Border Crossing: Looking for sex-victims and sex workers

I spend about half my time in London; this year I have flown in and out six or seven times. Although the geographical border is obviously not located at any airport, the state says travellers are not in until they pass the legal border – now clearly marked at airports. In the photo to the right, queues to talk to border officials appear straightforward and rational, but in fact ever more often they look like the next picture.

In the foreground is the unnecessarily large and glowering sign marking entrance to UK Border Controls; at that point the sheep and the goats are separated into two queues (EU citizens and everyone else). Far away to the left is the actual borderline. What looks like one huge crowd above is instead two crowds, in queues so long they use a hairpin system that collapses people into a small space.

The UK did not sign the Schengen Agreement allowing free passage across European national borders to EU citizens and legal residents, which is why other EU citizens have to go through a control to get into Britain. At other EU borders there is sometimes a symbolic checkpoint, but often there is nothing at all. This is what Schengen was about, and frequent travellers celebrate it. In the UK it is different.

It used to be that those in the EU queue sauntered pretty quickly through a benign and passive control post, holding up their passports to officials in a genial manner. But the UK has gone through several crises and an unending battle about how ‘tight’ border controls should be, with the current result that those in the EU queue also have to hand their passport to an official who scans it into the machine. The other day the wait between scannings in that queue varied between 8 and 18 seconds, which might sound fast but means, if a lot of people arrive at once, that the queue is usually moving but sometimes rather slowly.

I carried out this counting and other mind-games from my place in the queue for Others – Rest of World – Outsiders, where the wait the other day was nearly an hour. A couple of hundred people were before me in that queue at Gatwick, and the observed time for some of those border-conversations was many minutes. Not for all, some get through in under a minute, and I am certain, if racial and ethnic and national profiling were not illegal, that the Others queue would be separated into several, and then all those whose characteristics provoke knee-jerk, detailed questioning would be together in a pariah queue. As it is, we are all together. This queue does not move steadily or even slowly but in stops and starts.

One game I played was trying to guess which travellers border officials might suspect – or profile as – victims of trafficking. Numerous pamphlets and guidelines – most of them fantasies – have been produced on this subject; most are quite ridiculous. I gazed around me: Would police worry about the brown-skinned woman travelling with the lighter-skinned man? Both of them looked awfully relaxed to me. What about the three high-cheekboned women travelling together, would officials suspect the oldest of being a madam-trafficker? I doubted they would worry about the young men joking together – not as victims, anyway. Everyone looked extremely bored; most played with their phones or read a book.

If anyone had been coerced or duped into that queue, there was no obvious way to know it. The questions officials ask are very schematic and repetitive, presumably to catch liars out in a contradiction, but liars getting as far as these queues have generally got good-looking documents and smart advice about how to handle the interviews, maybe including rehearsals. I would like to know what proportion of these border talks lead to identifying smuggled and trafficked people.

I’ve been quieter lately here. More people now write critically about trafficking policy, though a lot of them – particularly those new to the field and indoctrinated by the rubbishy stuff produced by the US government’s TIP reports – do not question the idea of trafficking itself. The way it all began was about mobility: the completely ordinary phenomenon everywhere in which people hear about a job in a place they don’t live themselves and travel to get to it. Selling sex is one of the paid occupations available. Some people talked about migrant prostitutes, others about migrant sex workers. In the sex workers’ rights movement, one still hears this idea, and migration policy used to be at least nodded to in conversations about trafficking. But now even the word migration has – almost – been disappeared. I say that because I believe policymakers have done and do this deliberately.

My Border Thinking was first published on the Greek site Re-public in June 2008. There are things I have changed my thinking on since that year, but the necessity to adjust one’s thinking in border zones isn’t one of them. Trafficking is definitely a border concept – full of indefinables, confusions and ambiguities. That it should be spoken of now as if it were a known and countable object, like a stone, is all wrong.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

6 thoughts on “Border Crossing: Looking for sex-victims and sex workers

  1. William Thirteen

    i’ve been in that Heathrow queue a few times lately, traveling for work to London, but in my case the wait has been the opposite. The few of us with non-EU passports have had to wait in relatively short lines, but the vastly greater number of EU citizens have had a much longer line and a longer wait.

    1. Laura Agustín

      Yes, and that’s called ‘anecdotal evidence.’ I didn’t go into my longer-term research on this, as most people would not be interested (…) The reverse takes place when there are no big planeloads of people from Elsewhere at the same time that there are numerous planes from Europe. The minute you get more than one planeload from non-EU places, the situation I describe takes over.

      And the waiting on the EU side is never ever as lengthy as what happens on the Outsider side, where waiting an hour is not so unusual.

  2. Korhomme

    The UK does have a land border, between N Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, though this always comes as a surprise to the English.

    There have never been any passport requirements for travel between the two countries. Previously, there were customs posts, but these have disappeared. You only know that you are in the other country by looking at the road markings and signs.

    1. Laura Agustín

      I haven’t been in the Irelands since long before the EU and Schengen so didn’t know what kind of controls are on that border. But the Northern Irish police have been commenting for some time about the possibilities of trafficking into that country. I guess I could fly into Southern Ireland and then take a bus to Northern in order to then fly to England and avoid the longer queue, but it doesn’t sound like an improvement.

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