Unmaking Migrants: Nigeria’s Campaign to End Human Trafficking

Unmaking Migrants: Nigeria’s Campaign to End Human Trafficking by Stacey Vanderhurst.  (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2022)

Review by Vivian Chenxue Lu, Fordham University


To date, preventing migration is often portrayed as an issue primarily concerning the West or the Global North, whose governments spend significant resources policing migrants from the Global South through detention, deportation, and deliberate rerouting through lethal deserts and oceans. Yet in recent years, preventing migration towards the Global North has also increasingly become a preoccupying effort of Global South nation states, from Mexico’s growing surveillance and policing of its southern border to Sahelian states building European-funded carceral infrastructures to capture Africans northbound towards Europe. Stacey Vanderhurt’s ethnography, Unmaking Migrants: Nigeria’s Campaign to End Human Trafficking, focuses on one example of these striking migration prevention

 projects from a migration-origin country, run by the government of Nigeria in West Africa that attempts to prevent Nigerian women from migrating for sex work abroad. Through this program, the Nigerian state has ‘intercepted’ thousands of Nigerian women attempting to leave the country, detaining those they suspect will conduct sex work abroad and forcing them to undergo multi-week residential rehabilitation programs.

Through a careful ethnographic exploration, Unmaking Migrants examines the ideological contradictions and practical tensions embedded in this Nigerian anti-trafficking state project. Intercepted women are paradoxically figured as victims in need of reeducation and rescue, as suspicious figures deserving of involuntary state detention, as shameful future stains to Nigeria’s national image abroad, and as powerful decision-makers potentially complicit in human trafficking. Grounded in in-depth ethnographic fieldwork, Unmaking Migrants follows women as they are held for weeks at a Nigerian state-run shelter in Lagos. Immersed in the social world of the shelter, the book draws from interviews and participant observation amongst social workers, state officials, and women residents both in the shelter and beyond it. Furthermore, through archival work and media analysis, the book also maps the contours of public and state rhetoric around sex work and Nigerian women abroad, with careful attention towards how migrant sex workers have come to embody a form of national moral panic, or how “these women were framed as a menace to the nation and their reform was the object of so much public scrutiny, they came to stand in for a range of other social anxieties around gender, citizenship, and nationhood that far surpassed the matter of migrant sex work alone” (19).

A major throughline weaving through the chapters of Unmaking Migrants is the refrain “I wan go, I wan go” (I want to go), a phrase continually shouted, cried, whispered, and said by the women undergoing state rehabilitation. This statement of wanting to go has multivalent meanings that highlight the conceptual tensions between protection and punishment in anti-trafficking programs. On a most literal level, the women want to leave the shelter and leave Nigeria, a desire that is by no means unique to them; Nigeria ranks 12th highest in the world in desires to move elsewhere, with an estimated 43 percent of adults reporting interest in emigration. Furthermore, however, Vanderhurst explores how the pervasive utterances of “I wan go” directly confront the state and social services keeping the women at the shelter against their will; the women continually challenge the state designation of them as sex trafficking victims or future victims. They refute the very terms on which they are being held, which render them as powerless victims in need of saving. These insights are uncomfortable but important challenges to international human rights and sex trafficking discourse which relies on clear-cut liberal understandings of individual agency (or lack thereof). Rather, the book builds on feminist labor scholarship that de-exceptionalizes sex work and rather situates it within a broader political economy of labor migration.

Indeed, agency and consent are powerful terms for political mobilization and feminist organizing, yet these concepts can also obscure broader socio-political and economic contexts of migration for sex work. Importantly, Vanderhurst explores how anti-trafficking campaigns use rhetoric of agency and consent to individualize the phenomena of migration and trafficking to the level of personal choice. At the shelter, women’s involuntary detention is explained as a form of saving and rehabilitation, which attempts to dissuade women from migrating by warning of potential future dangers abroad and providing some professional training like hair braiding, which proves to be redundant or insufficient for significant upward mobility. Furthermore, broader public campaigns through media and anti-trafficking billboard advertisements admonish women for making shameful choices and attempt to reframe urgent structural political and economic questions of migration into individualized moral ones.

By considering the Nigerian state projects on its own terms, Vanderhurst shows us the ways in which gender and women’s bodies are policed as not only sites of social morality, but also sites of national border-making themselves. That is, Nigerian women’s bodies and sex work abroad are policed by the Nigerian state as a way of symbolically controlling Nigeria’s global image. These insights from Unmaking Migrants are of particular relevance for contemporary political anthropologists of borders, migration, and the gendered contours of citizenship. The book uses the term “deviant mobility” to describe the movements of “already marginalized people around the world–manifested by impossible bureaucracies, harassment at borders, and lauded anti-trafficking schemes alike” (166), which is a provoking and useful way to conceptualize migrant activities that are seen to symbolically threaten the modern nation state. A gripping and thoughtful epilogue provides an intertwined account of Vanderhurst’s own migration and visa document journey in Nigeria, as a white American woman, contrasted with her Nigerian women interlocutors. Linking these experiences and insights from the book to a broader feminist literature on states and borders, Unmaking Migrants shows how modern nationalism is intricately bound by gendered definitions of citizenry, where women’s bodies are symbolic sites of policing national honor, in which race, gender, and nationality are intertwined.

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