Trafficking, Smuggling, and Illicit Migration in Gendered and Historical Perspective, c 1870-2000

Lead Research Organisation: Birkbeck, University of London
Department Name: History Classics and Archaeology


Human trafficking, 'people smuggling' and clandestine migration are some of the most politically volatile and socially pressing issues in the present day, but they also have a long history. This project will contribute significantly to the emerging study of the history of illicit and clandestine migration by examining the history of trafficking in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in comparative and global perspective. The PI, Julia Laite, a specialist on trafficking and migration in the British World, and the CI, Philippa Hetherington, a specialist on trafficking in the Russian empire, will collaborate to produce a comparative study of trafficking and clandestine migration in these two nations and empires in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, while organizing a series of workshops and a major digital collaboration project that will bring together historians who are studying trafficking, smuggling and illicit migration in other areas of the world in the modern period. This digital collaboration will also produce a web-application, centred around an interactive mapping project, which will be collaboratively built by project participants based on their own research and expertise and shared widely with both academic and non-academic stakeholders.
The history of trafficking is transnational and multifactorial by its very nature: people moved across national borders, states responded to trafficking at national and international levels, and law enforcement operations communicated across national jurisdictions and around empires. The comparative and collaborative nature of the project will enable us to explore a unique set of methodological questions. How can we write a collaborative global history of trafficking that also captures complex national, local, and individual factors? How can we develop lasting and usable collaborations between those who research the history of trafficking around the globe? How can we digitally represent the complexity and changing story of modern trafficking and illicit migration?
We will seek to entangle concepts and experiences of trafficking. Rather than seeking to clarify trafficking and smuggling as normative or legal categories, we will instead question the utility of separating 'trafficking,' 'smuggling', and 'illicit migration' as unique experiences of migration and specific targets for crime or migration control. Secondly, we will examine trafficking in the context of the history of international crime and wider migration control. We will ask, how does trafficking policy relate to migration control more broadly, and how has it influenced the development of migration law and enforcement? Thirdly, we will explore the connections between gender, sex, labour, and illicit migration, both in terms of law and policy, but also in terms of individual people's experiences in the past.
This proposed research project will make a significant contribution to existing scholarship and improve insights and understandings of the history of trafficking and smuggling in several ways. The work will examine not only discourses about trafficking but the operation of law enforcement and the experiences of trafficked persons and their traffickers, and will move beyond the existing scholarship which focuses overwhelmingly on international campaigns against trafficking. Through its planned international network and collaborative digital project, the proposed research program will build on and facilitate the work of other emerging scholars, and share this work with a broad academic audience and with non-academic beneficiaries. It will help to build a global history of trafficking, at a time when historical perspective is critically needed to improve understanding of the phenomenon in the present day.

Planned Impact

This project is explicitly designed to be of benefit to non-academic stakeholders and beneficiaries, and to have an impact on their understanding, policies and practises. These include, firstly, policy makers, politicians, and the media. Trafficking and smuggling are pressing contemporary global problems, however, many presentations of trafficking and smuggling are superficial, short-sighted, exaggerated, or anecdotal. Journalists, social workers, enforcement officers, lawyers, and NGO practitioners working at the front lines of trafficking and smuggling are afforded little opportunity to reflect on longer-term trends and experiences. Our research will complicate popular understandings of trafficking, and provide a longitudinal study of policy impacts, demonstrating the effect of past policies and laws upon trafficking victims, illicit migrants, and criminal networks. As a result policy makers and organizations will be in a better position to develop policies and interventions which are enforceable and do not further harm or marginalize victims.
Secondly, our research will engage with teachers and students in secondary education. As evidenced by schools and museums projects on the history of slavery and abolition, there is a desire and need to bring the history of trafficking and smuggling into the classroom. This can help fulfil the aim to include 'at least one significant issue in world history' in the modern period in Key Stage 3 of the history national curriculum. The interactive map will provide educators with a very engaging way to get students to explore the history of clandestine migration and its control, and fulfil the aims of the National Curriculum to help students understand change and contrast in history and the nature of historical evidence.
Finally, our research could have an impact upon trafficked and smuggled persons and other clandestine migrants. These individuals are stripped of their agency by traffickers and smugglers, and are presented by the media as unthinking, helpless and 'invisible' victims, uprooted from their own countries illicit in the nations where they live. They are often therefore seen as 'without history' or a meaningful past. By illuminating the largely unexplored history of trafficked and smuggled persons' experiences through an open-access web resource, our project will provide trafficked people and illicit migrants with a way to conceptualize their own experiences collectively and historically.
In order to reach these groups, we will create an extensive digital resource and interactive web-app that will lie at the heart of our project. This web-based resource, which will include information sheets, teaching resources, and blog posts, will be open-access, mobile-friendly, and interactive. At the heart of the site will be a web-app that will take the form of an interactive and changing map of trafficking in the modern world. We will also run two events, which will help disseminate our research findings and web resources to stakeholders and potential beneficiaries, but will also be specifically designed to garner feedback from these groups in order to build the web resource according to their needs and practises. We have had expressions of interest in these events from the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner in the UK, the Border Agency, as well as affiliated social workers and barristers who are developing programmes to more effectively prosecute and prevent trafficking crime. We have also approached the Global Alliance against the Trafficking in Women (GAATW), an international NGO dedicated to addressing the problem of trafficking from a human rights perspective. The Historical Association has expressed interest in an event for students and educators. Identifying trafficked and smuggled persons will present a significant challenge. We will attempt to do so through key organizations and on social media, where many former trafficked people and their advocates are active.


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Description This project uncovered the complex, entangled and global history of trafficking and anti-trafficking. It supported the publication of a global microhistory (The Disappearance of Lydia Harvey); as well as the publication of a special issue of the Journal of Women's History which brought together many members of a network that the AHRC project fostered and developed. It produced a web resource with digital mapping technology that illuminated the legal and social history of trafficking.
Exploitation Route This project brought together scholars in the emerging field of trafficking history. Hetherington and Laite's authoritative historiographical review will be a touchstone for scholars in years to come, and the journal special issue has showcased the latest work in this field. Laite's book, The Disappearance of Lydia Harvey, has helped reshape both historical and contemporary conversations about trafficking. One of the articles in our special issue (Chang, 2022) won a major award for best article in a US competition.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy

Title Trafficking Past Digital Map and Database 
Description We are currently building a database related to the global history of trafficking. We have hired Dr. Rose Holmes, an expert in digital history and in the history of migration, to build a database of all relevant modern laws related to trafficking/'white slavery', and we are in the process of contracting a web developer to build an interactive map to display this database online. We have engaged our wide research network to contribute stories and case studies to this database/map. We are using this database for our own research purposes right now, and will have a beta version of this application ready for testing in the early summer, 2019. March 2020: We have now completed and have begun testing the research database and app, which will go live at the end of July. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2018 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact We will be able to report on this when the database/app goes live later this year. March 2020 on: this activity has been severely affected by Covid-19 and the fact that the PI has had extended home schooling responsibilities. The CI is also suffering serious ill health. 
Description Centre for History and Economics (CHE) Project workshop 
Organisation University of Cambridge
Department Centre for History and Economics
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Myself and my CI hosted a workshop at the Centre for History and Economics in February 2017, at which we launched the project and discussed building a collaborative digital resource
Collaborator Contribution The CHE contribued cash toward the travel and accommodation of workshop delegates from England, Europe, the US, and Australia. The Centre's administrator helped in booking venues, accommodation, and flights. The Centre promoted the workshop through their channels.
Impact CI and PI to act as guest editors for the Journal of Women's History special issue on trafficking, where they will contribute a piece on the creation of the research network and digital resource
Start Year 2017
Description Gilder Lehrman Centre Modern Slavery Working Group 
Organisation Yale University
Department Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition
Country United States 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Julia Laite, representing Trafficking Past, contribued to the Modern Slavery Working Group annual conference. She ran a breakway workshop for students and other participants examining the historical dimensions of the term and concept of 'modern slavery' and 'trafficking'.
Collaborator Contribution The partner covered the accommodation expenses and conference fees.
Impact We are currently developing links with the Centre to collaborate in a potential 'follow on funding' bid.
Start Year 2018
Description Project Conference and Workshop at Laureate Research Centre for International History, University of Sydney 
Organisation University of Sydney
Department Department of History
Country Australia 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution My PI and I have organized a workshop and conference in partnership with the Centre at the University of Sydney, Australia 'rafficking, Smuggling and Illicit Migration in International History: New Geographic and Scalar Perspectives'. We have invited participants, set the program and have contributed grant money toward bringing early career researchers to the conference.
Collaborator Contribution The Laureate Research Centre in International history has contributed funds toward the travel of conference delegates and their accommodation, and have arranged for a keynote address as part of the Sydney Ideas series
Impact The conference will be held April 12-13 2018
Start Year 2017
Description What is Radical Impact? A workshop with Trafficking Past 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The Trafficking Past team--Drs Julia Laite, Philippa Hetherington, and Rose Holmes--ran a workshop with the Raphael Samuel History Centre that explored questions of 'impact' and 'engagement' in the field of trafficking and 'modern slavery'. We discussed how projects such as ours have difficulty engaging with policy makers because their research findings dramatically challenge the accepted policy/social narrative. We asked: is it possible to have 'radical' and 'challenging' impact? What tools might we use to gain access to, and convince, policy makers of our evidence-based findings?
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019