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Miscounting human trafficking and slavery

Two recent ‘studies’ have attracted a lot of international attention. Each presents incredibly flawed findings. And these studies matter.

Photo illustration by Cameron ThibosThe conventional wisdom is that human trafficking is a major problem today, victimizing millions of people every year. The estimates range widely: from 600,000 to 4 million annual trafficking victims and 8 to 27 million persons in slavery. In 2010, the US State Department asserted that 1.8 per 1,000 persons in the world (0.18 percent) are trafficked every year. No sources have ever been provided to document any of these figures, yet they were quickly recapitulated in the media and by various government and international agencies, giving them the veneer of credibility.

However humanitarian their goals, many of the agencies and interest groups involved in anti-trafficking efforts have a vested interest in inflating the magnitude of the problem. The larger it appears, the greater the amount of attention human trafficking receives from the media, politicians, and the public. Government financial contributions to organizations involved in the trafficking arena, some of which have little or no expertise in the area, also increase with the exposure. Many independent analysts have criticized the lack of documentation for the estimates, but they have been completely overshadowed by those who insist the magnitude of the problem is both huge and growing worldwide.

Two recent trafficking reports

Two recent ‘studies’ have attracted a lot of international attention. Each presents incredibly flawed findings.

The first is the Global Slavery Index produced by the Walk Free Foundation. The report ranks 162 nations on the prevalence of slavery, which is defined rather broadly as human trafficking, forced labor, and slavery. The slavery index draws from a mix of unstandardized and thus non-comparable sources, including population surveys, estimates by governmental agencies and NGOs, and reports in the media. It also, rather bizarrely, ‘extrapolates’ from nations where some kind of estimate is available to ‘similar’ nations lacking such estimates. “For example, the prevalence ratio from the UK study was assumed to be relevant to other European island nations such as Ireland and Iceland, whereas the prevalence ratio for USA was assumed to be relevant to developed western European countries such as Germany.” Why the United States is “relevant” to Europe is not revealed.

Imputing ‘similarity’ to different nations ignores their particularities, and such ‘extrapolation’ runs the risk of grossly distorting the prevalence of slavery in any given country. For countries for which no extrapolation was possible, the creators of the index state that, “it was necessary to fall back on secondary source information,” which are often anecdotal (NGOs, media reports, local ‘experts’). These sources are especially problematic when we remember that modern slavery and trafficking are underground practices and very difficult to detect.

The Walk Free report names what its authors consider the ten ‘worst’ nations on the slavery scale. Five of these are in Africa (Gabon, The Gambia, Ivory Coast, Benin, Mauritania) where information is lacking and hardly sufficient to justify such categorization, and the other five are Haiti, Pakistan, India, Nepal, and Moldova. Some analysts would argue that we cannot have any confidence in estimates drawn from such societies, as the data are so unreliable. The authors also identify the ten ‘best’ nations, meaning those with the lowest slavery rates. All of these are rich nations in western Europe plus New Zealand.

Concluding that there are 29.8 million persons worldwide who are victims of forced labor, human trafficking, and slavery, the report seeks to lend empirical credence to the dubious estimate by the organization Free the Slaves that there are 27 million persons enslaved throughout the world. When the 27 million figure was first proposed, by Free the Slaves founder Kevin Bales, he justified it as simply a ‘guess.’ Given the incredibly unstandardized and fragmented information on which the Global Slavery Index is based, it has no more reliability than the 27 million figure. Yet, many media sources and government agencies (including the US State Department) have embraced these figures.

The second report, ‘Does Legalized Prostitution Increase Human Trafficking?’, seeks to determine whether countries where prostitution is legal have better or worse trafficking records than countries where prostitution is illegal. Using a report on 161 countries from the UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), economists Seo-Young Cho, Axel Dreher, and Eric Neumayer ranked countries and tried to determine if their prostitution laws were related to their alleged prevalence of human trafficking. In doing so, they ignore the UNODC’s caution against using its report as a measure of the number of victims in any given country.  UNODC highlighted the absence of a standard definition of trafficking across countries, the lack of transparency in data collection and reporting in many nations, the diverse nature of the sources, and the conflation of smuggling, trafficking, and irregular migration numbers by some countries. Cho and her colleagues acknowledge that their figures do “not reflect actual trafficking flows” and that it is “difficult, perhaps impossible, to find hard evidence” of a relationship between trafficking and anything else.

They nevertheless use the UNODC report to draw bold conclusions about the relationship between trafficking and national prostitution laws. Even more problematic, the authors rely on aggregate national human trafficking figures – that combine labor, sex, and other kinds of trafficking – in their attempt to assess whether legal prostitution makes a difference. Thus, there is an embarrassing mismatch between the generic trafficking figures and prostitution law (for which only sex trafficking figures should have been used). By way of analogy, imagine using an analysis that compares national-level drug trafficking prevalence – all illegal drugs, that is – with the legal status of one drug, marijuana possession.

This is not the only problem with the Cho study. Its authors examine trafficking at a single time point, which is something that should be tracked over time to include data from before and after the legal institutionalization of prostitution. They furthermore ignore the important question of whether, and how, prostitution laws are actually enforced. Their analysis is confined to ‘law on the books,’ ignoring the ways in which the law is, or is not, implemented on the ground.

Why these ‘studies’ matter

 -  First, both the slavery index and the Cho report received a lot of favorable media publicity. They were embraced by policy makers in some countries, especially those seeking greater criminalization of prostitution.

 -  Second, if the claims or “findings” are unfounded they risk diverting attention and funding from other worthy causes. A ton of money has been spent by governments and the international community on anti-trafficking programs over the past 15 years. Yet, compared to the claimed high magnitude of the problem, few victims have been located and assisted and similarly few traffickers have been prosecuted worldwide.

 -  Third, even if claims about national-level victimization rates were roughly true, their macro-level nature means that they have no practical utility on the ground, where trafficking matters most. Micro-level studies (in a city or town) have clear advantages. They can provide: 1) more reliable victimization numbers because of the limited parameters; 2) insights regarding the actual organization and dynamics of trafficking rings; and 3) the potential for identifying “hot spots” for targeted deployment of enforcement resources.

Beyond SlaveryThis article is from the Beyond trafficking and slavery editorial partnership, supported by King's College London, the University of Nottingham and the University of the Witwatersrand.

About the author

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.


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