What Do We Really Know About the Prevalence of Human Trafficking?

24 September 2018
Research Innovation

Claire Healy  | Research Officer, International Centre for Migration Policy Development

As a human trafficking researcher, people often ask me for figures about the extent of human trafficking. Particularly when we are discussing new research on specific forms of trafficking or trafficking in certain regions, the question of prevalence always arises and the appetite for “hard data” seems to be greater than the appetite for nuanced, qualitative information and a comprehensive understanding of the drivers of this phenomenon.

Busy market in Mandai, Pune, India. Unsplash/Atharva Tulsi

According to a news item about the UN Office on Drugs and Crime’s Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2016: “Children make up almost a third of all human trafficking victims worldwide.”

The US Department of State’s TIP Report 2017 mentions that the “most frequently cited global statistics on human trafficking indicate that men and boys represent nearly half of the total number of human trafficking victims.”

A briefing from the European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS) states that “data on the prevalence of this crime show that the majority of its victims are women and girls.”

A Council of Europe news item presenting the 7th General Report of its Group of Experts on Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings in 2018 states that “in several countries, [labour exploitation] has overtaken sexual exploitation as the main form of human trafficking.”

From these quotes we can conclude that almost a third of all victims of trafficking worldwide are children, that almost half of all victims of trafficking are men and boys, that the majority of all victims of trafficking are women and girls, and that, in some countries, trafficking for labour exploitation is becoming more common than sexual exploitation.

Yet none of this is true. Or to be more accurate, we do not know whether any of this is true. Why? Because all of the statements above refer to the composition of the sub-group of trafficking cases and trafficked people who come to the attention of the authorities or other service providers. They do not account for all the trafficked people who have not been identified.

Even if we are trying to understand the proportions of trafficked people who are girls, boys, women and men, this sub-group of identified trafficked people is not a representative cross-section. They are the type of people and the forms of trafficking that the authorities and NGOs are most likely to identify and consider to be vulnerable to trafficking.

In Europe, a greater proportion of women trafficked for sexual exploitation are identified, while in Sub-Saharan Africa, a greater proportion of children trafficked for labour exploitation are identified. Does this mean that these are the forms of trafficking and the profiles of victims with the highest incidence in those respective regions? Or does it indicate that European authorities and NGOs focus their anti-trafficking efforts on sexually exploited women and Sub-Saharan African authorities and NGOs focus their efforts on the exploitation of children’s labour?

“Hard data” and statistics on trafficking, even if they are systematically collected, reliable, interoperable and fully comparable, are an indication of the anti-trafficking response in a particular jurisdiction or region, not of prevalence of the trafficking phenomenon.

The EPRS Briefing referred to above states that “human trafficking […] is on the rise due to increasing mobility, the development of new technologies and the generally low risks and high profit involved.” According to the Council of Europe, “trafficking for labour exploitation is on the rise across Europe.” So, is human trafficking actually increasing?

We do not know for sure. If we look at all the promising statistics on human development at a global level, it seems improbable that exploitation would be increasing rather than decreasing. But aside from this common-sense assumption, I would not venture a more precise response to the question.

What is on the rise is the adoption of legislation and policies that define, criminalize and combat trafficking since the entry into force of the UN Trafficking in Persons Protocol in 2003. Curiously, an increase in anti-trafficking legislation has been perceived as an increase in trafficking.

We need to be frank about how much we know and how much we do not know and resist the temptation to feed the appetite among policy actors, the media and the public at large for “hard data”.

Attempts are ongoing to measure the “dark figure” of human trafficking. This includes efforts by international organizations and foundations to use existing databases and survey methodologies to estimate the numbers, such as the Data Initiative on Modern Slavery, Assessment of the Extent of Trafficking in the EU, the Global Estimates of Modern Slavery and the Global Slavery Index 2016, as well as multiple systems estimations using lists of identified trafficked people at the national level.

Because of the difference between officially identified cases of trafficking and actual prevalence and the tendency of actors at various levels to confuse identification with prevalence, my upcoming columns will emphasise the central importance of qualitative research on trafficking.

I will advocate for the primacy of qualitative research to try to understand the phenomena of trafficking and exploitation, rather than overemphasizing the importance of quantitative data. I will share the findings of qualitative research that my colleagues and I have conducted at the International Centre for Migration Policy Development and examine the implications of these research findings for preventing trafficking and exploitation.

This platform has the potential to contribute greatly to a more accurate understanding of trafficking and exploitation. This first column is above all an appeal for honesty, humility and a commitment to improving the knowledge base in order to better prevent this human rights violation. We need to be frank about how much we know and how much we do not know and resist the temptation to feed the appetite among policy actors, the media and the public at large for “hard data”.

Claire Healy is Research Officer for ICMPD’s Anti-Trafficking Programme and the author of Targeting Vulnerabilities: The Impact of the Syrian War and Refugee Situation on Trafficking in Persons.

This article has been prepared by Claire Healy as a contribution to Delta 8.7. As provided for in the Terms and Conditions of Use of Delta 8.7, the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of UNU or its partners.

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