Symposium: S.O.S., Better Statistics on Slavery Urgently Required

3 December 2019
Research Innovation

J.J.M. van Dijk  | Emeritus Professor, Tilburg University

Progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Targets relating to forced labour, human trafficking, modern slavery and child labour can only be assessed with valid indicators of both performance and outcome.

Scores on the Government Response Index presented in the Walk Free Initiative’s latest report show great variation. The Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States received triple-A (AAA) ratings. North Korea, Eritrea and Libya linger at the bottom. But how valid are these ratings? The Walk Free ratings have been cross-validated against the ratings of the U.S. Department of State as well as those of GRETA— the monitoring body of the Council of Europe’s Convention on Action against Human Trafficking. The ratings from these three independent agencies, applying roughly similar standards, are intercorrelated to a surprising extent (in technical terms, with coefficients of .60 or more). This finding lends credence to each. Walk Free’s Index is arguably the most detailed and up-to-date of the three. Governments are well advised to take the scores in this Index very seriously indeed. Almost all governments are underperforming in some vital aspects and some have yet to make serious effort to address modern slavery at all.

In the final analysis, however, the only measure that really counts is the trend in the scale of the problem: the number of people living in conditions of modern slavery per country. What is the rate per 100,000 inhabitants of individuals in slave-like conditions in each country and have these rates started to decline?

Many United Nations Member States regularly report to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) how many victims of human trafficking have been identified by the authorities. Most countries report fewer than 1 victim per 100,000 inhabitants. It is extremely unlikely that modern slavery hardly exists in these countries. If governments seriously believe their official counts of identified victims reflect the prevalence of modern slavery in their country, they resemble Humpty Dumpty in Alice’s Wonderland: “When I use a word, it means what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

Do official statistics on identified victims reflect the scale of the phenomenon or simply the strength of the governments’ response to it? Most experts will opt for the latter interpretation. Low numbers of identified victims are more likely to point to weak policies of detection than to low prevalence of modern slavery in the country, and vice versa. In line with this, North Korea, Eritrea and Libya have not reported any identified victims to UNODC. As was the case with almost all countries at the low end of Walk Free ’s Government Response Index. The two European countries with stellar performance ratings, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, are other cases in point. Their reported identified victims per capita are consistently among the highest in UNODC’s Global Reports.

Some true believers in official crime statistics cling to the belief that official counts of identified victims may not reflect true prevalence but at least provide valuable insight into the trend over time. Let us test this idea by looking at the trend data from the top performers, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. In the United Kingdom, the official numbers of identified victims have gone up from fewer than 2,000 in 2013 to 7,000 in 2018. Is it logical that the scale of modern slavery in the United Kingdom tripled in just five years? Or is it not more plausible that during this period of improved policies a larger proportion of existing cases was picked up by the British police than before, and the rise in numbers was largely due to better recording? And let us also take a look at the official statistics on human trafficking of the other top performer, the Netherlands. Do the rates of identified victims in this country show a steady downward trend? Far from it. The absolute numbers of identified victims first went up from less than 1,000 in 2010 to 1,500 in 2014. Thereafter, they dropped to 700 in 2017, only to reportedly jump up again in 2019. That the high volatility of the numbers of identified victims in the Netherlands reflects rapid movements in the phenomenon of human trafficking beggars belief. Rather, it reflects rapid changes in the Netherlands’s efforts at detection and registration.

The way forward

In the meantime, Walk Free, the ILO and UNODC have invested in the development of methods to estimate the true scale of the phenomenon through either standardized survey research among national populations or through the technique of Multiple Systems Estimation (MSE), which involves extrapolating from the overlaps between official lists of recorded victims from various organizations to arrive at more accurate estimates.

The estimated rates of modern slavery according to these studies have not, to put it diplomatically, been universally embraced by governments. And, admittedly, these alternative estimates leave room for further technical improvement too. However, rather than putting their heads in the sand, and continuing to rely on their official counts of identified victims as the sole source of information, governments should take the initiative to promote more research on true prevalence. Only a few governments have taken up this challenge so far. For example, the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics has carried out a large-scale nationwide survey into experiences of forced labour. In Europe, the governments of the Netherlands, Romania, Ireland, Serbia and Slovakia have allowed external experts—commissioned by UNODC and Walk Free—to apply MSE to their databases on trafficking victims. The governments of the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia have invested their own resources in conducting similar Multiple Systems Estimations on their national databases of identified victims, and the Dutch government has recently pledged to make such extrapolations a regular exercise.

These governments take their task of monitoring progress towards achieving SDG Target 8.7 and other relevant SDGs seriously indeed. All governments committed to achieving the SDGs are called upon to follow suit. To this end, UNODC has produced a manual on how to apply MSE to human trafficking data. Also, the standardized questionnaires of ILO, Walk Free and Brazil for surveying modern slavery are available in the public domain. It is time for governments to start opening up their anti-trafficking policies to public scrutiny by producing proper statistics. Time to stop fluffing around in statistical Wonderland.

Jan van Dijk, emeritus professor of victimology, Tilburg University, the Netherlands, winner of the Stockholm Award in Criminology 2012.

This article has been prepared by J.J.M. van Dijk as a contributor 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 authors and do not necessarily reflect those of UNU or its partners.

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