Vulnerabilising the trafficked child: Structural violence of governance practices in the EU and ASEAN

Vulnerabilising the trafficked child: Structural violence of governance practices in the EU and ASEAN
Elisa Narminio


The internationalisation of society over the last century has promoted the idea of a global community aspiring to common human rights and values. It is in this context of evolution of human rights that "child trafficking" was consolidated as an international legal category through the United Nations Palermo Protocol (2000). The majority of countries in the world have adapted this definition in their national law, and regional regimes have emerged, with the aim of harmonising legislation and fostering cooperation between states. However, 20 years after this effervescence in favour of anti-trafficking policies, we are largely faced with a failure: while many laws and public policies have been created, few children have been "rescued" from trafficking. Even less in a sustainable way. This raises the question of what is at work for these "victimized" children, as they become subjects of governance and objects of control. What effects does the legal norm of child trafficking, and the policies and institutions that flow from it, have on the children they are supposed to protect?

Drawing on research conducted in the European Union and the Association of South-East Asian Nations, the results of this research suggest that child traffickees are caught in cycles of increasing vulnerability, with little hope of escaping from them in the current state of affairs. Indeed, the economic, political and social structures on which our institutions are based produce structural violence against these children, even though they are targeted by protective measures. Paradoxically, the governments and international bodies that are most active in eliminating child trafficking are also the most powerful drivers of the system that produces the machinery of structural violence and child trafficking.

Part 1 of the thesis examines the construction of the child trafficking norm. How do governance structures at the international, regional and national levels constitute, support and disseminate the norm of child trafficking (Section 1)? We will analyse the construction of an international prohibition system based on multiple legal categories and old and disparate moral, political and social norms (Chapter 1). While “child trafficking” is generally read as a norm with fixed content with minimal variations related to the legal context, we argue here that the complexities and subtleties of the norm and the policies that flow from it can only be understood when child trafficking is seen as a cluster of norms. This cluster is subject to adaptations by international, transnational, regional and local actors, who make it an object of negotiation and cooperation, constantly transforming the boundaries of the concept as they use it (Chapter 2).

As such, discourses, institutions, and the performances of stakeholders have a determining importance in the constitution of the child trafficking apparatus. Part 2 therefore seeks to examine what happens to trafficked children when, in the name of their protection, they become subjects of governance. Through an analysis of specific the two apparatus that govern anti-trafficking - migration and protection - we will demonstrate the mechanisms of structural violence at work and the inherent contradictions that block effective protection of trafficked children (Section 2). Drawing on Foucaultian analyses of biopower, Chapter 3 will show the functioning of mechanisms that ”let die” child victims of trafficking within the protection system. Despite the existence of elaborate protection systems to protect minors from all forms of exploitation and abuse, in the case of child victims of human trafficking, it must be noted that the system is often powerless to lift them out of these situations, even often unwittingly increasing their vulnerability (Chapter 4).

Section 3 examines the role of the private sector in the dynamics of child trafficking, whether as a trafficking actor or as a partner of public authorities through the delegation of anti-trafficking powers. These migrant children are caught up in global migration flows, largely orchestrated according to North-South distributive logics, which are partly linked to production models. Some trafficked children are caught up in these market logics, and at the same time are confronted with a criminalisation of migration, which places them in a doubly victimizing position (chapter 5). In order to be effective in combating child trafficking, an increasing number of countries are moving from incentive systems (e.g. the UN Global Compact) to legal frameworks that require companies to take part in anti-trafficking policies in their production chains. Some initiatives are promising, and progress is to be welcomed at the level of " Tier 1 " providers in some MNEs (Chapter 5). However, further down the supply chains, there is evidence of a leveling down or even a risk of accelerated operations due to "blue washing" practices and increased pressure being transferred to suppliers (Chapter 6).

The thesis concludes that there is structural violence against exploited children in the EU and ASEAN by the very institutions dedicated to their protection.

Outline of the thesis:

General Introduction
PART 1. Global governance of the child trafficking norm: Constructions, politics and meanings-in-use
Chapter 1. Constructing a global prohibition regime on child trafficking: Of deviance, defiance and poor kids
Chapter 2. Performing the norm, from global to local: The case for a child trafficking norm cluster
PART 2. Paradoxes of public governance: The structural violence of the anti-trafficking apparatus in the EU and ASEAN
Chapter 3. The apparatus of child protection: “Letting die” the trafficking victims
Chapter 4. The migration apparatus and child trafficking: The capture of youth labour migrant
PART 3. The private sector and child trafficking: structural violence of global value chains in the EU and ASEAN
Chapter 5. Child Trafficking Inc.: MNEs’ business models and loci of exploitation
Chapter 6. The road to Anti-Trafficking Inc.: Transformative tipping points for socially sustainable global value chains
General Conclusion: Brewing favourable winds


Elisa Narminio

Defended in


PhD defended at

Université Libre de Bruxelles (Belgium), REPI Institute & Waseda University (Tokyo, Japan), Graduate School of Asia-Pacific Studies (GSAPS)


Social Sciences


Global Asia (Asia and other parts of the World)
Southeast Asia


International Relations and Politics
Human Rights
Diasporas and Migration