By guest contributor Emma Kluge
On April 12-13, scholars from across the world gathered together at the University of Sydney for Trafficking, Smuggling and Illicit Migration in International History: New Geographic and Scalar Perspectives. This workshop and conference was birthed out of a collaboration between the Trafficking Past project led by Julia Laite (Birkbeck, University of London) and Philippa Hetherington (University College London) and the Laureate Research Program in International History led by Glenda Sluga (University of Sydney). The Trafficking Past project aims to interrogate ‘trafficking’ in history on global, national and local scales within the context of migration, labour and gender, and to bring a critical historical perspective to present-day political debates over trafficking and migration. The Laureate Research Programme in International History brings together a team of specialist researchers to ask innovative questions about how humans have imagined the international as a realm of politics and society in the past. The purpose of this co-organised event was to gather together research from and on the Asia-Pacific region and examine how different geographic and scalar perspectives can contribute to historicising ‘trafficking’. If you want to see how things played out in real-time catch up on the proceedings through following the #traffickingpast hashtag on twitter and see photos of the conference.
The proceedings kicked off with a Sydney Ideas public event on Wednesday 11 April entitled ‘Beyond Trafficking and Modern Slavery’ chaired by Philippa Hetherington and featuring talks from Jennifer Burns, director of Anti-Slavery Australia and professor at UTS, and Sverre Molland, anthropologist at Australian National University. The event drew a large crowd of students, academics and members of the public. It brought a historic and legal perspective to current development of Australian Modern Slavery legislation and challenged citizens and activists alike to consider the history of approaches to combating trafficking and reconsider how they mobilize the language of trafficking within the political sphere.
The following day a more intimate group of scholars gathered together for the workshop. The speakers were arranged into panels, each with a generous amount of time for discussion and debate in order to draw out connections and interrogate ‘trafficking’ in its different contexts and iterations.
Julia Laite and Philippa Hetherington set the frame for the workshop and then the conference kicked off with the first panel which explored how local and global scales can be used to study trafficking in the nineteenth century.  April Haynes (University of Wisconsin) spoke on intelligence officers, employment agencies, and narratives of trafficking in early nineteenth century America. Her paper focused on the politics of intimate labour in a local context. This paper was followed by Rae Frances (Australian National University) who took up an international frame to examine sex trafficking through the prism of empire. This panel inspired discussions on the usefulness of different geographical frames in thinking through the policing and responses to trafficking. What specificities become visible at the local level and what patterns emerge on the global scale?
This was followed by a panel that focused on trafficking in Asia Pacific. Sophie Loy-Wilson (University of Sydney) examined the Australian discourse of illicit migration and its use to discredit Chinese workers in Australia and how this contributed to restrictive migration schemes and harsh legal practises in the nineteenth century. Then Sandy Chang (University of Texas) took us to British Malaya with her examination of the brothel economy from 1900s-1930s. She complicated ideas of trafficking through examining the lives of Chinese women involved in the sex trade. These papers generated a discussion of the politics of different forms of labour and its intersection with race and gender.
On Friday morning Clare Corbould (Deakin University) took centre stage to discuss the Pacific Afterlives of slavery through the writing of Mark Twain. Corbould highlighted the need to connect studies of the Pacific indentured labour trade in the nineteenth century with the broader historiography of slavery and specifically American studies scholarship of the legacies of the eighteenth-century slave trade. How do we define the term slavery? At what point does trafficking and coerced labour become slavery? How do our conceptions of these term impact on the histories we write?
The second panel for the day was on Law, Regulation and Global Governance. Both papers asked how legal definitions or official discourse might obscure forms of trafficking. Jean Allain (Monash University) took up a legal frame to examine the meanings of trafficking law as articulated at the 1904 International conference for the Repression of the White Slave Traffic. Julia Martinez (University of Wollongong) challenged us to think through our maps of trafficking – literal and scholarly – and think through which regions have been excluded through exploring the case study of trafficking in the Philippines under the US administration. Martinez highlighted the need to study the trafficking of women within the context of migration in order to recognize more complex or less visible forms of forced labour.
This was followed by a panel on Trafficking and Technology.  Leslie Barnes (Australian National University) spoke on Nicholas Kristof and the reshaping of humanitarian impulse. She gave a critical literary analysis of Kristof’s twitter feed surrounding a Cambodian brothel raid in 2011 and what it tells us about modern conceptions of trafficking and public responses to it. Next Julia Laite and Philippa Hetherington shared the Trafficking Past project’s challenges in developing an online database on trafficking. They reflected on the potentials and pitfalls of collaboration and education in the online world and the role of historians in engaging with modern debates about human trafficking and forced migration. How might we use the digital space to historicize trafficking? How can scholars fruitfully intervene in debates around trafficking and modern slavery discourse?
This discussion coalesced into the closing session where panelists reflected on the concept of trafficking and larger themes raised by the conference. Fiona Paisley (Griffith University) asked participants to consider different ways of framing studies of trafficking, such as transnationalism and cosmopolitanism, to think about trafficking across different scales and networks. Glenda Sluga highlighted the link between trafficking and studies of capitalism. What happens when we add businesses and corporations to our map of trafficking? Laite urged us to consider what it would look like to radically contextualise the lives of those involved in trafficking. How might we use the lives of individuals to draw out organic connections across empire? Finally, Hetherington reflected on importance of critically examining narratives of trafficking and not falling into the trap of sexual exceptionalism through oversimplification. In drawing together these themes, Laite and Hetherington urged scholars to continue to grapple with diverse scalar and geographical perspectives and use this network as a way to collaborate and contextualise their studies.*
As part of the continuing work of the Trafficking Past project Julia Laite and Philippa Hetherington will be editing special issue of Journal of Women’s History on Migration, Sex, and Intimate Labour’ which will continue to draw out the themes of the workshop. You can find out more about the Trafficking Past project on their website (Link: and stay up to date with their twitter (link: @traffickingpast). You can follow along with the International History Laureate on their website ( and twitter @IntHist. The conference program can be found here:
Emma Kluge is a PhD Candidate at the University of Sydney. Emma is a historian of human rights, decolonization and the Pacific. She is currently working on her PhD thesis ‘Histories of West Papuan resistance and resilience’, examining the development of the West Papuan independence movement in the 1960s-70s. She is an avid #twitterstorian and PhD-blogger; you can follow her on twitter @EmmaKluge1 and read about her research adventures and misadventures at