01 September 2010

White slavery or the Underground Railroad?

A comment in a Globe and Mail editorial got me thinking not simply about the Tamil boat people but about human smuggling generally. The editor roundly condemned human smuggling, referring to it is as "a form of modern-day slavery." I wondered just what kind of human smuggling he was thinking about. Smuggling women to coerce them into prostitution, certainly. That isn't called "white slavery" for nothing. But how can smuggling a refugee from conditions of oppression and persecution into a free country be considered "a form of modern-day slavery"? It is rather more the opposite: a form of modern-day liberation.

Would the Globe editor, if he were writing in the 19th century, have been so censorious of the Underground Railroad. The Railroad brought at least 30,000 blacks to Canada from the American South. The Tamil "invasion" is a trivial matter by comparison. The Railroad operated in strict violation of the fugitive slave laws of the time, yet most people today think of it as a good, indeed noble, endeavour.

The Tamils are not, like the blacks riding the Railroad, escaping slavery, of course, but they may be escaping intolerable conditions nonetheless. And for that matter, what if they are simply looking for a better life, what if they are economic refugees? How does that have anything to do with "a form of modern-day slavery"? They may incur a debt - about $50,000 apparently - but many university students graduate with greater debts than that. Starting a new life isn't always cheap. And they may be jumping a queue, but considering the queue is imposed on them, there wouldn't seem to be much reason they should accept it.

The Globe editorial concludes by insisting countries must work together "to protect impoverished migrants from those who prey on their desperation." Yet the Globe strongly supports the kind of globalization that allows corporations to prey upon impoverished and often desperate workers in countries such as China and Mexico. We might wonder who is the greater predator, the capitalist who exploits cheap labour in the Third World or the smuggler who helps the exploited move to the First World.

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