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Letters to BTS: anti-trafficking prosecutions and expenditures

Does prosecuting trafficking deflect attention from much more important responses to exploitation? And is it just a waste of time and money? Two scholars write with their views.

The journal Anti-Trafficking Review recently asked a group of experts to engage in a debate regarding a provocative proposition that we know will interest many of BTS’ usual readers: that “Prosecuting trafficking deflects attention away from much more important responses and is anyway a waste of time and money”. We think this an interesting question and would like to briefly respond via this letter to BTS.

First, with a question: Why would anyone advocate non-enforcement against any kind of exploitative or coercive criminal? Surely it is not a waste of resources to prosecute traffickers or employers who abuse their workers? The U.S. State Department reports 51,960 human trafficking prosecutions and 29,702 convictions worldwide for the years 2008-2014. Would we really claim that these prosecutions are ‘a waste of time and money’ when 57% of them result in convictions? More careful phrasing might be prudent.

Second, we agree that there are many other ‘important responses’ worth investing in, especially when these deal with root causes. Prevention efforts that include changes in immigration policy, for example, or the decriminalisation of prostitution, or the paying of living wages, would all be very welcome indeed.

Thirdly, and most importantly, we welcome questions as to the cost-effectiveness of anti-trafficking efforts, since a tremendous amount of money is spent on anti- trafficking every year, and with highly questionable results. One analyst recently estimated that the 50 largest U.S. anti-trafficking organisations received $686 million over the past ten years, mostly from the government. Between 2001 and 2010, the U.S. Government authorised a total of $1.45 billion for domestic and international anti-trafficking programs[i], while expenditures by other governments and by international organisations have also been substantial.

Yet is this money being allocated well? And to what degree is it producing positive results? On the former question, among the organisations receiving funding from the U.S. Government are prominent anti-prostitution groups and faith-based organisations, some of whom have minimal expertise regarding human trafficking and most of whom focus on sexual rather than labour exploitation. Is giving them money really likely to help actual or potential ‘victims’? We doubt it. As indeed does the U.S. government’s own General Accountability Office (GAO), which has raised concerns over “the credentials of the organisations and the findings of the research that the Trafficking Office has funded”.[ii]

On the latter question, we would do well to compare the money spent with estimates of the number of victims and reports of actual prosecutions. For the prosecution and conviction figures pale into insignificance when compared to claims about the magnitude of worldwide trafficking. In the early to mid-2000s, for example, the U.S. Government estimated the annual number of worldwide trafficking victims to range between 600,000 and 4 million. Taking the lowest of these two figures over the seven-year period between 2008 and 2014 results in a cumulative estimate of 4,200,000 victims. Yet during that seven-year period, there were only 291,270 ‘identified victims’ and 29,702 convictions of traffickers.[iii] What is happening there?

Needless to say, the clandestine nature of this kind of severe exploitation means that it is difficult for the authorities to locate victims and apprehend traffickers, yet the discrepancy between the estimates and the number of certified victims and traffickers should raise serious concerns about the quality of these numbers, the quality of the policy response, and the cost-effectiveness of the money spent. Indeed, such a discrepancy suggests either that the substantial amount of money spent on fighting trafficking may be out of sync with the magnitude of the problem, or that a good deal of it has been wasted. This does not mean that ‘prosecuting trafficking’ is itself a waste of money; rather that much of the money spent on anti-trafficking has been used poorly.


[i]  A. Siskin, and L. S. Wyler, Trafficking in Persons: U.S. Policy and Issues for Congress, Washington, DC: Congressional Research Office, 2013, pp. 55-60.

[ii]  Government Accountability Office, Human Trafficking: Better Data, Strategy, and Reporting Needed to Enhance U.S. Antitrafficking Efforts Abroad, Washington, DC: GAO, 2006, p. 25.

[iii]  U.S. Department of State, Trafficking in Persons Report 2015, p. 48. This report does not define the meaning of ‘identified’ victims.

About the authors

Ronald Weitzer is Professor of Sociology at George Washington University, Washington DC. His current research includes a comparative investigation of the regulation of prostitution in Europe and a comprehensive assessment of government and international policies regarding human trafficking.

Claudia Cojocaru is a Master’s student in the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey, USA.  Her interests include labour migration, victimhood, the anti-trafficking movement, and criminal justice policies. She published an article ‘Sex Trafficking, Captivity, and Narrative: Constructing Victimhood with the Goal of Salvation’ in Dialectical Anthropology (June 2015) and is currently writing an analysis of the abolitionist movement.  Email:


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