Popular Claims vs. Evidence-Based Conclusions in Human Trafficking

Popular Claims vs. Evidence-Based Conclusions in Human Trafficking

this one is long but because what he’s saying builds on itself I didn’t want to cut anything out.  sorry frenz

I think there are four major claims that are made frequently about human trafficking, and I want to evaluate each one of those claims, and suggest that some of them – maybe all of them – are based on fairly thin ice. The first is that the magnitude of trafficking is huge – some people use the term “epidemic”. The second is that the problem is growing, there are increasing cases of victims over time. Third, that it’s the second or third largest organised crime enterprise in the world, after drug trafficking and arms trafficking. And fourth, that sex trafficking is much more prevalent than other types of trafficking – labour trafficking, agricultural, industrial and so on. So those are the four, I think, core claims that have been made frequently, both in research and by activists and government officials.

Are these claims evidence-based? Well, I would argue that they may be true. Each one of those four. But, so far, I’ve seen no compelling evidence to support any of the four claims. And one could even question whether those claims can be substantiated at the macro level – and when I say macro I mean at the national level or internationally. There was a study done by Sheldon Zhang at San Diego State University, who examined over a hundred academic articles based on trafficking, and found that very few of them used any original data, and most of them treated the claims of government organisations and NGOs as evidence. Very little in the way of empirical data collection to address these claims.

I’ll begin with claim number one. It is in advocates’ interest to claim that the numbers are huge and growing. It attracts media attention; it attracts public attention; and it attracts funding. This does not mean that that’s their only interest; many of them do have humanitarian interests as well. But clearly, inflating the size of the problem, and the trajectory of the problem as increasing dramatically over time, is to the benefit of these organisations. But the claimed number of victims vacillates – fluctuates – tremendously. And what we see in government reports and other estimates are declines, decreases in the number of alleged victims. In the United States, the State Department and CIA originally estimated 50,000 individuals who were trafficked into the United States every year, but by 2004-7 that number was scaled down dramatically, and a meta-analysis conducted by Amy Farrell and her colleagues of 207 studies found ahuge range in the estimates regarding both labour trafficking and sex trafficking. Worldwide, the estimates range from 600,000 to millions.

Now, no one would claim that there should be an equivalence between the number of victims identified and assisted, and the number of victims out there. But we do have to raise questions about the disconnect between the number of victims located and assisted and the number of people who are claimed to be victims. So in 2010, 0.4% of victims worldwide – and these are all human trafficking victims – had been officially identified and assisted, according to the State Department. That assumes that the total number of victims is known. And there’s no metric in the report of where that figure comes from and how they arrived at it. The Justice Department in the US in 2005 made this intriguing comment: “The government must address the incongruity between the estimated number of victims trafficked into the US, and the number of victims found, between 2001 and 2004.” Updating those figures a bit, between 2001 and mid-2008 about 1,400 trafficking victims had been identified in the US, and from 2008 to 2010, 206 sex trafficking victims and 39 labour trafficking victims had been officially identified as confirmed cases. This is a tiny fraction of what we might expect based on the 14,500 and 17,500 number of “new victims” each year. These are annual figures.

You could say the number of victims identified, assisted, confirmed, is just the tip of the iceberg. And I think many people would subscribe to that view. And I might as well. But this quote from Louise Shelley who has a major book called Human Trafficking, some of you have read it, so she’s a major figure in the debate, academic, estimated half a million to four million victims trafficked annually – “these statistics reflect a massive impunity for traffickers”. There we see an uncritical acceptance of the official statistics – something all criminologists are cautioned not to do. It’s possible that the number of prosecutions are more consistent with the reality, the magnitude of the problem, than the extremely high estimates. So it’s at least possible that the bottom of the iceberg is a better reflection of the number of victims than the “tip of the iceberg” conception. Just want to throw that out as a possibility.

Other analysts, including the Government Accountability Office in the US, which conducts annual reviews of different policies, wrote a very damning report in 2006 criticising the numbers that the government itself and others had been throwing around. They were critical of many reports that lumped smuggling – voluntarily assisted migration – with trafficking, coercive or deceptive trafficking; critical of reports that do not distinguish sex from labour trafficking from all human trafficking. And so when you read books like Louise Shelley’s book, she goes back and forth between the different types of trafficking; it’s not always clear which one she’s talking about. And this GAO report was also very critical of the poor data and data analysis procedures that have been used by many researchers and others. They concluded that there was no effective mechanism at that point – 2006 – for estimating the number of victims. Domestically or internationally.

…My argument here would be that these claims cannot be documented, for three reasons. It’s a clandestine, underground, black market; that there’s no good baseline to measure changes over time, so we cannot know what’s then happening and what the trends are if we have no good data on what the original – let’s say 1990-2013 – trends are. So it’s clandestine; there’s no baseline. And, it’s possible that there could be market saturation, particularly regarding sex trafficking – that in a particular society or city, the number of people providing sex for sale maxes out at some level and doesn’t continually increase over time.

(emphasis mine again)


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