Skip to main content

Our Very Real Problem With Human Trafficking

If we want to fight human trafficking, we should start by understanding it more clearly.
(Photo: ABC News)

(Photo: ABC News)

In November 2012, on Capitol Hill, Democratic senator Richard Blumenthal, Republican senator Rob Portman, and celebrity Jada Pinkett Smith launched the Senate Caucus to End Human Trafficking. The announcement, from Senator Blumenthal’s website, reads in part: “Human trafficking is modern-day slavery—a horrific crime that occurs across the world and the nation. According to anti-trafficking groups, 27 million people are held captive in human trafficking networks around the world.”

That sounds terrible. The trouble is, we don’t know if it’s true.

We do know that people around the world are forced into labor and sex slavery against their will—a situation that politicians and advocates across the ideological spectrum agree is reprehensible. But though we make declarations and pass laws, we in fact know very little about the scope and nature of trafficking. In part, this is because technical and political issues make trafficking data notoriously (in many cases irresponsibly) bad. When the European Union, for example, tried to estimate the extent of trafficking in 27 nations, it had to rely on self-reported data from those nations, which differed in their definitions of trafficking; some were even reporting “presumed” victims. Add to that countries such as Argentina and the Dominican Republic, which, according to the Georgetown professor Denise Brennan, report numbers that are unreliable because of the threat of United States economic sanctions.

By its very nature, trafficking is a clandestine, illicit activity. The result is numerous unsubstantiated claims, repeated and reified, but little reliable information with which to start devising effective solutions. Last May, in our Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, we featured research that, through localized fact-gathering, showed how complex and confounding quantifying human trafficking can be. Here, summaries of five revealing studies.



Trafficking laws in the U.S. are still new: They’ve existed for only 15 years. And definitions of trafficking can be difficult to interpret. Federal and state trafficking laws are generally about the denial of a person’s liberty, but what exactly does that mean? The criminologists Amy Farrell and Rebecca Pfeffer (from Northeastern University and the University of Houston) looked at trafficking case files in 12 U.S. counties and found considerable confusion among police, prosecutors, and victim service providers about what human trafficking actually is. Lawmakers and civilians also appear divided. And because police tend to focus on what they think the public wants, many police departments interpret “trafficking” as encompassing only prostitution rings, sex crimes, and vice networks— meaning that other trafficking crimes, such as labor trafficking, are being overlooked.

—“Policing Human Trafficking: Cultural Blinders and Organizational Barriers,” Amy Farrell and Rebecca Pfeffer



People who are illegally trafficked are not always deceived or mistreated. The political anthropologist Neil Howard of the European University Institute in Florence investigated the case of teenage boys who move from Benin to work in Nigeria’s gravel quarries. The boys would be considered trafficked by the International Labour Organization’s Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour, which guides international child-labor law. But Howard found that the boys don’t self-identify as victims. Many of them willingly left their farms, and the quarry work at times was less challenging than what they would have faced at home. Working under two-year contracts, the boys brought home about $260 for their efforts, enough for the purchase of a motor scooter, perhaps, or for improvements to the family home. Because such labor networks can be culturally ingrained and economically helpful, Howard concludes that laws aimed at the blanket elimination of child labor are, at the very least, wrong-headed.

—“Teenage Labor Migration and Antitrafficking Policy in West Africa,” Neil Howard



The hue and cry about human trafficking as a global industry led by organized crime is loud. But many people involved in trafficking aren’t part of organized crime syndicates at all. A study of trafficking networks in Cambodia found “these networks were family- or friend-based, weak, amateurish, and had no clearly formulated plan. They were based on the temporary partnership of a few individuals looking for ways to make quick money and who came up with the idea of abducting a child, or procuring or trafficking a woman into prostitution.” Eighty percent of those incarcerated in Cambodia as traffickers were poor; more than half were women; and many didn’t know their actions were considered illegal. In fact, the researchers found that only 25 percent of the people incarcerated as traffickers had actually been involved in trafficking offenses. Sixteen percent of them had been involved in prostitution, and another 59 percent had been “doubtfully convicted.”

—“Human Trafficking and Moral Panic in Cambodia,” Chenda Keo, Thierry Bouhours, Roderic Broadhurst, and Brigitte Bouhours



It’s a common trope that predatory pimps are in the business of recruiting street prostitutes, especially young, vulnerable ones. Under current U.S. law, aiding or abetting—or benefiting financially from—an underage sex worker is a trafficking offense. However, a study of street prostitution in New York and Atlantic City shows that fewer young sex workers than commonly thought have pimps, and that, for those who do, relationships are more nuanced than conventional wisdom would have it. Some prostitutes (of both sexes) operated independently when they got into sex work, but, as they gained experience, sought out assistance from a pimp—and established the rules of the relationship. The research raises the question of whether arresting and prosecuting pimps can actually hurt underage sex workers in the end. Like Howard’s study of the quarry boys, it also highlights the fact that understanding the nuances of trafficking as it is experienced in the real world is crucial to creating effective anti-trafficking laws.

—“Conflict and Agency Among Sex Workers and Pimps: A Closer Look at Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking,” Anthony Marcus, Amber Horning, Ric Curtis, Efram Thompson, and Jo Sanson



Illegal labor trafficking practices, it turns out, can be hidden in some legal migration programs, and therefore overlooked in the statistics. The social scientist Danièle Bélanger of the Université Laval in Québec surveyed and interviewed Vietnamese labor migrants who had returned home after working abroad in several countries. She found that migrants often find work through non-government “recruiters,” who charge fees (over and above government fees and paperwork) to set them up with jobs. Nearly two-thirds of her interviewees had mortgaged their homes to pay the fees; almost a third had been victims of coercion and illegal labor practices. Still, most of the Vietnamese who returned from labor abroad reported positive outcomes of the work that they had been doing in terms of earnings and other benefits.

—“Labor Migration and Trafficking Among Vietnamese Migrants in Asia,” Danièle Bélanger


Submit your response to this story to If you would like us to consider your letter for publication, please include your name, city, and state. Letters may be edited for length and clarity, and may be published in any medium.

For more from Pacific Standard on the science of society, and to support our work, sign up for our email newsletter and subscribe to our bimonthly magazine, where this piece originally appeared. Digital editions are available in the App Store (iPad) and on Zinio (Android, iPad, PC/MAC, iPhone, and Win8), Amazon, and Google Play (Android).