we talk about the harms inflicted by these anti-trafficking campaigns, what we’re saying just doesn’t cohere with the dominant way of understanding trafficking. So it is extremely difficult to get through to the people.

We’ve had two decades of managing, resisting and responding to the collateral damage caused to immigrant and migrant sex workers by anti-trafficking campaigns. We’ve realised that the perspectives of migrant sex workers that were being communicated to policymakers, lawmakers, and police were going unheard. So we decided to try a different avenue to get through to folks. That’s why we launched this campaign.

Joel: Have you seen major changes in that 20-year period? Has the conversation evolved, or are the kinds of things people say about trafficking now much the same as the things they said about trafficking five or 10 years ago?

Alison: I think they’ve evolved, but not in a good way. It’s an interesting issue to be working on because facts or truth do not matter. We’ve been working in a QAnon-type atmosphere for 20 years. It’s only when trafficking claims are as far-fetched as QAnon’s that there is any scepticism, any cognisance that they may not be true. Only extreme claims get challenged even a little bit.

Joel: This gets to the heart of the issue. If the campaigns and claims associated with anti-trafficking are so harmful, why do you think they have persisted over such a long time period? What accounts for the fact that similar things show up time and time again?

Alison: There’s a few things, I think, that contribute to that. One is that trafficking campaigns and the trafficking discourse provide a way for people to understand complex issues, however ill-informed that understanding might be. Take trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation. The sex work sector is incredibly complex – too complex for the general public to understand. Trafficking campaigns offer a way, however erroneous, to make sense of that. If the general public understands that the women are forced – men, trans and non-binary folks are left out of the conversation – then the sex industry makes more sense to them.

At the same time, participating in or supporting sex trafficking campaigns provides an opportunity to project one’s own morality and values about sex. You can hear this when people say, ‘Well, I wouldn’t do that’, or ‘My daughter wouldn’t do that.’ People aren’t always aware that this sort of projection is happening. Faith-based organisations are aware. They know that their investment and involvement in anti-trafficking campaigns is from a moral position. But your average person probably hasn’t spent much time thinking about their own values and belief systems about sex, or about how they may be projecting their own personal values onto the sex industry.

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