Dept of History, Classics and Archaeology | Our research | Research Projects | Trafficking, Smuggling and Illicit Migration in Historical and Gendered Perspective
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Trafficking, Smuggling and Illicit Migration in Historical and Gendered Perspective

Human trafficking, 'people smuggling' and clandestine migration are some of the most politically volatile and socially pressing issues in the present day, but also have a long history. This project (AHRC £249,765 2016-2019) 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 (HCA, Birkbeck), a specialist on trafficking and migration in the British World, and the CI, Philippa Hetherington (SEESS, UCL), 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.

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. This new research will elaborate a global history of trafficking, at a time when historical perspective is critically needed to improve understanding of the phenomenon in the present day. It will go beyond existing scholarship, which focuses on international campaigns against trafficking, by examining discourses about trafficking, the operation of law enforcement and the experiences of trafficked persons and their traffickers.

We will seek to connect concepts and experiences of trafficking, questioning 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.

Through a new international network and collaborative digital project, the research will build on and facilitate the work of emerging scholars, and share this work with a broad academic audience and with non-academic beneficiaries. A series of workshops will bring together historians of trafficking, smuggling and illicit migration in other areas of the world. Invited specialists will contribute to the development of a unique web-application, centred around an interactive mapping project showing the sites of trafficking globally.

The comparative and collaborative nature of the project will also 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?

For more information please contact Dr Julia Laite (

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