Representation of transnational human trafficking in present-day news media, true crime, and fiction

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leeds
Department Name: School of English


Despite the fact that human trafficking is condemned as a modern-day form of slavery, criminalized under international law, and categorized as a human rights violation, this exploitative practice now represents a multibillion-dollar industry for transnational organized crime. The failure to address the problem holistically means that it has now become an urgent priority. European Union directives (2011/2014) indicate that an integrated and human-rights oriented approach is needed to combat this "complex crime", including the provision of protection and support for its victims, as well as wider education and awareness-raising campaigns. Meanwhile, police and governments face investigative and crime-fighting challenges, due to the flexibility and relative speed with which organized crime can adapt its transnational operations, often by activating overlapping circles and layers of networks, interaction and expertise.

The primary purpose of this research is to investigate the portrayal of transnational human trafficking in contemporary crime fiction, the genre of true crime, and news media. This research will investigate how aligned such representations of trafficking are, whilst assuming that fictional and supposed factual representations as well as wider media coverage (which blurs fact and fiction - see e.g. Surette 1998) can shape public knowledge and perception of such crime, and indeed inform offender/victim and law enforcement policy (Mathers, 2004).

Specifically, our research into human trafficking will consider the interrelated representations of victims, the investigation/policing/prevention of trafficking and the wider framing of public perceptions concerning transnational governance and global justice. Key areas of inquiry include:

1. Identifying victims of trafficking is complex, and investigations are slow, painstaking, time-consuming, and increasingly difficult. Yet, this element of complexity may not lend itself to the perceived desires of readerships for news reporting or crime fiction narratives in the global marketplace. We intend to examine to what extent trafficking is over-simplified and/or sensationalised, as well as assess to what extent investigative reporting and literature can contribute to expanded world knowledge, insight and public discourse, concerning the identification, protection and support of victims.

2. We will engage with the thematic and textual methods that narratives employ to investigate transnational trafficking. This involves a consideration of how texts incorporate existing and new knowledge, and lend visibility to the experience of exploited subjects by drawing attention to the politics of representation. With the assistance of Gravett's Special Policing Consultancy, we also consider the ways these texts address the challenges for global governance and policing at various scales.

3. Greater public awareness and knowledge is important to combat human trafficking. We will explore the varied ideologies and politics of human trafficking, in connection with wider discourses about global in/justice. For instance, we scope the diegetic narratives of trafficking within a range of fictional and non-fictional 'true crime' media, to explore how stories of the 'moral panic' around trafficking are constructed and used within such sources, as mechanisms for raising public awareness, but also as potential areas of political expediency by key actors involved.

The emergent research findings will be disseminated through an essay collection, a policy brief, a public blog and twitter feed, as well as a symposium/outreach activities, thus contributing to wider academic knowledge and public dialogue surrounding the investigation, policing and prevention of human trafficking as well as support for its victims.

Planned Impact

Recent heated political debates about migrants and refugees, further fuelled by media coverage, have yet to adequately address the complexity of human trafficking, and have not taken into account this transnational crime's effect on individuals and communities. The project will shed light on the process of selecting information and viewpoints to be presented by fictional and non-fictional crime writers, as well as on the resulting influence on public perception of, and opinion about, issues surrounding this crime, such as victim protection and trafficker punishment systems, but also the range of anti-trafficking initiatives centred on its prevention. For instance, by analysing what viewpoints news media present and what they choose to neglect, attention will be drawn to the process of documenting the acts of trafficking and their consequences, and to the debates on public policies activated in response to human trafficking. We analyse news media and supposed factual/fictional discourses published in several languages and countries (both in and outside of the EU). These include countries of origin for victims of human trafficking, as well as transit and destination countries, thereby ensuring an exploration of both dominant and marginalized points of view (as expressed by both organized groups and individuals).

This research will benefit researchers and organisations seeking to gain a greater comprehension of human trafficking and its representation in a rapidly changing national and global political climate. This research will benefit the following main beneficiaries:
1. Impact on Law enforcement policy-making. This includes the Police, the Home Office, Border Force, the Ministry of Justice, the Gang Masters Licensing Authority, the Intelligence services, and UK local authorities.
2. In the case of children, there would be interest from Local Safeguarding Children Boards, i.e. mandatory local authority multi-agency partnerships responsible for safeguarding children in their area.
3. Other beneficiaries include various Foundations, such as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (who specialise on Forced Labour) together with NGOs and charity organisations working with victims and raising public awareness campaigns. We have already been in touch with Zoe Fortune (Freedom Fund, a 'private donor fund dedicated to identifying and investing in the most effective front-line efforts to end slavery', see who reviewed and fed into our project's design. She will be invited to participate in our symposium, and help us disseminate results in due time.
4. The National Crime Agency is another government organisation, which we envisage as a beneficiary of our project.
5. Amnesty International UK has increasingly engaged with issues of human trafficking, and have been organising a series of panels in recent months debating trafficking. We envisage that they would be interested in our work, important as they deem media/fictional portrayals of this crime to be, and we will actively seek to involve them.

We contribute to heightening the awareness of the role cultural, media and literary representations play in constructing but also challenging and thereby changing perceptions of human trafficking and crime, and, in turn, impacting on policing matters and social policy. Beyer will manage a project blog to which all applicants will contribute, and utilise social media in order to enable public outreach. Further dissemination of ongoing project work will be taking place through a designated project twitter account.

Our symposium is conceived with the purpose of widening impact and will provide a public platform from which to disseminate our research. By inviting representatives from the above beneficiary organisations to the symposium as participating delegates and speakers, our project has the potential to generate policy recommendations. We will also generate a policy brief which we will disseminate to practitioners.


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