The eleventh issue of the Anti-Trafficking Review was released this past week on the theme ‘Irregular Migrants, Refugees or Trafficked Persons?’ The Anti-Trafficking Review is an open access, peer reviewed journal that is published biannually by the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women. This particular issue focuses on the complexities and nuances that surround the categorization of migrants. One of my tasks at GAATW was fact-checking articles for the ATR; below is a brief summary on what some of the articles in this issue touch upon.

Bandana Pattanaik speaking at ATR panel discussion

Global migration has increased significantly in the past century and recent surges in migrant flows have put the topic at the forefront of discussions, news stories, and policy making processes. The growth in scale and the complexities of the issue have revealed gaps and shortcomings on the current international legal framework. Namely, the issue of categorization and how different labels have the ability to completely alter one’s migration experience. This is especially important at this time as the international community is preparing to adopt two intergovernmental compacts: the Global Compact on Refugees and the Global Compact for Safe, Regular and Orderly Migration.

Whether one is categorized as a trafficked person, an irregular migrant, a refugee, or a smuggled migrant is influenced by numerous factors including gender, race, and nationality. In the debate section of this issue, four authors discuss the statement, ‘It is important and necessary to make clear distinctions between (irregular) migrants, refugees and trafficked persons’. Responding to the debate in ‘The Antics of Semantics in International Law’ Marika McAdam1 describes how different labels “can make the difference between arrest and protection, or between deportation and asylum, or between return to an uncertain fate and assistance for a decent life.” Labels can distinguish a person as a ‘deserving victim’ worthy of receiving assistance from the state, or an ‘illegal immigrant’ who must be deported.

“In short, the distinctions we make in the language of international law may mean the difference between life and death”1

Panel discussion at ATR lau

However, it is important to note that these categorizes used in international law are not mutually exclusive. One can shift between various labels at different points of their journey making assigning a fixed label extremely difficult. An example of the complex nature of categories can be seen through the experience of Nigerian women asylum seekers in Serughetti’s article ‘Smuggled or Trafficked? Refugee or job seeker? Deconstructing rigid classifications by rethinking women’s vulnerability’2 as most of the women are also identified as potential victims of human trafficking. In the article, Serughetti explores how vulnerability is fundamental in the construction of the ‘deserving victim’ and highlights the role of receiving states in reinforcing dominant narratives of migrant women as vulnerable subjects, thereby reducing their agency.

Anderson and Li explore the complexities of labels through their article ‘Refugees or Victims of Human Trafficking? The case of migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong’3.  Their paper focuses on migrant domestic workers who have asylum claims and may also simultaneously be trafficked persons. Their evidence comes from an analysis from the NGO they work at, Justice Centre Hong Kong, which showed that among a sample of client files there were many points at which persecution/torture and human trafficking experiences possibly overlapped. Public perception sees refugees as people fleeing political persecution while human trafficking is seen to only affect migrant domestic workers and sex workers. However, these categories are not mutually exclusive and must be understood along a continuum as migrants situations may change throughout their journey.

“…it has been argued that categorical distinctions between these persons can lead to a ‘hierarchy’ of assistance excluding those who do not fit ‘neatly’ into the definitions of refugee or trafficked person, but who still need help”4

The field of categorizing migrants is complicated and unclear, however, it can completely alter the life of a migrant. In the words of Pia Oberoi5 we must keep in mind that when moving forward, “states and other actors must reconsider a single-minded focus on distinctions, particularly where this may result in restricting the rights of those considered ‘less deserving’. Instead, migration governance must prioritize and guarantee the universal protection of human rights law for all people on the move.”

To read the full articles and other issues of the Anti-Trafficking Review, please visit

Registration table




  1. M McAdam, ‘The Antics of Semantics in International Law’, Anti-Trafficking Review, issue 11, 2018, pp. 125,
  2. G Serughetti, ‘Smuggled or Trafficked? Refugee or job seeker? Deconstructing rigid classifications by rethinking women’s vulnerability’, Anti-Trafficking Review, issue 11, 2018, pp. 16–35,
  3. J Anderson and A Li, ‘Refugees or Victims of Human Trafficking? The case of migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong’, Anti-Trafficking Review, issue 11, 2018, pp. 52–68,
  4. S Elliott, ‘Call Me by My Name’, Anti-Trafficking Review, issue 11, 2018, pp. 133,
  5. P Oberoi, ‘Words Matter. But Rights Matter More’, Anti-Trafficking Review, issue 11, 2018, pp. 132,