Are Pre-Departure Interventions to Prevent Human Trafficking Good Investments?

28 October 2020
Research Innovation

Ligia Kiss  | Associate Professor, University College London
Joelle Mak  | Assistant Professor, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine
Alys McAlpine  | Doctoral Researcher, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine
Cathy Zimmerman  | Professor at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine

Globally, there has been enormous investment in interventions to prevent human trafficking and modern slavery, many of which have relied on limited evidence and best-guesses about individual vulnerability.

The results from our paper, “The use of Bayesian Networks for realist evaluation of complex interventions: evidence for prevention of human trafficking”, contradict widely held assumptions about individual level vulnerability. Our findings show that among female Nepalese migrants risks to forced labour are most strongly associated with the destination country, work sector and mode of recruitment. Women’s individual characteristics, such as age, caste, education, awareness and participation in training did not influence their risk of forced labour at destination, either directly or indirectly.  If these findings are generalizable to other migration corridors, they suggest that many interventions to prevent human trafficking are misconceived, and thus resources are misallocated.

Data derived BN model with sensitivity analysis for the WIF data set (N = 519). Stronger colours indicate nodes whose parameters (probabilities) have the greatest effect on the target outcomes. Strength of influence is represented by the thickness of the arrows.

The Effectiveness of the Work in Freedom Programme

The paper used Bayesian Networks to model data collected during the theory-based evaluation of the Work in Freedom (WiF) Programme conducted by our team at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. WiF was implemented by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and funded by the UK Department for International Development. The findings suggest that the ILO’s activities on pre-departure rights-based awareness and empowerment were most likely ineffective. Furthermore, as findings from our evaluation of the WiF component in Bangladesh showed, these pre-departure activities have even resulted in harm to some women.

However, the conclusion from this paper should not be that any pre-departure intervention is a poor use of resources, but instead that uninformed and untested assumptions about safe migration will result in ineffective interventions. In other words, for limited funding to be effectively utilized, interventions must be designed based on strong evidence of the actual risks and protective factors for each setting, especially the larger structural drivers along the pathways to exploitation. Weak assumptions in the WiF interventions included the supposition that women can or will assert their rights in contexts marked by significant power imbalances and by laws and regulations that favour those in positions of power, namely the employers, recruiters and the state. For example, knowing your rights when exploited by an abusive employer or extorted by a recruiter is of little use if there are not any systemic guarantees to ensure that these rights will be enforced, particularly in destination countries. For migrants to avoid or counter exploitation and abuse based on pre-departure information, they need information that they can realistically assert when needed.

“For limited funding to be effectively utilized, interventions must be designed based on strong evidence of the actual risks and protective factors for each setting, especially the larger structural drivers along the pathways to exploitation.”

In this sense, pre-departure information that clarifies the risks associated with the different labour migration options, and that reduces the opaqueness of the labour market in different countries, might contribute to more-informed migration decisions by migrants, especially when there is more than one destination or labour sector option available. For example, unpublished findings from our study show that forced labour is much more prevalent among Nepalese migrants in Saudi Arabia than in India, whereas the average salary in the latter is just 10 per cent lower and the journey is safer. This finding is not surprising, as India and Nepal have an open-border policy and share some similarities in language, cultural traditions and social structures. Additionally, it is easier for a migrant to return to Nepal and there is no sponsorship programme in India that ties migrants to single employers (i.e. kafala system) like in Saudi Arabia. What our findings also suggest is that the labour market for Nepalese migrant workers runs contrary to common economic principles[1] which suggest that pay is higher when work is harder or more hazardous. Women in our sample of Nepalese migrants often earned less when working in appalling conditions than if they had been engaged in relatively safer, better employment. In short, one might say that many migrants are paying for being exploited.

The Necessity of Evidence

Our study, as with most population studies on human trafficking, had many limitations. These are described in detail in the original paper. However, we are confident in the strength of our evidence, which highlights substantial weaknesses in the design and implementation strategy of WiF’s pre-departure activities. There is now a strong body of evidence that many of the existing pre-departure awareness activities are ineffective, and some result in harm. A rapid evidence review published by DFID, which contains findings from a randomized controlled trial, found reduced long-term impact of awareness-raising and increased stigma attached to trafficked persons.  Our findings make it clear that even if migrant workers are armed with good pre-migration information about their rights, they will not be able to assert these rights until interventions sufficiently address the power dynamics in destination locations where the abuses occur, and seek systemic changes to protect the global migrant labour force.

We hope that this brief commentary will alert donors and implementing agencies to the necessity of robust evidence to support actions that can genuinely make a difference for the most marginalized and highly exploited workers. While we understand the importance of urgent action to prevent human trafficking and modern slavery, taking the time to produce evidence-based action is the only effective way to combat these seemingly intransigent abuses.

[1] Kaufman, Bruce E.; Hotchkiss, Julie L. (2005). “Education, Training, and Earnings Differentials: The Theory of Human Capital”. The economics of labor markets (5th ed.). Harcourt College Publishers. ISBN 0-324-28879-4.

This article has been prepared by Ligia Kiss, David Fotheringhame, Joelle Mak, Alys McAlpine and Cathy Zimmerman as contributors 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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