The Pozen Family Center for Human Rights and the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality sponsored "Human Trafficking, Labor Migration, and Migration Control in Comparative Historical Perspective" on October 16–17. The conference sought to challenge traditional ideas about human trafficking through a cross-disciplinary approach. Tara Zahra, Johanna Ransmeier, and Amy Dru Stanley, all faculty members in History, organized the conference, together with Susan Gzesh, executive director of the Pozen Center. "Human trafficking is a highly visible human-interest issue," said Zahra. She argued that the lines between voluntary and forced migration are more blurred than a strict binary of traffickers and victims would suggest.

Panelists presented research on historical episodes over the last two centuries in which traffickers were paid to move migrants, some of whom were volunteers and others of whom were not. University of Massachusetts anthropologist Svati Shah complicated the black-and-white conception of trafficked women as powerless victims. She noted that in her interviews with Mumbai sex workers over the last twenty years, none of the women used the Marathi word for "forced" labor, instead invoking the Marathi word for "choice" or even choice within "structural constraints." Stanford historian Matthew Sommer expanded the definition of trafficking to include wives of impoverished Chinese peasants living in the late Qing Dynasty. The practice of polyandry, wife sales, and other wife-loaning strategies would appear on the surface to be a patriarchal exploitation of women. Yet, as Sommer discussed, the wives sold to new husbands could escape poverty or unhappy marriages through these strategies and would sometimes initiate the entire transaction.

Panelists broadened the definition of what constitutes trafficking and invoked instances of personal agency from trafficked individuals. Debate ensued over whether or not "human trafficking" was a useful term altogether due to the name's implication that individuals are stripped of all personal agency. California Polytechnic State University historian Christina Firpo rejected the term in favor of "unfree labor," while other historians, including the University of Chicago’s Johanna Ransmeier, called for unapologetic but careful and precise use of the term human trafficking.

The conference was particularly timely in light of the current Syrian refugee crisis. Ransmeier warned against drawing direct parallels between past historical events and contemporary crises, but she asserted that historical insight about trafficking continues to hold relevance today: "Borders create trafficked people, and I hope that the conference allowed people to think about the concept of trafficking in a way that is particular and still leaves room [for] considerations about the exercise of choice on the part of people moving through constricted spaces."

By Theresa H. Yuan, a fourth-year student majoring in History

This is an excerpt from an article that first appeared in the Chicago Maroon, the student newspaper of the University of Chicago, on October 23, 2015.