Dependence and Human Trafficking in the Context of Transnational Marriage



Human trafficking is often associated with exploitation in prostitution. However, the UN Trafficking Protocol lists several other forms of exploitation as forms of human trafficking, including domestic and sexual servitude. These are forms of exploitation that can take place within the context of a marriage.

In this article I discuss issues of vulnerability, power and exploitation in the context of transnational marriage. It is based on a study of Thai and Russian women married to Norwegian men conducted in 2006–2008. Based on an analysis of the experiences, priorities and challenges these women face, I argue that systematic exploitation of the dependence created in transnational marriage in some instances can and should be conceptualized and prosecuted as cases of human trafficking.

How Can We Understand Trafficking In The Context of Marriage?

In publications on human trafficking I regularly come across references to trafficking for forced marriage, for false marriage or simply, for marriage (see for instance Chuang, 1998; Hughes, 2004; UNODC, 2009; Wijers & Lap-Chew, 2003; Zhao, 2003). But there are few attempts to clarify what is meant by this, making it a difficult concept to use. How can a marriage be linked to trafficking, and how should we distinguish this from other transnational marriages? And if there is such a thing as trafficking for marriage, who then are the traffickers? With this article I wish to clarify the trafficking concept's relation to transnational marriage in a north-European context. The discussion is based on qualitative interviews with women who are in, have been in or are planning to enter into transnational marriages, and focus on issues of power, vulnerability and independence.

Widespread international marriage-migration not only takes place to Europe and North America, but is also reported to take place to a large number of countries across Asia (for instance Taiwan (Tsay and Wu, 2006), Korea (Freeman, 2005) and Japan (Nakamatsu, 2003). With constantly increasing barriers for international migration, marriage-migration has become one of very few options left for residents of developing or transitional economies for international migration; in 2006, more women from third world countries gained residency in Norway through marriage to non-immigrant Norwegian, than they did through asylum, as refugees or through marriage with an immigrant Norwegian (Tyldum and Tveit, 2008; 19). For many women transnational marriage-migration constitutes an opportunity for upward social mobility. For others it is a response to difficulties in finding a husband as they for various reasons are not perceived as “marriage material” according to local traditions, due for instance to divorce, prostitution experience, or age. Migration can also mean moving away from repressive gender roles and family control, and as such creates potential for greater freedom and opportunity (Constable, 2005). This way, the possible gains from transnational marriage-migration are considerable. But these potential gains associated with transnational marriage create vulnerability to, and potential for, exploitation, because many believe the potential gains make it worth the risks. The challenge in writing this article has therefore been to give a balanced presentation of a practice that have positive outcomes for many, but at the same time enables severe exploitation and abuse.

Methodology and Data

The data and analysis of this article are based on a study of marriage-migration from Thailand and Russia to Norway, carried out between 2006 and 2008 (Tyldum and Tveit, 2008). The study is based on qualitative interviews in various locations in Norway, Russia and Thailand. In Norway we visited nine different communities (urban and rural), in Northern, South-western, and Eastern parts of the country. It was an explicit aim to cover a wide variety of experiences, and we recruited respondents through a number of different channels; in Norway women have been recruited through local NGOs (offering language courses etc.), women's shelters, internet marriage agencies and networks. We also had an advertisement in the orthodox church's Easter magazine that put us in contact with a few respondents. In Russia and Thailand respondents were recruited through agencies and networks in Norway. During our fieldwork in Norway we found to our surprise that out of eight Thai women interviewed in women's shelters, six told us that they had met their husband in Pattaya. All were from Northern parts of Thailand, but had travelled to Pattaya in their 20s (or earlier), usually with the explicit goal of finding a husband there.1Intrigued by this apparent dominance of women from Pattaya in the shelters, we decided to include Pattaya in addition to Bangkok for our fieldwork in Thailand ration (see Tyldum and Tveit, 2008 for more on marriage migration in Pattaya). In Pattaya we got in touch with women through the Norwegian seaman's church, and a Catholic organization offering language courses to women in prostitution.

Close to 70 interviews have been conducted, including interviews with more than 40 women in various stages of marriage-migration. Some were merely thinking about marrying abroad, others were dating (or communicating with) a potential husband, married, divorced but still in Norway or had returned to Thailand or Russia after failed migration experiences. Most of the interviews were in the form of life stories. The interviews have been used to map women's experiences, and choices made at various stages in their life, that lead to a marriage in Norway, or to them seeking a husband abroad. Particular focus has been on the women's perceived alternatives when migration is considered. As this can easily be a function of retrospective rationalizing and legitimizing practices, we also conducted extensive fieldwork in the countries of origin, with women who were considering or attempting to find a husband abroad. We also gave particular attention to the decision to stay in or leave a dysfunctional marriage.

The data should be interpreted as versions of stories that were presented to us in specific settings and contexts. We introduced ourselves as researchers, working on a policy project financed by the Norwegian government, saying that we had been asked by Norwegian authorities to find out how marriage-migration comes about, and why it turns out to be less successful for some. Sometimes we emphasized that we wanted to develop recommendations for the authorities for how better to assist women experiencing similar situations.

This is generally what motivated them to tell their stories and the background for their construction of narratives. The policy component of the project clearly influenced the kind of stories we heard. Many of the respondents took this responsibility seriously, and tried to account for things that had happened as thoroughly as possible, because they thought telling their stories would make a difference. In addition to the policy component, the respondents' satisfaction with their own life situation at the time of the interview influenced how the stories were presented. Some of the narratives presented were marked by disillusionment and frustration; this was for instance the case for some women who earned money by prostitution at the time of the interview, and women who were afraid to lose their right to residency as they were facing a divorce before they had obtained independent right of residency. Other women told their life stories as stories of success, emphasizing their own opportunities and agency. This was more often the case for women who were still in a successful marriage or were in a process of divorce but felt secure and protected. The different contexts and life situations our respondents were in at the time of the interview has consequently given different perspectives on the processes of marriage, migration and divorce, and as such, helped us to get a fuller picture of both the opportunities and the pitfalls inherent in international marriage-migration.

In this project we have focussed only on couples where the resident spouse is the Norwegian man, and the marriage-migrant is a women. This is by far the most common combination for transnational marriages in Norway at present. However, it is highly possible that similar mechanisms take place when men from developing or transitional economies marry Norwegian women, or when the Norwegian spouse is of immigrant background. This is an empirical question that needs investigation.

In this article I discuss transnational marriages where at least one of the spouses has deliberately looked for a partner abroad, through internet agencies, networks or visits to other countries. Furthermore, we have looked almost exclusively at the marriage-migrant's actions and motivations, with only minor emphasis on the Norwegian spouse. This was motivated by our interest in understanding the actions of the marriage-migrants; how they choose to enter into, or break out of, transnational marriage and in particular, how they respond in situations of exploitation. While we have conducted about 10 interviews with men who contemplate entering or are currently in a transitional marriages, our focus has not been on their motivation and choices. Their interviews can rather be seen as a form of key respondent interviews, as they would be very knowledgeable about how marriage-migration takes place. Consequently we are not able to say anything about the Norwegian men's intentions in entering or breaking out of transnational marriage (for studies on men and transnational marriage see for instance: Egeland, 2001; Nielsen and Gitz-Johansen, 2006; Nordin, 2007).

This project has raised an array of ethical issues. Some of these were expected and we had developed routines to meet them at the start of the project. But there were also ethical issues that we were not properly prepared for. This has inspired a separate article, on ethics and access among respondents who are difficult to reach, that discusses problems associated with gatekeeper recruitment, building of trust and ‘faking friendship', challenges in interviewing respondents whose attitudes and behaviour that deviates strongly from social norms, and various aspects of risk of harm from participating in social science research. Rather than attempting to summarize these complex issues here, I will refer the interested reader to this article (Tyldum, forthcoming). Standard procedures for obtaining informed consent, and of anonymizing respondents, have of course been implemented.

Transnational Marriages In Norway and Internationally

In Norway there has been a strong increase in transnational marriages in the last decade, with more than a doubling between 1996 and 2006. In 2006, 14 per cent of all marriages in Norway were between a man without immigrant background, and a non-Norwegian woman. Of these marriages three out of four were with a woman from a non-EU and non-western country. Women from Thailand, Russia and the Philippines alone made up 40 per cent of the transnational wives. Among Norwegian women there are significantly fewer who marry a foreigner. In this group there has also been little change in the number of transnational marriages over the last decade, and the marriages are much more likely to be with a person from a EU or western country (Tyldum and Tveit, 2008).

It is tempting to explain the increase in transnational marriages by increased globalization and transnational interaction, which create more opportunities for men and women of different nationalities to meet and fall in love. However, if we look closer at the statistics we find that behind the doubling of transnational marriages in Norway during the last decade, there is no increase in marriages between Norwegian and other European and North-American residents, where one would expect an effect of increased interaction to take place. The increase is constituted more or less in full by marriages between non-immigrant Norwegian men and women from non-EU and non-western countries, such as Brazil, Thailand, Russia and the Philippines (Tyldum and Tveit, 2008).

In societies where widespread transnational marriage-migration takes place, it is not uncommon for men and women to consciously seek a spouse of a foreign nationality. Usually, men look for a spouse in economically less developed countries, while women are seeking a spouse in wealthier countries. There are many reasons for this, and it is not the topic of this article, (for various discussions on this see for instance Constable, 2005; Jones and Ramdas, 2004; Lotherington and Flemmen, 2007; Nakamatsu, 2003; Nielsen & Gitz-Johansen, 2006; Nordin, 2007; Schein, 2005).

What Is Trafficking?

In this article I aim at describing a particular form of dependence that often appears in connection with marriage-migration, and I argue that when this dependence is systematically exploited, we can and should evoke trafficking legislation. Many will ask what the trafficking label adds that cannot be adequately addressed with the use of concepts tied to exploitation, vulnerability and domestic violence. Some academics shun the trafficking concept, and there are a number of good reasons for this. Most importantly, the concept carries so many different connotations, and is so poorly specified in much of the trafficking literature, that its usage tends to blur more than it specifies (Tyldum, 2010). Furthermore the trafficking concept is criticized for under-communicating female agency, presenting mobility a problem that should be controlled or even stopped, leading to policies further inhibiting in particular women and youths from acting to change their lives (see for instance Doezema, 2000; Dottridge, 2003).

When I still choose to use the trafficking concept, it is because I believe it carries some connotations that are important for understanding certain aspects of current migration flows. Based on many years of research in a wide variety of migrant communities, interviewing labour migrants, women in prostitution, and marriage-migrants, I have come to understand trafficking as systematic exploitation of vulnerabilities inherent in migration. These vulnerabilities are not the creation of traffickers or exploiters, but are produced by underlying factors such as poverty and economic inequality, discrimination against women, and lack of opportunities for migration (Ray, 2005–2006). However, these vulnerabilities create an arena that makes exploitation possible, and one that traffickers can manipulate to keep their victims in a situation where continued exploitation is possible.

The forms of exploitation associated with human trafficking cannot be seen in isolation from other practices of exploitation, in for instance prostitution arenas or labour markets. However, the vulnerabilities created though migration can change the nature of relationships and, through this, alter power-relationships and opportunities for exploitation; for instance, we often see that pimps gain increased power over women and men in prostitution by moving them across borders, away from their networks and into a cultural and legal systems they are unfamiliar with. This way, human trafficking can be seen as a scheme to remove a person from access to the rule of law in order to mistreat that person for another's pleasure or profit (Jackson, 2002). This vulnerability inherent in migration from poorer to richer countries is not only exploited in prostitution arenas, where the trafficking label is most commonly used. It is also exploited in labour markets, and as I will show, in transnational marriage-migration.

As a starting point for my discussion I use the understanding of human trafficking laid out in the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children, supplementing the United Nation's Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime. Human trafficking, in line with this definition, can be understood as consisting of three main elements. First there needs to be an element of action or mobility (recruitment, transportation, harbouring or receipt), secondly a means-element2 (including coercion, fraud and deception) and finally, an intention to exploit.

In this article I discuss the means and exploitation elements with relation to trafficking through marriage. I will show that inherent in marriage-migration is the potential for a specific form of vulnerability – a dependence that creates particular opportunities for exploitation. This dependence can also be understood as positioning the spouse in a position of power that s/he can abuse if s/he chooses to.

The problem of trafficking and consent

One of the main problems with using the trafficking concept in relation to transnational marriage relates to the issue of consent – the trafficking concept is usually reserved for situations where the victim is in a situation against their will. And in the case of transnational marriages, most not only accept being married to a foreigner but actively seek marriage with a foreigner. The women I refer to here are not locked up and, with a few exceptions, they are not threatened or forced to stay married. Does it then make sense to evoke the trafficking label?

The issue of an adult migrant's right to consent to an activity or relationship is tied to one of the key controversies in the trafficking discourse; it is particularly dominant in relation to discussions on prostitution, but it also appears in relation to questions of labour-rights and exploitation of migrant labour. Following long and difficult negotiations, the UN trafficking protocol states that the consent of a person is not relevant if s/he is exposed to any of the coercive means listed. This reflects a long-standing principle of international human rights law; in a situation where personal freedom is taken away, individual consent becomes irrelevant (Gallagher, 2010). It goes without saying that trafficking can take place in situations of direct exercise of power, such as force, coercion and manipulation. But the UN protocol also lists other means of control, of which two are of particular relevance here; the abuse of a position of vulnerability, and the abuse of a position of power.

The concept of abuse of a position of vulnerability is unique to the Trafficking Protocol. According to the travaux prepartoires, the interpretive notes to the protocol, the abuse of a position of vulnerability should be understood “as referring to any situation in which the person involved had no real or acceptable alternative but to submit to the abuse involved”. The explanatory report to the European Convention on Action against Trafficking, which reproduces the Protocol definition, goes further than the drafters of the protocol, in stating that:

The vulnerability may be of any kind, whether physical, psychological, emotional, family-related, social or economic. The situation might, for example, involve insecurity or illegality of the victim's immigration status, economic dependence or fragile health. In short, the situation can be any state of hardship in which a human being is impelled to accept being exploited. Persons abusing such a situation flagrantly infringe human rights and violate human dignity and integrity which no one can validly renounce.

(Council of Europe in Gallagher, 2010; p. 32)

Abuse of a position of power as a means for trafficking does not have a precise definition in the protocol itself; however according to the travaux prepartoires, it is noted that the abuse of authority (in an earlier, alternative formulation) should be understood to include the power that male family members might have over female family member in some legal systems, and the power that parents might have over their children (Gallagher, 2010; p. 32).

These indirect means of control and abuse of power and vulnerability are commonly applied in discussions of trafficking for prostitution. In prostitution arenas we have seen that traffickers control women through emotional attachment with the pimp, sometimes referred to as the “loverboy” phenomena (Verhoeven and van Gestel, 2011). Other traffickers maintain control by isolating their victims from society at large and constructing a perception that nobody cares how a “whore” is treated. Or, simply, they maintain control by withholding money until the “contract” is completed (Brunovskis and Tyldum, 2004).

Many women who arrive in Norway for marriage come from situations we would understand as vulnerable if they were recruited for prostitution. Some are single mothers struggling to make ends meet, others earn money in prostitution, or are economically dependent on a partner or parents they have good reasons to want to leave. In addition, I will argue that transnational marriage under the current migration regime automatically puts the local spouse in a position of power and the marriage-migrant in a situation of dependence. This is a transitional situation for most couples, a situation that both spouses work hard to leave. But this situation of dependence can be abused for control and exploitation.

Dependence, Power And Vulnerability In Transnational Marriage

Let us leave the trafficking concept behind for a while. For now I wish to illustrate the forms of dependence that takes place in ordinary transnational marriages, where there is no element of exploitation and abuse. This dependence is a characteristic of the structures in which marriage-migration takes place, and is not necessarily a consequence of the action of a particular spouse.

Transnational couples face a number of challenges that couples with similar cultural backgrounds do not have – often there are significant differences in educational level, age differences, and lack of a common language. In addition, as it is costly to travel back and forth over large distances, many decide to marry having known each other only briefly, to be able to spend more time together. Marriage-migrants are also often accused of entering into pro-forma marriages in order to gain the right of residency in an EU country. Taking all of this into consideration, we could expect relatively high divorce rates for these groups. I was therefore surprised to find that the divorce rates for transnational couples in Norway was only somewhat higher than for couples of two Norwegians; After six years of marriage, two-thirds of Russian and Thai women married to a Norwegian remain married, only 14 percentage points less than couples of two Norwegians of non-immigrant background (Tyldum and Tveit, 2008). Although the divorce rates are higher for transnational couples, I would have expected differences to be larger, taking into consideration the limited time and opportunity many couples have to get to know each other before marriage, and the large number of challenges they face after marriage. Rather than indicating widespread abuse of the marriage institution for residence purposes, I will argue that these numbers are worryingly low.

How can low divorce rates be a problem? Let me illustrate what I mean through an example. Anna was married to a man almost 40 years older than her, and most of the work in the house, raising their two children, and taking care of her mother-in-law in her old age, fell on her. After some years in the country, when she had developed some language skills, she was able to communicate with the neighbours, and through them learned about the opportunity to get a cleaning job nearby. With her own income she was able to start taking driving lessons, and she eventually got a drivers licence that enabled her to move around in the countryside where she lives. Until then she had taken the children to school daily on foot and by bus. And finally, after 10 years in Norway, she worked out how she could get papers to document her independent right to residency (a right she had had from the day her first son was born, nine years earlier). Only after these documents were in order did she go to her husband and say “I don't think you are treating me well. If you don't treat me better I will leave you.” Anna's husband started treating her better, and they are still married today.

To Anna, starting a life on her own was not possible before she had control of some basic resources – she needed to be able to communicate with others, she needed independent income, she needed to be able to move around on her own, and she needed to understand the legal system and her rights within it. Until all this was in order she remained the weaker partner in her marriage, finding it difficult to make demands on her husband. Her story illustrates how newly arrived marriage-migrants are dependent on others to communicate, to buy whatever they need, or simply to arrange all the practicalities associated with daily life in a foreign country. Below I will briefly go over some these forms of dependency. Again, I wish to emphasize that this is dependence created by structural mechanisms, and not a consequence of a spouse's action. This dependence creates opportunities for exploitation, but this I will come back to in later sections.

Practical independence – language, networks and general knowhow

In most transnational marriages we find a relatively unequal power balance between the local spouse and the immigrant, mainly due to legal frameworks and access to resources (Lotherington and Flemmen, 2007). The majority of our respondents spoke neither Norwegian nor English (beyond very limited English for tourism) when they came to Norway. This way they had no common language with their husband, and many were dependent on friends and relatives to translate in the beginning. Some describe how they would sit with dictionaries and communicate with their husband through pointing and gestures. Gradually the couples would develop ways to communicate with each other, and after this, little by little; the women would be able to communicate with the outside world. But in the beginning they would be totally dependent on their husbands. For even though their husband did not speak their language, he could be trusted to arrange all the practicalities they were not able to do themselves. He would pay bills, arrange for children to start schools and kindergarten, fill in immigration forms and other official documents, and make sure all these things were in order.

And there is no doubt that some knowledge of the local language does make life in a foreign country much easier. Even the simplest tasks can seem impossible with no knowledge of the language. In one of our interviews with a newly divorced marriage-migrant, she used the opportunity while she had a translator in the house, to sort through a large pile of mail. She was not able to determine which letters were advertisements and which were more important letters that she should save. And with less than basic knowledge of both Norwegian and English, elementary tasks like paying bills, finding and applying for an apartment, or even finding directions to get to a specific place, can seem impossible to overcome.

Even some of our highly educated respondents, who had attended language classes and done their best to learn the language, struggled to understand official documents in Norwegian, and felt helpless and dependent on help from others when relating to the “official” Norway. And being able to relate to official documents is particularly important in a process of divorce; if you do not know what you are entitled to, it is difficult to demand your rights. This lack of understanding of rights and possibilities also make marriage-migrants vulnerable to false threats – for instance threats of deportation or that the children will be taken away from them, if they do not comply with requests from their spouse.

With limited education in childhood it is not only the lack of language skills that can cause problems in managing daily life. Many immigrants also struggle with basic mathematics and household economics. And as computer technology and internet services continuously take over new arenas for public interaction, including banking and tax-returns, those who are not familiar with computers become even more dependent on others. For women with limited or no education to rely on, this can make the idea of running one's own economy and household intimidating at best. Furthermore, it can make it difficult to help their children with homework, even at an early age.

Language alone does not necessarily solve all the practical problems a new resident has to deal with, although it can make it somewhat easier. Practical issues connected with applying for a residency permit were rarely handled by our respondents themselves. This was partly due to questions of language, but also because of a lack of general knowledge about how things work in a foreign country. The simplest things, such as what government body is responsible for what, or even how to behave towards them (for instance whether or not to bribe) are things one comes to take for granted in one's own country, but can be hard to work out in a new place.

One important issue in this regard is the problem of accessing benefits in the welfare system. Norway has well developed welfare benefits, in particular for single mothers, to make sure nobody should feel forced to stay in an abusive marriage for economic reasons. However, among my respondents many reported problems working out what welfare benefits they were entitled to. Some were surprised to learn that they were entitled to any benefits at all after a divorce. Hence women in transnational marriages sometimes believe they have to be economically independent before they are able to divorce, because they are not aware of or able to access welfare benefits.

Economic dependence

In order to be granted family reunification with a foreign spouse, the Norwegian spouse needs to prove that he has a high enough income to support her once she arrives; however, he does not necessarily have to give her access to the money. In our data there is large variation in practices when it comes to sharing money. Some husbands open a separate account for their wives or grant them access to their own accounts. Others prefer to pay pocket money, while others again let their wives ask every time they need to take the bus or have a cup of coffee with friends. One of my respondents who was still married and living in a rural area in Norway, called in to cancel our appointment, because she didn't have money to pay for the busfare. She accepted my offer to come and pick her up by car, and when I arrived she was waiting for me outside with a suitcase. At first she was reluctant to talk about it, but after a while she admitted that she planned to go to the women's shelter afterwards.3The last I heard, she never went back to her husband.

For most couples, a divorce will have severe economic consequences, and newly divorced are overrepresented among the poor in many countries, both in objective terms, but even more, in subjective terms, since by living alone many feel they cannot maintain the same standard of living as they are used to. This is also the situation for marriage-migrants, but this group face additional economic challenges.

Norwegian legislation is gender neutral in that both parties are entitled to take with them whatever they brought into the marriage, in case of divorce. Income obtained during marriage is equally distributed, unless prenuptial agreements are signed. This law is developed in response to Norwegian couples being increasingly similar with regards to education and wealth when they enter a marriage. In transnational marriages, the Norwegian spouse tends to be well beyond middle age, and will often already have a house and car that he brings into the marriage. This will remain his after a divorce. If the couple have no children, or with equal visitation right to children (which is widely practised in Norway), the women is not entitled to any alimony.

The question of remittances tends to increase the women's economic dependence on their husbands. Newly arrived marriage-migrants usually get low-paid jobs in cleaning, if they get a job at all. Most of our respondents from Thailand, and some of our Russian respondents, had family members in their country of origin that expected and depended on remittances from them. Sometimes the husband was responsible for most of the living costs, and when she found a job, most of her income could be sent to relatives in her country of origin. Others would not even work themselves, but have husbands that would cover both living expenses and remittances to family at home. This means that if they were to divorce and manage on their own, they would need a job that not only enables them to support themselves, but also enable them to earn enough to continue sending money to these dependants.

The husband as integration facilitator

Above I have illustrated just some of the factors that combine to create strong dependency on the Norwegian spouse for newly arrived transnational marriage-migrants. Usually the Norwegian spouse recognizes this dependence, and also their responsibility for helping their wives to obtain greater independence; they encourage their wives to take language classes and develop their own network, and if needed, assist them in finding employment. It is the hard work of husbands in successful transnational marriages that clearly illustrate the problem of the marriages where this kind of help is not offered.

Some marriage-migrants are left on their own in learning how to manage in the Norwegian society. Some husbands are not able to assist their wives in becoming independent. This can be because he has a general lack of human and social capital himself, or because of substance abuse problems or psychological illness. Others marriage-migrants are purposely hindered in their attempts to gain independence and to learn about life in Norway. This is what I have termed forced dependence, referring to actors that purposively seek to prevent their spouse's opportunities to gain independence. This could for instance be by refusing to pay for language classes, sanctioning her staying in touch with her own network (several respondents said they would be punished if they talk on the phone in their native language) and in general not explaining how things work in Norway (Tyldum and Tveit, 2008). Women exposed to this kind of treatment are not able to leave their husbands, even after they have obtained formal right to independent residency, as they do not have the necessary skills and resources to claim this residency, nor to manage on their own in Norway once residency is granted. One of the more gruesome stores from our fieldwork can illustrates this.

When she was in her early 20s, Nina's cousin and the cousin's husband had arranged for her to marry a Norwegian man. Nina had a child outside of marriage, and had been unsuccessful in finding a husband at home. The man her cousin had found for her had been married three times before, and was known to have treated his former wives badly. Nina was a bit frightened about the prospect of marrying him, but did not feel that she could say no, partly because she did not feel that she could turn down an offer to have “a family and a good life”. After arriving in Norway, Nina was kept in total isolation, raped, and physically and psychologically abused. When her husband refused to take her to see a doctor, when she was severely hurt after continuous sexual abuse, Nina contacted relatives in Thailand to get help. Her relatives were able to contact the police in Norway, who picked her up in her house and took her to a hospital. After Nina had received treatment, she decided to go back to her husband. She was pregnant and, as she says, she did not have the slightest idea about how to live or raise a child in Norway. And she did not want to go back to Thailand.

Theoretically, Nina could have considered three different options while she was in recovery in hospital. Going back to her husband, going back to Thailand or moving away from her husband and starting a life on her own in Norway. In practice, the last option was not even contemplated. And with good reason. Nina did not know the language, and even struggled to do basic mathematics like addition and subtraction. She had no networks to rely on for help. Only when child services threatened to take away her child and, more importantly, offered her a place in a home for mothers, was she able to leave him.

This story illustrates a major dilemma; In order to be able to divorce, marriage-migrants need to be able to live alone in Norway, and this demands some level of integration into Norwegian society. As integration of marriage-migrants is perceived as the responsibility of their husbands, successful integration depends on having a good husband. Consequently a relatively decent husband is a prerequisite for a divorce, and those who need it most will often not be in a situation where they are able to start a life on their own in Norway. The ones with the worst cases of mistreatment, where the abuse of power is most significant, are the ones least able to leave, partly because they do not know the opportunities inherent in the system, but also because they lack networks, information and resources (in terms of money, education or language skills) to manage on their own. The more carelessly or brutally the women are treated, in terms of isolation, control and forced dependence, the longer it will take before they have the necessary resources to break out of a marriage.

Trafficking and Marriage

Let us then go back to the trafficking concept. As mentioned earlier, in order for something to be classified as trafficking, there needs to be three factors present; (1) action or mobility, (2) coercion and (3) exploitation. The element of action or mobility seems clear in the case of transnational marriage, and I will not go into this here.

The elements of coercion at play with trafficking of marriage-migrants are not as obvious. Nina's husband did not lock her up, or threaten her with violence if she were to leave; this was not necessary. Nina experienced an extreme form of forced dependence with no networks, no language skills and no idea of where to go if she left him. She was simply not able to go. This way the marriage turns into a coercive mechanism, a position of power that could be exploited. Being in a situation of power is of course not enough in itself for a person to be classified as a trafficker. Marriages with uneven power balances and a high degree of dependence are not uncommon – neither among transnational or other marriages, and are not necessarily problems in themselves. But when this dependence is systematically exploited it starts to look like trafficking.

There could also be other forms of coercion at play that could invoke trafficking legislation. For instance, some women report that they are threatened with divorce, and subsequent deportation, if they do not comply with their husband's demands. As they need to stay married for three years in order to secure independent residency, such threats of deportation can for some marriage-migrants lead to situations that should be classified as involuntary servitude. Others report threats of children being taken away from them if they leave (Tyldum and Tveit, 2008).

What do we mean by exploitation in this perspective? Importantly, we should not refer to this as trafficking for marriage, as marriage usually isn't regarded as a form of exploitation. It should also be noted that exposure to domestic violence in a transnational marriage does not necessarily entail trafficking, as long as there are no attempt to manipulate or control the situation the foreign spouse is in to make exploitation possible. Trafficking through marriage entails something more than domestic violence. During our fieldwork we interviewed at least three women who had been submitted to treatment that should be investigated as human trafficking. Two of them had husbands that had been in transnational marriages before. Stories of experiences I would classify as human trafficking were reported by several of the women we met in Pattaya, who had returned after a failed marriage/migration experience. As few prospects can be worse than growing old in the prostitution industry in Thailand, it is not hard to understand that many are willing to accept much before they consider returning to this. Still – return migrants were not difficult to identify and recruit for interviews.

There are different forms of exploitations in these stories. One woman had no control of her own income; she was working both in the home and outside the home, but did not have access to money unless her husband decided to give her some. She was not allowed to eat when she was hungry or to sleep when she was tired. Another had a son who was sexually abused by her husband, and was on several occasions locked in and abused herself. But usually the women were exposed to some form of domestic and sexual servitude, where the husband exercised a high level of control over what they could and could not do. In these cases I believe it can be useful to ask how we would think of it if someone had treated a domestic worker in a similar way – would we then have classified it as trafficking? If your immediate response to this is that marriage cannot be compared with the relationship between employer and worker, what then needs to be in a marriage to make the difference? Nina's story, described above, is an illustration of this. There is little in her story that resembles our contemporary ideals of what a marriage should be. There was no shared economy, no feeling of community or of spouses supporting each other, not even in the beginning. She was never introduced to his friends or family. He left the house for days, and did not say where he was going or when he would come back. She did not have any money, and was expected to clean, cook and be available for sex. In addition she was put through physical and psychological abuse, in combination with total isolation. Nina's situation is best described as one of domestic and sexual servitude, where marriage was used as a factor to control her; marrying her put him in a position of power that he decided to exploit.

The most brutal and explicit cases like Nina's are the ones that are relatively easy to classify. Where we should draw the line for milder forms of exploitation seems more unclear. We met a number of women in Norway who were in, or had been in marriages with men with substance abuse problems, or with mental illness. Some of these were exposed to violence, thrown out of the house at random, or exposed to unreasonable demands. Others experienced marrying men who seemed to have believed in the internet agencies' presentations of what one can expect of a transnational wife, and who expressed their surprise – both verbally and physically – when their new wife did not turn out to work the way she was supposed to. Based on the available data, however, there is nothing to indicate that these men were consciously exploiting their position of power. When some women chose to stay in marriages with this exploitation, it was mainly in order to avoid going back home to their country of origin. The control mechanism is thus in global economic inequalities, and the global migration system, not something introduced by their husband, and probably not something the husband can be blamed for.

To summarize: transnational marriage-migration takes place under structural conditions that places the local spouse in a position of power, and the marriage-migrant in a position of dependence. Usually, the transnational couple work together to even out the power balance. For other couples, the dependence remains strong for years, but this dependence is not abused. However, there are cases where this dependence is maintained, and even deepened by the local spouse, putting him in a position where he can exploit his wife, usually through domestic and sexual servitude. This form of abuse can and should be conceptualized as human trafficking.


  1. 1

    As the aim of this study was to map vulnerability and exploitation we have consciously sought out arenas where stories of exploitation was expected to be found – such as shelters and prostitution arenas. As recruitment for marriage is not uncommon in Pattaya (or in other prostitution arenas worldwide), these are mechanisms that needs to be documented, even if they are not necessarily representative for the population of marriage migrants at large. I should also point out that the two most brutal stories accounted in our fieldwork in Norway were not told by women who had been in Pattaya, but by women who had been introduced to their husband through networks, and who came to Norway directly from their villages in Northern Thailand. There are too few cases to give this pattern much weight, but it is tempting to suggest that prostitution experience and transfers of knowledge in these female networks teach women to be street-wise and independent, which can help them to escape the most exploitative situations.

  2. 2

    The full list of means are: threat or use of force, or other forms of coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or for the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person.

  3. 3

    I did not conduct a proper interview that day, but let her talk freely about her situation before I took her to the local shelter. We met up for a proper interview on a later occasion.