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Why numbers matter: How big a problem is human trafficking?

   /   Dec 16th, 2010Education, International, News

Findings of the 2010 Department of State Trafficking in Persons Report; Tier one represents the most compliance with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act; Tier three, the least.

Talk about a single girl who’s been trafficked from her home country, held captive, and forced into servitude — and your audience will naturally listen and sympathize. But talk about the number of individuals around the world who face a situation like hers every year — and you’re likely to get blank looks. We process personal stories instinctively, we are pulled in, we empathize. But when we add the crucial layers of analysis necessary to make sense of problems — when we plumb the data that can tell us how to better assist trafficked girls — some of the energy and attention dissipates.

Which is why we need to redouble our data gathering efforts — especially for problems, like trafficking, that stir the deepest emotions. Nobody knows how many people are enslaved globally. Numbers vary, but an oft-cited estimate is  27 million people.

A UNESCO trafficking statistics project summed up the situation: “When it comes to statistics, trafficking of girls and women is one of several highly emotive issues which seem to overwhelm critical faculties. Numbers take on a life of their own, gaining acceptance through repetition, often with little inquiry into their derivations. Journalists, bowing to the pressures of editors, demand numbers, any number. Organizations feel compelled to supply them, lending false precisions and spurious authority to many reports.”

If organizations don’t know how many people are currently being trafficked, or are likely to be in the future, how can they develop a credible plan — not to rescue just a few individuals — but to eliminate the global problem entirely?

Claude d’Estrée, founder of the Human Trafficking Clinic at the University of Denver, says that accurate figures and reliable methodology are essential not only to shaping effective domestic and international policy, but to earning respect from academics regarding the scale and severity of the issue. His goal is to establish a methodology for gauging the problem and train a generation of activists to implement a scientific  approach in their work, rather than depending on anecdotal evidence.

Unlike most other programs, the clinic requires students to take at least three statistics courses and a methodology class in addition to their subject-specific studies. “The focus is on really first-class research methodology,” said d’Estrée. “Otherwise, they can’t go out there and do the research.”

The clinic’s “taxonomy project” is a good example of the emphasis on research methods. Associates are compiling a dictionary of terms relevant to human trafficking. The existing definitions for such terms, according to d’Estrée, are all legal in nature — which doesn’t really help people working in the field. Outside of the legal system, use of terminology varies and can cause confusion among activists as well as more serious complications, like a general misunderstanding of what, exactly, the problem is. Establishing a single resource of terms and their official definitions is high on the clinic’s agenda: what exactly does “slavery” mean, for example, and how does it differ from “forced labor” and that from “bonded labor”?

Improving the quality of research and data on human trafficking — the second largest criminal industry in the world — would go a long way toward informing and improving policy so that traffickers can be identified and prosecuted, and their larger networks compromised and deactivated.

3 Responses

  1. Paul Bernish says:

    One notable writer who is compiling his own statistical analysis of trafficking is Siddharth Kara, a former Wall Street broker who now is associated with Harvard. Kara’s book, “Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery,” is replete with very interesting numbers on calculating the profitability and ROI of commercial sex. It’s a very important book on an extremely vital subject, which probably explains why Sex Trafficking won the 2010 Frederick Douglass Prize for outstanding contributions to understanding the true nature of trafficking and exploitation.

  2. C Forward says:

    Kara’s numbers are total rubbish! The graph he is hawking everywhere is based on conversations with four – 4 – conversations about the price for sex. Real economists are laughing their guts out!

  3. I was on a debate panel with Kara the other day and agree, having looked at his book, that his arguments are completely specious. Everything becomes trafficking which then in a slippery fashion becomes slavery, and the data is extremely thin. It is all about emotions, as this post says.

    I have been critiquing and debunking garbage in, garbage out statistics on trafficking for a long time, in a non-emotive way. Also other sorts of research, take a look at

    Best, Laura