Victims of Trafficking, Reproductive Rights, and Asylum

Oxford Handbook of Reproductive Ethics (2016)
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My aim is to extend and complement the arguments that others have already made for the claim that women who are citizens of economically disadvantaged states and who have been trafficked into sex work in economically advantaged states should be considered candidates for asylum. Familiar arguments cite the sexual violence and forced labor that trafficked women are subjected to along with their well-founded fear of persecution if they’re repatriated. What hasn’t been considered is that reproductive rights are also at stake. I explain how reproductive rights are implicated in sex trafficking. Moreover, I contend that sex traffickers’ abuse of women’s reproductive rights is persecutory and that that this persecutory abuse obliges destination states to offer asylum to transnational sex trafficking victims. I start by sketching reproductive human rights doctrine. I then examine studies of women who are in post-trafficking recovery programs in order to ascertain the impact of their past experience of forced sex work on their reproductive freedom and health. On the basis of these findings, I maintain that, among other outrages, sex trafficking systematically violates victims’ reproductive human rights. In view of this abuse, women trafficked into sex work might seem to be prime candidates for asylum in destination states. Yet, economically well-off destination states are not particularly receptive to this idea, and international law provides some justification for their chilliness. Preliminary to challenging them, I explicate four ways in which international anti-trafficking law and international refugee law interfere with viewing women trafficked into sex work as refugees and approving their applications for asylum. The second half of my paper aims to overcome those legal obstacles. In the interest of parsimony and because there are many continuities between U.S. refugee law and anti-trafficking law and the policies of similar destination states, I focus mainly on the U.S. in this part of the paper. To anchor my argument, I spotlight two precedents in refugee law for taking reproductive human rights seriously and several precedents for treating trafficked women as members of a distinct social group as required by refugee law. I then urge that a law enforcement gestalt has gained undue influence over U.S. legal practices where anti-trafficking law intersects with refugee protection law. A human rights gestalt is needed as a counterweight, for otherwise victims of sex trafficking and the reproductive abuse they’ve suffered are erased. Taking up a human rights perspective and mobilizing the precedents I’ve identified, I show that respecting the reproductive human rights of women who have been trafficked into sex work entails that affluent destination states must recognize their right to asylum.



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Diana Meyers
University of Connecticut

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