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Beyond the ‘Women-and-children’ Bias in Human Trafficking:

A Study of Haitian Migrants in the Dominican Republic

By Jean-Pierre Murray

The anti-trafficking agenda has faced at least two main criticisms – it privileges criminal justice over human rights and it focuses excessively on sexual exploitation and prostitution. Human trafficking has historically been linked with sexual exploitation of women and children, and despite attempts to broaden the scope, these associations have persisted. Scholars have called for new ways of framing trafficking which can effectively capture the complexities of this phenomenon and adequately represent the affected populations. This paper argues that an excessive focus on “women-and-children” victims precludes an examination of a wider cross-section of vulnerable populations. It proposes that a human security perspective that explores intersectional identities is best suited for studying human trafficking as it more closely examines the different factors which render people vulnerable to trafficking. Yet gendered conceptualisations of victims of trafficking obscures broader vulnerabilities experienced by Haitian men and women which results in their exclusion from antitrafficking initiatives. This paper, therefore, calls for an intersectional lens which would highlight different forms of trafficking and different groups of multiply marginalised people who are vulnerable to trafficking.


A comprehensive study on human trafficking in the Dominican Republic, released in early 2019, detailed a dark reality of internal trafficking of women, children, and adolescents (OBMICA 2019). Similar assertions had been made in successive Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Reports which also flagged neighbouring Haiti as a human trafficking hotspot (United States Department of State 2016; 2017; 2018). These reports focus heavily on the vulnerabilities of women and children, primarily for sexual exploitation. Both Haiti and the Dominican Republic are source, transit, and destination countries (United States Department of State 2016). Despite highlighting forms of forced labour among women, children, and adolescents, OBMICA’s (2019) study does not reflect more extensive forms of forced labour in the Dominican Republic. Similarly, the TIP Reports flagged other forms of forced labour practices but fell short of suggesting policies that could address them. What becomes apparent from these reports is that women and children are not the only victims, and that exploitation involved in human trafficking extends beyond sexual ends. All these have implications on how trafficking is conceptualised, who is considered a victim, what constitutes trafficking, and ultimately, how policymakers respond to the problem.

Human trafficking research suffers from a scarcity of reliable data, compounded by the absence of a commonly accepted and widely applied definition of the phenomenon (Savona and Stefanizzi 2007). Whereas the Palermo Protocol defines human trafficking[1], the interpretation and application of said definition varies widely. The problems of data and definition have implications for both scholarship and policy relating to human trafficking. For example, in the Latin America and Caribbean region, sex trafficking is highlighted as the most prominent form of human trafficking, and women and children are identified as the most common victims (Langberg 2005; Seelke 2011). However, this may be owing to an inherent bias in methods of identification, or in the perceptions which are held of possible forms and victims of trafficking (Meshkovska et al. 2015). Furthermore, states such as the Dominican Republic with a pre-existing challenge of undocumented migration may place greater emphasis on smuggling, which is a criminal offense both for the smuggler and the smuggled than on trafficking, which is a criminal offense for the trafficker and not for the victim (Tejeda and Wooding 2012).

This paper responds to the need for an analytical frame in human trafficking literature that can encompass the diversity of trafficking’s implications and victims. It draws on insights from gender and human security, and in particular intersectionality as a possible response to the call for an analytical frame that focuses on disempowered people – not just women and children – as being vulnerable to exploitative means, processes, and ends – therefore to trafficking. The study uses primary and secondary sources including global, regional, and national reports to assess the case of trafficking of Haitians in the Dominican Republic. It uses an analytical approach which centres the intersectionality of trafficking vulnerability to argue that the predominant focus on sex trafficking and the inherent bias towards women and children as victims overlooks other forms of exploitation, affecting a wider cross-section of Haitian migrants.

Whereas successive reports from both the United Nations Department of State (United States Department of State 2016; 2017; 2018) and the UNODC (2009; 2012; 2014; 2016; 2018) have highlighted the significant problem of human trafficking in the Dominican Republic, this issue appears infrequently in scholarly literature, especially relating to Haitian migrants (Petrozziello and Wooding 2011; Wooding 2011). The vulnerabilities of Haitian migrants are, nonetheless, often discussed in ways that highlight how their intersectional identities predispose them to marginality (Martinez 1999; Wooding and Moseley-Williams 2004; Cloud 2009; Kristensen and Wooding 2013). Petrozziello and Wooding (2011) demonstrate how these intersectional identities of poor, black, Haitian women increase their vulnerability to human trafficking into and within the Dominican Republic. This perspective, however, falls short of addressing the ways in which Haitian migrants in general are vulnerable to trafficking because of the intersection of race and class, along with the excessive focus on women and children in human trafficking. Consequently, anti-trafficking policies and scholarly work risk ignoring such migrants. This paper aims to inform anti-trafficking policies that protect the most vulnerable and marginalised populations, as well as contribute to a literature of human trafficking that captures the breadth of the phenomenon and its victims.

Human Trafficking: Between Criminal Justice and Human Rights

Human trafficking has predominantly been considered as an issue that affects women since the early 20th century (Chuang 1998; Bruch 2004; Gallagher 2010). The primary focus has been on forms of sexual exploitation, especially prostitution – which will be referred to as ‘sexualisation’ in this paper. The most widely accepted definition of human trafficking has been codified in the UN General Assembly Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children (emphasis added), hereafter the Palermo Protocol (2000). This enshrined trafficking as a criminal activity by placing it under the purview of the United Nations Convention on Transnational Organized Crime (Bruch 2004; Gómez-Mera 2016).

One strand in the antitrafficking literature calls for a human rights approach to human trafficking, over one of criminal justice (Chuang 1998; Gallagher 2001; 2010; Bruch 2004). The current antitrafficking regime includes legally binding provisions enabling states to prosecute perpetrators, without providing clear protections for victims (Bruch 2004; Gallagher 2010; Martin and Callaway 2011; Gómez-Mera 2016). The Palermo Protocol does not provide a mechanism for identifying victims of trafficking, and therefore victims may either be conflated with other forms of irregular migration or may be criminalised for activities they are forced to undertake based on their trafficked status (Hoshi 2013; Gómez-Mera 2016; Malloch 2016; Schloenhardt and Markey-Towler 2016). Victims could consequently be prosecuted rather than protected.

The proposed human rights alternative, however, is far from univocal. Some scholars portray the victim as being predominantly women, and therefore consider that rather than adopt a broad human rights approach, the focus should be on improving rights for women who are exploited by traffickers and then criminalised in jurisdictions where they are trafficked (Chew 1999; Jordan 2002; Miko 2007; Kapur 2008; Williams 2008). They argue that mostly women and children are frequently trafficked for sexual exploitation and prostitution. This link with trafficking and prostitution is riddled with human rights violations, which justifies a human rights approach protecting primarily vulnerable women and children (Miko 2007).

Others, however, are critical of this approach which is considered loaded with moral questions concerning the abolition of prostitution (Chuang 1998; Bruch 2004; Sharma 2005; Brysk 2012). Gendered discourse that seeks to rescue women and children, largely ignores more widespread structural causes of insecurity and vulnerability, and therefore does not adequately address preventative mechanisms (Raigrodski 2015; Russell 2016). Here, ‘gendered’ refers to the ways in which trafficking is conceived in scholarship and policy as primarily based on dichotomies of male perpetrator and female victims. The focus on women and children as innocent, powerless victims is problematic because it gives an erroneous delimitation of the ‘identity’ of victims, and by focusing on sexual exploitation it excludes several other forms of trafficking and other potential victims ((Ferree 2013; Meshkovska et al 2015). As governments apply policy responses, more restrictive immigration policies may unduly target women, and even voluntary migrant women may end up being conflated with victims of trafficking (Chew 1999).

Parallel to the human rights approach is the commonly held view linking labour rights considerations to human trafficking. Human rights approaches need to focus more on forced labour practices and exploitative processes which impede the enjoyment of fundamental human rights (Hathaway 2008; Obokata 2010; Brysk 2012). This perspective focuses both on the exploitative ends of trafficking and the processes which induce them. There is a demand for exploitable labour, sustained by structural flaws within exploitative labour markets that make workers vulnerable, for example through disproportionate dependence on their employers (Williams 2008; Pope 2010; Shamir 2012; OBrien 2016). Exploited migrant workers may find themselves with no options for seeking justice without themselves being prosecuted (Bravo 2009; Pope 2010; Chuang 2014).

Clearly, there is a need for greater understanding of the vulnerabilities to which different populations are exposed, the causal mechanisms of these vulnerabilities, and the kinds of trafficking to which these populations become victim. While the Palermo Protocol has presented a broad definition of trafficking, the ways in which this definition is interpreted both in scholarship and in practice continue to exclude various forms of trafficking and to discredit some victims. Bruch’s (2004) call for new models for approaching the study of human trafficking may well find an answer in a focus on gender and human security using intersectionality as an analytical framework.

A Gender and Human Security Approach to Human Trafficking

It is necessary to consider gendered vulnerabilities as a category in examining labour migration, exploitation, and oppression, since women are overrepresented in some forms of trafficking. Women can face particular vulnerabilities during the migratory process such as significant levels of gender-based violence including attacks, robbery, and rape by scouts who collect bribes to get them across the border (Petrozziello and Wooding 2011; Wooding and Petrozziello 2013). What is important to note, however, is that using gender as the only category of analysis reinforces the dominant trafficking discourse and ignores other factors which render people susceptible to trafficking, and consequently shrouds other forms of exploitation that are not reflected in human trafficking policy and research.

Human security as a concept and policy direction emphasises safeguarding the individual from vulnerability and insecurity. The concept has been criticised for being too broad and policy-oriented to have much analytical utility (Chandler 2008a; 2008b), or for having too much faith in established institutions such as the state (Newman 2010). These institutions, while charged with tackling insecurity may also be sources of oppression and disempowerment. Human security is also universalising (Ferree 2013). That is, while claiming to shift the focus to the individual, human security presents problems and solutions based on broad categories rather than focusing on specific realities of different populations. A gender and human security perspective could mitigate against this universalism since a gender analysis highlights important fragmentations involving difference or intersections that offer greater clarity in identifying sources of vulnerability and insecurity. This approach casts human trafficking as a threat to the trafficked persons rather than as an affront to state security (Yousaf 2018; Lobasz 2009). Consequently, it shifts the focus to people in situations of vulnerability vis-à-vis more dominant groups. This perspective also examines how stereotypes of categories of practices, perpetrators and victims are reproduced.

Postmodern feminist thought – in particular its contributions to gender and intersectionality – helps contextualise the operationalisation of human security by revealing the diversity in sources and systems of oppression and the unique challenges that different people face. Gender operates both as a category and as a process (Steans 1998; Beckwith 2005). Gender as a category refers to a ‘multidimensional mapping of socially constructed, fluid, politically relevant identities, values, conventions, and practices conceived as masculine and/or feminine’ (Beckwith 2005: 115). It is not ‘a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts proceed; rather, it is an identity tenuously constituted in time – an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts’ (Butler 1988: 519). As a process, gender refers to the differential effects that structures and or policies can have on both women and men, and relates to ‘behaviours, conventions, practices and dynamics engaged in by people, individuals, institutions and nations’ (Beckwith 2005: 132).

A postmodern feminist lens provides an avenue for mobilising the concept of gender as not just a concept of binary identities, but of intersectional traits that collectively form part of an individual’s (or group’s) identity. Intersectionality focuses on how an individual is socially located in intersecting and mutually constitutive social identities which shape experiences in society (Shields 2008; Ferree 2013). Here, the focus is on how such social identities serve as categories of discredit, disempowerment, and vulnerability and result in a compounded marginalisation which is much greater than the sum of its parts (Crenshaw 1989). That is, some populations may be multiply marginalised especially where categories such as race and class intersect with gender. The intersectional identity of a poor, black woman, for example, places her closer to the margins of society and renders her more vulnerable to various forms of discrimination, domination, and exploitation (Crenshaw 1991; Lobasz 2012). Ultimately, the sources of injustice that a gender analysis allows us to examine are disempowering and oppressive systems which could affect both men and women and which may be perpetuated by men and women alike (Peoples and Vaughan 2014; Nash 2008).

A key concept in this body of literature is that of embodiment – the idea that constructed identities such as gender are internalised, performed, and corporally materialised. Social values are ascribed to genetic and phenotypical differences playing out in a social hierarchy regulated by power and dominance. In this context, some bodies carry greater value than others. These bodies may differ along gender lines, racial lines, class lines or an intersection of these categories, and are valued based on how well they conform to or transgress ideal types in a given social context (Butler 1993; Grosz 1994; Gatens 1996; Alcoff 2006). Assumptions about different bodies serve as demarcations between full and lesser citizens and thus determine whether the state will treat them with all the attendant protections and benefits or regulate them in less desirable ways if they are non-citizens (Bacchi and Beasley 2002). This concept clarifies the ways in which intersectional, corporeal identities qualify and disqualify members of a social space and how multiple marginalities render some populations more vulnerable to trafficking than others. The migrant body or the trafficked body is more vulnerable to the extent that it does not fit the norm of the citizen because of its race, class, and even gender (Russell 2016).

Haitian migrants, exploitation, and human trafficking in the Dominican Republic

There has been a long history of migration from Haiti to the Dominican Republic across the porous shared border, and through more formal labour migration initiatives for sugar plantations (Vásquez Frías 2013; Martinez 1999). Consequently, there is a community of Dominico-Haitians who have remained on the fringes of the society because of their social status, their inability to advance due to discriminatory policies of nationality and naturalisation, and as descendants of Haitian migrants, they are considered inferior to the ‘Hispanic’ Dominican population (Wooding and Moseley-Williams 2004). There are between 340 000 (OBMICA 2018) and 500 000 (ONE 2013) Haitian immigrants living in the Dominican Republic, representing over 80 percent of the total immigrant population. They work informally primarily in agriculture and construction. Most are undocumented migrants who crossed the border to take up jobs in these sectors where there is high demand. However, there is an enduring paradox which accompanies this clandestine but functional labour migration. These migrants are indispensable to the economy, yet they are considered a threat to cultural and national identities (Ferguson 2003; Wooding and Moseley-Williams 2004).

Although there have been reports of human trafficking among these migrants, the Dominican Republic does not systematically collect and classify such data (IOM and INM RD 2017). One of the earliest studies highlighted a critical absence of reliable data on trafficking, while noting that the Dominican Republic was already considered a leading source country in Latin America and the Caribbean, and among the top ten countries globally (IOM 2006). Haitians, Dominicans, Colombians, Venezuelans, Peruvians, and Chinese were among the most common victims of trafficking who were primarily women and children (girls and boys). Table 1 below summarises the different categories of labour in which victims of trafficking were found.

The Dominican government has, however, pursued an antitrafficking agenda. In 2003 the government passed the Law on Illicit Smuggling of Migrants and Trafficking of Persons. This law provides no gender delimitations in defining trafficking and in theory covers a broad cross-section of forms of trafficking and victims.[2] Furthermore, the government has outfitted an institutional infrastructure to tackle this issue: the Interinstitutional Commission Against Trafficking in Persons and Illicit Migrant Smuggling (CITIM) created in 2007, the Interinstitutional Committee on the Protection of Migrant Women (CIPROM), the National Migration Institute (INM RD), and the Office of the Special Prosecutor for Trafficking in Persons and Illicit Migrant Smuggling. There is also a fund for the assistance and protection of victims of trafficking which assists with travel costs, food, medication, and other related expenses (Tejeda and Wooding 2012).

In addition, the government launched an overarching, multi-year National Plan Against Human Smuggling and Illicit Trafficking of Migrants which was initially scheduled to run from 2009 to 2014 and was relaunched in 2017 to run until 2020. This plan outlined three key focuses. Firstly, there was a human rights approach which established preservation and protection of the human rights of victims as the main objective of anti-trafficking efforts. Secondly, there was a focus on gender which acknowledged that the causes and consequences of trafficking were different for men and women, and that women were more vulnerable because of social, cultural, and economic exclusion. Thus, the National Plan included gender indicators and affirmative action measures in favour of women. Finally, there was a focus on age which recognised that children and adolescents had specific vulnerabilities, special rights, and needs. The National Plan would be implemented according to the three P’s – prevention, prosecution, and protection (CITIM 2010).

Analysts have criticised this policy for targeting migrant smuggling more so than human trafficking, however. Where it did address human trafficking, efforts were more geared towards stemming the trafficking of women – particularly Dominican women – outside the country. Thus, other vulnerable populations such as Haitian women or Haitian migrants more generally were not paid any specific attention during the implementation of this antitrafficking initiative (Petrozziello and Wooding 2011; Tejeda and Wooding 2012). While the government framed it as a human rights issue and considered the differential ways in which gender influenced vulnerability to human trafficking, the absence of an intersectional perspective resulted in a binary interpretation of gender and human trafficking. This interpretation fed into predetermined assumptions that victims were more than likely women and perpetrators were more than likely men. Even with this ‘women-and-children’ bias, policy makers may still have ignored vulnerable Haitian migrant women. An intersectionality framework of analysis may therefore be more helpful in revealing the vulnerabilities of this group of women, and of Haitian migrants in general.

Class and vulnerability

Social inequalities including distribution of income, assets, employment, education, and health care, are key determinants of vulnerability, and therefore major contributing factors to human trafficking (Perry and McEwing, 2013; Barner, Okech and Camp, 2014). Most victims of human trafficking in the Dominican Republic are from marginalised socio-economic backgrounds, with very little education and other resources (IOM and INM RD 2017). This position of socio-economic disempowerment makes them vulnerable to the different recruitment tactics employed by traffickers. Whereas intra-Caribbean migration is generally female dominated and usually comprises more highly educated people than the recipient population, Haitian migrants tend to be lesser educated males (IOM 2017). Poverty, unemployment, and illiteracy are push factors for these frequently irregular migrants (Wooding and Moseley-Williams 2004; Seelke 2011). Generally, people from impoverished regions on the periphery of development move to areas of marginally improved living standards (Martinez 1996). Irregular migrants end up in especially vulnerable positions and are consequently susceptible to protracted human rights violations, and this is especially true for Haitians in the Dominican Republic (Ferguson 2003; IOM 2017). Social class, then, is one aspect of intersectional, marginalising identities which contributes to structural causes of trafficking.

Migration is not just a pursuit of a better life; it is often an escape from the challenges faced at home. People of lower social classes are exposed to various kinds of vulnerabilities within their own societies. Economic, political, and environmental crises have differential impacts on the society and often force the most socially vulnerable, the poor with little opportunities to cope, to migrate. Underdevelopment plagues Haiti which suffers from chronic food insecurity in a context of considerable rural poverty and extreme polarisation between the rich minority and the poor majority. This economic situation is compounded by persistent political instability. Furthermore, the successive, catastrophic natural disasters sealed the fate of many Haitians, forcing them to seek temporary or permanent solutions across the shared border (Felima 2009; Lundahl 2013). In addition to these push factors, there is also a demand for cheap, migrant labour in the Dominican Republic, which has been experiencing sustained economic growth and development (OBMICA 2016; 2017; 2018; OECD and ILO; 2018).

Impoverished Haitians, however, lack the necessary resources to cover the costs of migration and are therefore more readily exploitable by unscrupulous go-betweens. Lacking resources often means taking unofficial or illegal channels for migration and relying on these middlemen to secure passage and employment (Cloud 2009; Petrozziello and Wooding 2011; Wooding and Petrozziello 2013). Their social status predisposes them to working in the informal sector, providing unskilled labour for low wages. They are often indebted to employers or smugglers who then hold this as a kind of Damocles sword above them. This exploitable informal labour, therefore, reinforces their social status by locking them into a system with very little opportunity for upward mobility.

Haitian migrants, therefore, live in precarious conditions characterised by poverty and deprivation (ONE, 2013; 2018). In addition to social marginalisation, these migrants have limited access to vital services. They are often met with political and social hostility, and several barriers to accessing health care, education, and the justice system. Over 43 percent of Haitian migrants have only a primary education, while 35 percent have less than primary level education. This is in stark contrast to other migrants in the Dominican Republic, most of whom (82 percent) have tertiary level education (OECD and ILO 2018). These socio-economic conditions predispose Haitian migrants, more so than others, to working in the informal sector doing so-called 3D jobs – dirty, dangerous and demeaning/difficult. They work primarily in agriculture, construction, and domestic services – areas in which they have been particularly prone to exploitation with very little opportunities for recourse if abused (ONE 2013; Wooding and Petrozziello 2013; OECD and ILO 2018). This coupled with considerations of the intersection of race, nationality and citizenship (which will be discussed below), renders these migrants multiply marginalised, and therefore places them in situations of extreme insecurity and vulnerability.

Race, citizenship, and the vulnerable migrant

The racialised relationship between Haitian migrants and their Dominican hosts reflect patterns of ‘otherness’ based on social construction of in-groups and out-groups underpinned by assumed homogenous racial or ethnic social identities. Migrants are presented by the media, political actors, and other powerful stakeholders as ‘suspect communities’ who do not belong to the host society (Breen-Smyth 2014; Anderson 2006). Discernible markers of difference such as race or religious practices function as symbolic barriers between the immigrants and the host societies and contribute to migrant marginalisation (Zolberg and Woon 1999; Lucassen 2005; Anderson 2013; Erel et al. 2016; Ibrahim and Howarth 2016). When race and ethnicity are superimposed on citizenship such that the racial category influences the legal category, the result is a racialized demarcation between citizen and non-citizen (Calavita 2005; Guild 2009; Chavez 2013; Erel et al. 2016). These symbolic boundaries then contribute to essentialist stereotypes about the non-citizen ‘others’ who are denied the legal right to belong (Bail 2008; Bridget Anderson 2013; Guild 2009; Pugh 2017; Hainmueller and Hopkins 2015; Calavita 2005).

Dominican identity has historically been constructed around an Indo-Hispanic identity which is in opposition to a black Afro-descendant identity ascribed to Haitian neighbours (Martinez 1999; Craemer and Martínez 2016; Candalario 2007; Simmons 2009). The resultant antihaitianismo[3] is a kind of othering whereby Haitians embody Dominicans’ cultural contrast and ultimately pose a threat to their colonial heritage and culture (Martinez 1999; Guilamo 2013). Racial tensions affect not only Dominicans with Haitian ancestry but also Dominicans with darker skin who do not fit the ‘Hispanic’ ideal (Martinez 1999; Ferguson 2003; Wooding and Moseley-Williams 2004; Cloud 2009; Nolan 2015). Despite miscegenation in the Dominican Republic with more African than Indian ancestry, most people self-identify as indio[4] although phenotypically they may be considered negro[5] (Gates 2011; Lamb and Dundes 2017; Torres-Saillant 1998). The resulting racialised, anti-Haitian sentiment contributes to marginality and vulnerability.

In turn, the state has perpetuated this racialised divide with policies such as those undertaken by former dictator, Trujillo, who sought to whiten or “hispanify” the Dominican Republic (Howard 2001; Ferguson 2003; Ricourt 2016). Such discrimination continues to be a major challenge for Haitian immigrants, with institutionalised forms of othering through policies on nationality and citizenship. Dominicans of Haitian descent have struggled to prove their citizenship not only because of discriminatory practices of state officials but also because their ambiguous status in the country, as well as their social circumstances act as barriers to accessing the proper documentation (Ferguson 2003; OBMICA 2016; 2017; 2018). People in these conditions are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation because they do not have access to formal systems such as education, justice, health and the formal job market. They are more likely to be arrested and deported, or to end up working in exploitative conditions (Cloud 2009; Kristensen and Wooding 2013).

Gendered conceptualisations of human trafficking do not effectively capture how the interplay of race and citizenship create vulnerabilities for migrants. Migrant bodies are exploitable because they fall outside of the ideal of the ‘embodied citizen’. If class, race, and access to citizenship are structural contributors to human trafficking, and if these factors are indeed causing the marginality of Haitian migrants then one would expect Haitians – not just Haitian women – to figure prominently in any trafficking data from the Dominican Republic. Similarly, one could expect that specific anti-trafficking measures would target this population. In the following section we will examine how an intersectional perspective highlights fissures in traditional ‘women-and-children’ assumptions about human trafficking.

Intersectionality and the gendered trafficker-trafficked dichotomy

‘Discourse about trafficking continues to rest on moral indignation about violations of womanhood, and support migration-management policies and tighter border controls – greater policing of migrant and third world populations’ (Kempadoo 2007: 82). Persistent machismo – the strong patriarchal social system in Latin American societies – is a major driver for trafficking because it perpetuates discrimination against women and children (Wooding and Moseley-Williams 2004; Seelke 2011; OBMICA 2016). These strong gender prejudices are indeed factors of vulnerabilities for women and children as they result in entrenched forms of social, cultural, economic, and political exclusions (IOM 2006; Belliard 2008; Petrozziello and Wooding 2011; UNFPA 2012; IOM and INM RD 2017). Subjugation, exclusion, and the structural as well as somatic violence of this patriarchal system tacitly legitimate the idea that power imbalances between men and women in such a system make the latter exploitable. These gendered assumptions in turn shape the discourse around human trafficking in general, as it is assumed that the male-female power dynamics map onto a corresponding trafficker-trafficked relationship. Therefore, rather than focusing on a broader set of extreme forms of exploitation, policymakers place emphasis on women and children who are trafficked for commercial sex or adoption (Wooding and Moseley-Williams 2004; Seelke 2011). Herein lies the cognitive bias which Meshkova et al. (2015) suggest exists in antitrafficking policies.

The persistent focus on women and children victims in Western countries is consistent with the interpretation of human trafficking as largely being for the purposes of sexual exploitation or more specifically, prostitution. It is, therefore, informed by moralizing, anti-prostitution sentiments in western Judeo-Christian cultures, as well as among lobby groups which frame prostitution as inherently exploitative (Sharma 2005; Gallagher 2010). Add to this the fact that the intersection of race, gender, and class cause some female bodies – women of colour – to be more likely victims of trafficking (Butler 2015). These ‘outsiders’ or multiply marginalised groups do not ‘embody’ the ideal citizen but rather by their very identity and the activity which they pursue – prostitution in this case – they contravene certain sociocultural norms (Russell 2016). This legitimises the exploitation of these populations, for example Haitian women, who find themselves in a social hierarchy of inferiority and vulnerability ‘as women (not men), Haitian (not Dominican), dark-skinned Afro-descendants (instead of “Indian” mulattos), poor (not rich or middle-class), and undocumented’ (Petrozziello and Wooding 2011:43).

This creates a binary that opposes the ‘women-and-children’ victim to the male perpetrator. Russell (2016:319) talks about an ‘essentialized version of identity – victim of trafficking’, which has a dual role of enabling and disabling. This identity creates boundaries, opening possibilities for protection on the one hand and on the other hand closing doors to agency. Victimhood comes with an image of helplessness and a need to be rescued (Russell 2016). The state is expected to provide protection for this victim based on obligations outlined in the Palermo Protocol as well as national legislation. Being categorised as a victim is, therefore, essential to accessing the protection mechanisms of the state. In this context, gendered stereotypes around trafficking become disqualifiers for some groups of trafficked persons. It is less likely that a man would be considered as a trafficked person, for example, because he doesn’t fit the ideal identity of the victim.

Here, the UNODC’s Global Report on Trafficking published since 2009 is a useful complement to data presented in more recent government reports. Between 2003 (when the Dominican anti-trafficking law was passed) and 2008, some 265 cases of adult female victims versus seven adult male victims were referred to the Center of Orientation and Integral Investigation. Furthermore, 254 of these cases were for sexual exploitation while only 16 were related to labour exploitation, and two related to forced marriage (UNODC 2009). Both the 2014 and the 2016 reports highlighted a decrease in the instances of women being trafficked globally and an increase in the trafficking of children and men. Globally, men were averaging around 30 percent of victims while forced labour accounted for about 40 percent of all cases of trafficking. In fact, in Latin America and the Caribbean, forced labour accounted for more than half of detected cases. For the Dominican Republic, the reports suggested that there was still a heavy flow of victims of trafficking from Haiti especially since a characteristic of the flow of trafficking in the region involved movement from places of economic blight to more prosperous countries (UNODC 2014; 2016).

As demonstrated in Table 2 below, published results of anti-trafficking efforts over the last three years in the Dominican Republic reveal that only women and children were identified as victims of trafficking and were given assistance by the state. If forced labour is recognised as a form of human trafficking and exists in male-dominated industries such as agriculture and construction; and if there has been a steady increase in the cases of trafficked men globally and in the Latin America and Caribbean region, then one could ask: ‘where are the men in this data?’ Unless the Dominican Republic is singular in Latin America and the Caribbean, the regional trend suggests that at least some adult male victims of trafficking should be captured in this data.

The male-dominated construction industry in the Dominican Republic, where over 80 percent of the labourers are Haitians, is prone to extreme forms of exploitation. A 2012 study highlighted four broad types of exploitative practices (OBMICA 2012). Firstly, there was unfree recruitment whereby employers used deceptive recruitment practices and confiscate the documents of the workers. Secondly, without documents, laborers were tied to their employers, not being able to seek work elsewhere or prove their immigration status to authorities. Furthermore, they were forced to stay longer than had been agreed without getting the wages that were due. Thirdly, they were assigned the most hazardous jobs without any form of protection. Labourers were often threatened with dismissal, deportation, or even death. Finally, migrant construction workers were in conditions of life and work under duress: forced overtime beyond legal limits; limited freedom of movement; threat of physical violence; exclusion from future employment; threat of imprisonment (OBMICA 2012).

Subsequent migration reports have highlighted that similar conditions persist (OBMICA 2016; 2017; 2018). Intersectional identities make Haitians vulnerable to trafficking as an exploitable labour force in the construction industry. Yet, this predominantly male labour force does not appear on the antitrafficking radar, because men are not ‘victims of trafficking.’ One can consequently infer that the fundamental flaw lies at the point of problem definition – gendered conceptualisations of trafficking seem to have precluded men from being considered as victims of trafficking by the Dominican authorities. Assumptions about female victimhood have effectively excluded the possibility for there to be male victims. Instead there are narrow perceptions of forms of trafficking and kinds of victims, which carry through to anti-trafficking policy and the collection of trafficking data (Meshkovska et al. 2015).

The disparities presented here also lead us to consider the dual effect that gendered perspectives on trafficking have of excluding women from consideration as perpetrators themselves. As an illustration, the widely practiced phenomenon restaveks, which originated in Haiti, involves using Haitian children to work as indentured, unpaid laborers in domestic servitude under extreme conditions of physical, verbal, and sexual abuse. The children are often forced to work as mendicants or perform paid sexual favours in order to contribute to their indebtedness to the household that offers them shelter (Cloud 2009; Seelke 2011). However, the gendered trafficking discourse tends to mask the role that women play either as initiators, facilitators, or perpetrators of this exploitative process. To the credit of the Dominican Republic, their prosecution record, as shown in Table 3 below, demonstrates an acknowledgement that men and women alike may be perpetrators of trafficking. Yet this acknowledgement is still closely related to gendered and sexualised conceptions of human trafficking. Policymakers assume that women traffickers are often involved in trafficking of other women and young children for sexual exploitation (Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores 2017; 2018; 2019; OBMICA, 2018; Vargas, 2019). Therefore, they still are not considered as possible perpetrators of other forms of trafficking such as forced labour.

Further, the three official reports from the Dominican government from 2016 to 2018 neither mention Haitians broadly nor Haitian women more specifically as victims of trafficking (Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores 2017; 2018; 2019). This is, however, in stark contrast to the evidence presented in other sources. The IOM has highlighted trafficking of Haitians across the shared border as an enduring feature of population flows between the two countries because of economic, political, and environmental factors which render them particularly vulnerable (IOM 2006; IOM and INM RD 2017). In fact, Petrozziello and Wooding (2011), having conducted extensive qualitative studies with Haitian women along the border, concluded that migrant Haitian women are especially vulnerable to various forms of exploitation including those linked to trafficking. This vulnerability is related to, among other factors, the fact that they work in precarious conditions in the informal sectors with little or no regulation and hardly any vigilance over working conditions, whether it be sex work or domestic labour. Yet, Haitian women do not appear in official trafficking data.

The antitrafficking regime has historically functioned along racial lines focusing initially on the trafficking of white women (Bruch 2004). This suggests that some bodies were more worthy of victimhood. In the Dominican Republic, Haitian women are entirely absent from official data on human trafficking. The trafficked victims identified in official reports are primarily Dominicans and Venezuelans, consistent with previous critiques of the implementation of the government’s antitrafficking policy – that is, the focus was largely on Dominicans while ignoring the trafficking of Haitians (Petrozziello and Wooding 2011). There were no reported cases of trafficking of Haitians recorded since 2016 yet there were 52,348 cases of smuggled Haitians in 2017 and 134,605 in 2018 (Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores 2018; 2019). The possibility for conflating smuggling and trafficking has been raised by critics who suggest that without a clear mechanism for identification, antitrafficking efforts have an intrinsic loophole for the confusion of trafficking victims with other forms of irregular migration or smuggling (Bruch 2004; Gallagher 2010; Gómez-Mera 2016), and this has certainly been the case for Haitian migrants in the Dominican Republic (Petrozziello and Wooding 2011).

This then illustrates that anti-trafficking policies that conceptualise trafficking in gendered dichotomies of male perpetrator and female victims are fundamentally flawed because they may still exclude multiply marginalised women. In this case, the state disqualifies poor, dark-skinned Haitian women from being considered as victims of trafficking, and therefore from accessing protection. The intersectional identity then plays a dual role of rendering the Haitian woman vulnerable to trafficking on the one hand and invisible to anti-trafficking efforts on the other. She is, therefore, marginalised by disempowering structural forces and subject to continued exploitation because she does not embody the ideal victim. As poor, foreign, black, Haitian, and a woman, she is not the embodied citizen. The Dominican woman, however, and the phenotypically and culturally similar Venezuelan are worthy of victimhood and therefore worthy of the state’s antitrafficking efforts.

Ironically, it is this same heightened discrimination against multiply marginalised groups such as Haitians, which puts them on the radar of anti-smuggling efforts (Petrozziello and Wooding 2011; Tejeda and Wooding 2012). Since smuggling is a criminal activity for both the smuggler and the smuggled, this label appears more fitting for the body of ‘the other’, the contrast of the ideal citizen. These bodies are not only exploitable but also excludable. The state has no obligation to provide protection for a smuggled migrant because he or she is a criminal (Gallagher 2010), and therefore the state can use this as a pretext to exclude the Haitian. Here, the multiply marginalised person is not worthy of victimhood, yet the state imputes agency to this disempowered person by establishing that she chose to be smuggled across the border.

It is not the intention of this paper to argue whether men or women are more frequently perpetrators or victims respectively. Rather it argues that gendered perspectives determine who is victim or perpetrator and that these binary identities shroud broader processes of exploitation affecting Haitian migrants – children and adult, women and men. Here, scholars of intersectionality remind us that marginalised populations do not have homogenous experiences (Crenshaw 1989; 1991; Butler 2015). Class and race, intersecting with gender, result in significant power differences within the category of women such that a poor Haitian woman, for example could be multiply marginalised vis-à-vis a middle-class – or even poor – Dominican woman. Furthermore, even as the gendered dichotomy is flawed, the victim/trafficker dichotomy is also not as rigid as policy prescriptions suggest (Warren 2012). In fact, the labels of powerless victims and cruel traffickers are often imbued with moralising judgements of the sex trade in general (Sharma 2005; Lobasz 2012). These judgements and the policies they inform obscure more fluid dynamics between trafficker and trafficked and ignore the agency of supposed victims (Warren 2012; Russell 2014).


This paper has argued that gendered framings of human trafficking offer a distorted view and result in ill-adapted antitrafficking policies, which neither target a representative set of forms of trafficking nor attend to the broad spectrum of potential victims. Historical biases in the anti-trafficking regime towards trafficking for sexual exploitation are partly to be blamed for this, and it certainly has not helped that the Palermo Protocol explicitly elevates ‘especially women and children’ as victims. Furthermore, the heavy emphasis on criminal justice has caused prosecuting the perpetrator to take precedence over protecting the victims. Yet, the flaw is not entirely on the framing of the human trafficking outlined in the Palermo Protocol. Rather, it is a question of narrow interpretation. Here, a gender and human security analysis provides a useful framework for considering the vulnerability of marginalised groups and the broader forms of trafficking to which they may be subjected.

We have examined how intersectional identities and the resultant multiple marginalities fuel the vulnerability of Haitian migrants and result in multiple exclusions vis-à-vis the antitrafficking regime – exclusions that make them potential victims of trafficking and prevent them from being recognised as such. Haitians who do not embody the ideal educated, Hispanic, male Dominican citizen in a context where Hispanidad and machismo are revered, are in positions of insecurity and exploitability (Martinez 1999; Seelke 2011). Yet, assumptions about trafficking and victimhood become problematic for both male and female victims. Antitrafficking initiatives focused on women and children overlook men as possible victims even though Haitian migrant men are exposed to various forms of exploitative and forced labour conditions in industries such as construction. Furthermore, marginalised Haitian women who are vulnerable because of the intersection of race, class, and gender, have not been deliberately targeted by Dominican antitrafficking policies and do not appear in the state’s official human trafficking data. Thus, sexualised and gendered conceptualisations of trafficking do not attend to the vulnerabilities of the most marginalised populations.

Ultimately, an intersectional analysis highlights that a response to Bruch’s (2004) call for new models for understanding human trafficking may be found in a gender and human security approach both to scholarship and anti-trafficking policymaking. An intersectional lens shows how embodiments of marginality and belonging shape the experience of the trafficked persons and preclude some from being identified as victims by relevant state policies. By embodying the contrast of the ideal citizen, Haitian migrants constitute the exploitable other who falls outside the scope of predetermined racial or ethnocultural, and socio-economic criteria which would make them worthy of protection. Therefore, both scholarship and anti-trafficking practice should shift from gendered assumptions about such dichotomies as traffickers and trafficked or victims and villains. Instead, scholars and policymakers should account for the ways in which different categories of trafficking and trafficked have been excluded from analysis and from policy discussions. Finally, the antitrafficking regime should focus squarely on the human rights and human security of the victim rather than predominantly on the criminalisation of the trafficker.

Jean-Pierre Murray is a Doctoral Candidate in Global Governance and Human Security at the University of Massachusetts Boston; an Assistant Lecturer at the University of West Indies, Mona; and an Associate Researcher at the Centro para la Observación Migratorio y el Desarollo Social en el Caribe (OBMICA). His research interests include global and regional governance, transnational organized crime (drug trafficking and human trafficking), critical security studies (securitization theory), migration, Latin America and the Caribbean. His dissertation research focuses on the securitization of South-South migration in the Latin America and Caribbean region.


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[1] The Palermo Protocol defines trafficking from three main angles: the actions, the means and the purpose. Actions range from recruitment and transportation, to receiving or harbouring persons; means could be fraud, deception, coercion, abuse of power, among others; and the purpose as exploitation which may be for prostitution, sexual exploitation, forced labour and other similar forms.

[2] Definition of trafficking in the 2003 law: ‘the capture, transportation, transfer or reception of people, using threat, force coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, abuse of power or situation of vulnerability or granting or receiving payments to obtain the consent of a person who has authority over another, for the purposes of sexual exploitation, pornography, debt bondage, forced labour or service, irregular adoption, slavery and/or analogous practices, or the extraction of organs.’

[3] Anti-Haitianism

[4] Indian (indigenous)

[5] Black