Exploitation in Migration: Unacceptable but Inevitable

Anne T. Gallagher
May 04, 2015

For the millions of people who want or need to move, migration has become progressively more expensive and perilous. Legal access to preferred destinations is now an option only for the privileged few. The rest are forced into the arms of those able to help them circumvent ever-increasing controls and deterrents. Migrant smuggling, the business of moving people across borders for profit, is a sordid and dangerous enterprise, often placing lives and well-being at serious risk. And the dangers do not end there. Many of the world’s migrants find themselves deeply in debt to recruitment agencies, brokers, and sometimes their own employers before they even start work. In too many cases, these asymmetrical arrangements reach the level of human trafficking: Victims are tricked or coerced into situations of exploitation from which they cannot escape. This article argues that such practices, while unacceptable, are also inevitable. Without profound reforms to global migration regimes—and indeed to the organization of the global economy—there is likely no effective solution to migration-related exploitation. But important steps can be taken, even within the limits of current political constraints, to minimize vulnerability and harm. These include promoting political and legal acceptance of basic rights for all migrants, developing quality control systems for international labor recruitment, eliminating recruitment fees and sponsorship schemes, and co-opting civil society in an effort to increase transparency and accountability of governments and business activities.